Memorial Day: Blacks Were First to Celebrate, Scholar Says
According to Yale history professor David Blight, African Americans in Charleston, S.C., launched the first Memorial Day celebration in 1865, three years before the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic called on Union veterans’ organizations to decorate the graves of dead soldiers.
“That ceremony on May 1, 1865, was actually the first recorded Decoration Day or Memorial Day,” says Blight, author of several books, including Reunion and Race.
BlackAmericaWeb reports that Blight was in a Harvard University library doing research for Reunion and Race about 15 years ago when he stumbled upon a box containing the paperwork of a Union veterans’ organization and a folder labeled, “First Decoration Day.”
The information found there led him to South Carolina’s former Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a prestigious horse-racing track that was turned into a prison for Union soldiers. Many died there but were not buried properly, Blight said.
Following the Confederate surrender, which ended the Civil War, blacks went to the place where hundreds of prisoners had been buried, many in mass graves. “Blacks, many of them recently freed slaves, buried the soldiers properly. They put up a fence around the area and painted it. More than 260 were buried there. We don’t know the names. We don’t know the race,” Blight told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Following the burials, there was a ceremony. Charleston has recognized the significance of the event. Last year, a historic marker was placed on the grounds. “This shows that even at a time when blacks did not know what the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution would mean for them, they appreciated those who fought so that they all would have a right to claim this as their country — those who died a terrible death so that they could be free.”
Blight’s findings probably won’t lead anyone to overhaul their weekend plans, but you can thank The Root when you impress your Memorial Day cookout companions with this little-known nugget of historical information.