Photo Credit: Slim Emcee
It's Time We Recognize That Black People Started Memorial Day
Most people are unaware that Black people started Memorial Day, and the fact remained largely unknown until 1996. Like many Black contributions and accomplishments, it was claimed by whites and the truth became lost.
One of the most common narratives claimed that the first Memorial Day took place in April 1866 when women in Columbus, MS placed flowers on the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers in a commemorative ceremony.
That was until Yale historian David Blight stumbled across evidence proving that freed enslaved people actually started the practice a whole year earlier in Charleston, SC. According to History, while researching for a Civil War book in a Harvard University library, Blight found a file detailing the first Decoration Day, which was what the holiday was originally called by its founders.
As stated in Time, Blight details in his 2001 book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, how “a commemoration organized by freed slaves and some white missionaries took place on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, SC, at a former planters’ racetrack where Confederates held captured Union soldiers during the last year of the war.”
The soldiers who died were buried in unmarked graves until this groups of Charlestonians gave them a proper burial and organized a commemoration ceremony honoring the fallen.
The tribute was attended by around 10,000 people, most of whom were Black. Thousands of Black children marched around the racetrack holding flowers and singing. Behind them, were “adults representing aid societies for freed Black men and women.” This constituted the very first Memorial Day parade.
That day, picnics were held. Soldiers marched. Black ministers preached and led prayers. Negro spirituals and patriotic songs were sung. There were speeches made by missionaries and officers. Today, these practices are still observed to remember the men and women who have died in service to the United States, and Blight says it was this tribute that gave birth to the American tradition as we know it.
Time discusses how about 50 years after the Civil War ended, attempts were made to confirm that the May 1, 1865, tribute occurred. No one claimed to know about it and according to Blight, “white Charlestonians suppressed from memory this founding.”
Years later, a book emerged attempting to credit a white abolitionist with single-handedly planning the tribute. This book cited the date incorrectly and falsely depicted the commemoration as being organized by one man rather than the group effort that it actually was.
Many Black soldiers and veterans feel conflicted about the holiday and about their role in the U.S. military in general. They find it difficult to feel honored as the country they defend continues to marginalize and oppress them with institutionalized racism and inequality.
Unfortunately, this story is yet another example of Black contributions being excluded from American history.
The Black people who started Memorial Day may not have been recognized as the holiday’s founders during their time. They may not even receive the widespread recognition they deserve today. But we can remember them now within our communities and homes, and share their story at our Memorial Day cookouts and gatherings.