Memorial Day History

West Angeles Honors Memorial Day: But First, A Bit of History

MEMORIAL DAY is the national holiday which America has designated to remember our fallen soldiers of war.  But many do not know that the origins of the holiday began in the Black Church, with African Americans who had just been freed from slavery after the Civil War.
Memorial Day History 2

 MEMORIAL DAY HISTORY: Seated Union Sailor. Tintype was taken between 1861 and 1865. The image shows an enlisted rating of the United States Navy.

HISTORY

The most incredible Memorial Day was actually its first celebration.  It took place in the spring of 1865 at the end of the Civil War.  The nation was in turmoil; President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated only 1 month before the war’s end. The beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C. lay plundered and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to re-enter the city and march up Charleston’s main street was the 21st United States Colored Infantry, and it was their commander who accepted the city’s official surrender.

Charleston’s white residents had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained.  Organized by the Black church, they conducted a series of war commemoration events to declare a sense of the meaning of the war; the largest of which took place on May 1, 1865.

What made this celebration so incredible is the fact that just a few decades earlier, in response to the revolts of Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner, all-Black churches had been outlawed in white-controlled Charleston.  Its oldest Black church, Emanuel AME, had been burned to the ground by white mobs. Charleston’s Black congregations were forced to meet in secret until the end of the war.

A MONUMENTAL DISCOVERY

David W. Blight, professor of history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale, uncovered the details of the event which would become America’s first Memorial Day.   In an archive at Harvard University, Blight found that during the last year of the Civil War, the Confederate Army converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison.  At least 257 Union captives died of disease due to the inhumane conditions there, and they were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the Race Course’ grandstand.

Professor Blight wrote:

“After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston,” said Blight, “black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, ‘Martyrs of the Race Course.’  [The black freedpeople], in cooperation with white missionaries and abolitionist teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”


The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song ‘John Brown’s Body.’ Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery’s enclosure, a black children’s choir sang ‘We’ll Rally ‘Round the Flag,’ the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.”*

A NATIONAL HOLIDAY IS BORN 

After the procession and dedication of the site, the crowd adjourned to the infield of the racetrack to listen to speeches and to watch the soldiers drill. Among the brigade of Union infantrymen participating that day were the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (immortalized by the film “Glory”) and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops.  They performed a special double-columned march to honor their fallen comrades, while the attendees enjoyed a picnic: as many of us do on Memorial Day to this day.

The indomitability and resilience of America’s African American citizens once again represented and upheld the love of Christ, the honor of the military service, and the true spirit of America. “The Civil War was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration,” said Professor Blight. “The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.”West Angeles LOGO

Karen Lascaris is the author of “In Our Own Image: Treasured African American Traditions, Journeys, and Icons”, published in 2001 by Running Press of Philadelphia. She is a regular contributor to Westa.org.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Despite the size and the newspaper coverage of the event, its memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day.
  • The Civil War was fought from  Apr 12, 1861, to May 13, 1865.  President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated 1 month before the end of the war.
  • From 1876 on, after white Democrats took control of South Carolina politics, Memorial Day’s racecourse origin had vanished. However, in 2010, a marker placed near a reflecting pool in Charleston’s Hampton Park was dedicated to this first Memorial Day celebration.
  • Charleston’s historic Emmanuel AME church is the oldest Black church in the south and was built by enslaved African Americans. It was burned to the ground by white mobs before the Civil War and rebuilt.  It was the site of the tragic massacre in 2015 by a white supremacist.

*From “Forgetting ‘Why We Remember”, by David W. Blight, The New York Times. May 29, 2011.

Photos courtesy of the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.