The Forgotten Black Origins Of Memorial Day In America

By S.E. Williams

Photos: YouTube Screenshots

When it comes to history… whether of the world, the nation or the state… we know contributions of Africans and their descendents anywhere in the diaspora, are rarely recorded or recorded with accurate attribution. It’s been too easy to write Black people out of history as it relates to any significant contributions, so Whites can remain in a position of primacy, as the first order of humanity. 

Therefore, when Professor David Blight lectured at Yale in the late 2000’s, about the Civil War and Reconstruction, it was surprising that he took time to talk about the the nation’s first Memorial Day.

Blight talked about the first Memorial Day being celebrated by former slaves on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, N.C. Not surprisingly, he led his  introduction to this narrative with a rhetorical question about whether any in the audience had ever heard the story of Blacks and the nation’s first Memorial Day celebration.

Of course, no one in attendance ever had a strong indication of the power of the Lost Cause–a lingering  belief by some that the cause of the Confederacy in the Civil War was “just, heroic, and not centered on slavery.” It is also an indication of the stranglehold of white supremacy on American history which includes a reluctance to credit Black Americans with any meaningful societal contributions.

Meanwhile, questions over the first Memorial Day remain a matter of debate with some pointing to President Abraham Lincoln’s commemoration of the dead at Gettysburg in 1863, as a possible origin of the holiday, and with several other cities also claiming to be the location of the first Memorial Day celebration. However, President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to finally settle the debate in 1966, when he officially recognized a ceremony in Waterloo, New York held May 5, 1866, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day.

There is also something to be said about the custom of decorating graves with flowers on certain days in spring that may tie back to the ancient roots of the holiday. But most agree, the unmitigated loss and trauma of the Civil War played a key role.

In my opinion, Johnson’s declaration of the official birthplace of Memorial Day, like the whitewashing of other historical events involving contributions of Blacks, does not make it true.

As noted by Blight, “African-Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina.” 

Blight stressed that although there are three or four cities in the United States that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day (like Waterloo, New York), “[T]hey all claim 1866. They were too late.”

Professor Blight shared in his research he had, “the great, blind, good fortune to discover this story [of the first Memorial Day celebration] in a messy, totally disorganized collection of veterans’ papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard.”

Unlike Veterans’ Day in November that celebrates all people who have served in the military, Memorial Day commemorates those who have lost their lives serving their country.

What is the story behind Charleston’s first Memorial Day celebration? Blight closed his lecture at Yale with a description of the first Memorial Day, celebrated by Blacks in Charleston, SC 1865.

According to Blight, Charleston was almost completely in ruins in the early days of 1865. “All the white people evacuated and abandoned the city, and the only people left principally were slaves, freedmen, thousands of them, and they, in effect, took over the city,” he proclaimed in his lecture.

“African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866; they were too late. I had the great, blind, good fortune to discover this story in a messy, totally disorganized collection of veterans’ papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard some years back. And what you have there is [B]lack Americans, recently freed from slavery, announcing to the world, with their flowers and their feet and their songs, what the [Civil W]ar had been about. . . That story got lost, it got lost for more than a century.”

The first Union regiment to march up the main street in the city at the end of the Civil War was the 21st USCT, a Black regiment, who accepted the city’s surrender from the major. Afterwards, ceremonies were held by the Black people of Charleston that included a parade with two floats. “On one float,” as described by Blight, “they had a little slave auction occurring, a mock slave auction with a woman with her baby being sold away, and on the next float they had a coffin labeled ‘Slavery,’ and it read, Fort Sumter Dug its Grave, April 12th, 1861.”

They also held one more extraordinary ceremony at  Fort Sumter with about 3000 people in attendance including dignitaries. The ceremony was a burial ceremony. During the last months of the war the Confederate Army turned a planter’s horse track, called the Washington Racecourse, into an open air prison where about about 260 Union soldiers died of disease and exposure. They were buried in a mass unmarked gravesite there.

The Black people of Charleston knew about the mass grave, organized, went to the site and re-interred all those buried there. They couldn’t mark the graves with names because they did not have them, but they built a fence around the cemetery and whitewashed it.

This was followed on May 1st 1865 with a parade of 10,000 people. It was led by 3000 Black children carrying roses and singing John Brown’s Body. The children were followed first, by Black women, then by Black men, and finally by groups of Union infantry members. Everybody marched all the way around the racetrack to the gravesite.

Unlike believers in the Lost Cause, Blight stressed in his lecture how, “Black Americans, recently freed from slavery, announcing to the world, with their flowers and their feet and their songs, what the war had been about.”

Knowing Black history is empowering for Black people and all people. Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

S. E. Williams is the executive editor of Black Voice News.

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