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The first Memorial Day was Black

May 26, 2014

by James DeWolf Perry

As we pause to remember the nation’s war dead, it’s worth remembering that Memorial Day was first celebrated by Black Union troops and free Black Americans in Charleston, South Carolina at the end of the Civil War.

Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May, 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C., to honor 257 dead Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in an upscale race track converted into a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for two weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 3,000 Black children, where they marched, sang and celebrated.

Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May, 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C., to honor 257 dead Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in an upscale race track converted into a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for two weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 3,000 Black children, where they marched, sang and celebrated.

As historian David Blight recounts in his masterful book, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory” (2001), Charleston was occupied by Union troops in the spring of 1865, most white residents having fled the city. In this atmosphere, the free Black population of Charleston, primarily consisting of former slaves, engaged in a series of celebrations to proclaim the meaning of the war as they saw it.

The height of these celebrations took place on May 1, 1865, on the grounds of the former Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, an elite facility which had been used by the Confederates as a gruesome prison and mass grave for unlucky Union soldiers. Following the evacuation of Charleston, Black laborers had dug up the remains of Union soldiers, given them a proper burial, and built the trappings of a respectful cemetery around the site to memorialize their sacrifice.

To dedicate the cemetery to the Union’s war dead, Black and white leaders came together to organize a parade of 10,000 people, described in a New York Tribune account as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” At the front of the parade were 3,000 Black children, laden with roses and singing “John Brown’s Body,” while bringing up the rear were a brigade of Union troops, including the Massachusetts 54th Regiment and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops. (The commander of the 21st United States Colored Infantry had been the one to formally accept the city’s surrender.) Following the parade and dedication in the cemetery, the crowd settled down to picnic, listen to orators and watch the troops march.

As we pause to remember the nation’s war dead, it’s worth remembering that Memorial Day was first celebrated by Black Union troops and free Black Americans in Charleston, South Carolina at the end of the Civil War.

In the years to come, there would be many variations on Memorial (or “Decoration”) Day before the nation settled on the holiday’s current form. These differences often reflected the competing visions of white Northerners and Southerners over how to remember the war, and there was generally little room in either vision for the meaning of the war for African-Americans.

But as Blight wrote in “Race and Reunion,” in its origins, Memorial Day was “founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.”

James DeWolf Perry, executive director of the Tracing Center, which he co-founded, was nominated for an Emmy award for his role as the principal historical consultant for “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” the 2008 PBS documentary about the legacy of the Northern U.S. role in slavery and the slave trade. James also appears throughout the film as a descendant of U.S. Sen. James DeWolf of Bristol, R.I. (1764-1837), the leading slave trader in U.S. history. Since the film’s premiere, James has spoken across the nation and abroad about his family’s, and the nation’s, historic role in slavery and has facilitated discussions about the nation’s legacy of slavery and race at high schools and universities and with corporate, educational, religious and community groups. This story originally appeared on the Tracing Center.

Them bones of history: May 1, 1865

The historian’s craft
delicately displays
her multidisciplined
facility;

an art
of archaeology to unearth
all
that has been buried
beneath a victor’s street, surfacing
unforgotten bones
that finally warm
and are placed to whiten
in a tolerant sun

to walk around

and like a paramedic on bended knee
whose recitations
give them breath again
that they come to life
and animate
their painted songs
on the whitewashed walls
and fences, in
the undying breeze

where they rise again

with surgeon’s unsweating hands
she sutures past the present;
reignites old nerve anew,
attaches loosened tendons to
them bones
to make them flesh
and storied whole:
covered
with an even skin
of light

the historian’s craft
is the undertaker’s tale
chanted down marbled halls:
dem bones dem bones
dry bones –

Amos White

Amos White

her statesman’s voice
repatriates
with pulp and pen and digital ink
imprinting native tongues in one
mythos
to the annals of mind

aye,
the historian will put breath in you,
them bones
dem bones
dem dry bones–

and so, you will come to life

in a tolerant sun
the undying breeze
wears a skin of light

and we, the children of bones
dance like moccasins
dipped in the evening sky

dem bones dem bones
dem dry bones

be here the words
of the world

© Amos White, 2014. Amos White is an awarded American haiku poet and author, recognized for his vivid imagery and breathless interpretations. Living in San Francisco and Imperia, Italy, he can be found making olive oil and growing red wine grapes. He can be reached via http://about.me/amoswhitehaiku. This poem was inspired by the picture (at the top of this page) of the children who led the first Memorial Day parade.

Forgetting why we remember

Excerpt from commentary by David W. Blight

(F)or the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of Blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

These infantrymen were among the Black founders on Memorial Day on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina.

These infantrymen were among the Black founders on Memorial Day on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston, 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 symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and 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 enclosure a Black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of Black ministers read from the Bible.

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

After the dedication, the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

David W. Blight, a professor of history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale, is the author of “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory“ and “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.” Read this story in its entirety in the New York Times.

Who invented Memorial Day?

Excerpt from commentary by Jim Downs

While former slaves venerated the staggering number of Union soldiers who died during the war, few have observed the ways in which war and emancipation led to the astonishing mortality of many ex-slaves. Former bondspeople liberated themselves from chattel slavery and entered into an environment that was plagued by cholera, dysentery and yellow fever – devastating 19th-century illnesses for which the medical profession knew no cure, and from which the poor and the marginalized suffered disproportionately.

One of the most often forgotten facts among the public displays and memorials about the Civil War is that the vast number of soldiers died from disease and sickness, not from combat wounds or battle – in fact, the war became the largest biological crisis of 19th-century America.

This plaque in what is now called Hampton Park in Charleston, S.C., marks the place where Blacks held the first Memorial Day on May 1, 1865.

This plaque in what is now called Hampton Park in Charleston, S.C., marks the place where Blacks held the first Memorial Day on May 1, 1865.

In their journeys toward freedom, ex-slaves often lacked adequate shelter, food and clothing. Without the basic necessities to survive, freed slaves stood defenseless when a smallpox epidemic exploded in Washington in 1863 and then spread to the Lower South and Mississippi Valley in 1864 to 1865.

A military official in Kentucky described smallpox as a “monster that needed to be checked,” while another federal agent witnessing the “severity and almost malignancy of the epidemic” believed that the virus was on the increase and predicted that “before the coming summer is over it will decimate the colored population.”

In the end, the epidemic claimed the lives of over 60,000 former slaves, while other disease outbreaks and fatal epidemics raised the death toll of freedpeople to well over a million – more than a quarter of the newly freed population.

When historians describe casualties of the war, they uncover photos of mostly white enlisted men – bodies strewn across an image of a battlefield or, worse, piled on top of one another in a deep ditch, dead from the effects of a cannonball explosion. What we don’t see is dead freedpeople.

In the recognition of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, let us not forget that freed slaves created Memorial Day. Let us remember that their prayers and observations were not just for the deceased Union soldiers on that first Memorial Day, but also for members of their families and their community who died in a war that was meant to free them.

The death of white participants in the Civil War is both valued and commemorated: framed as part of a larger saga of war and victory, and then propped up as the heroic embodiment of nationalism on Memorial Day. White people’s death is reenacted annually by thousands of people, who, for a hobby on a holiday weekend, get to play dead.

There was no rebirth for former slaves who died of disease and sickness after the war. There was no chance of them coming back to life in a costume worn by an admirer a century later. Buried under the fallen cities and the new harvests, the South, at its foundation, is a graveyard: a place where Black people died in unimaginable numbers – not from battle, but from disease and deprivation.

In the recognition of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, let us not forget that freed slaves created Memorial Day. Let us remember that their prayers and observations were not just for the deceased Union soldiers on that first Memorial Day, but also for members of their families and their community who died in a war that was meant to free them.

Jim Downs is the author of “Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction” (Oxford University Press, May 2012). He is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College and has a MA and PhD from Columbia University. Read this story in its entirety on the Huffington Post.

 

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33 thoughts on “The first Memorial Day was Black

  1. Jim Hyder

    This is a piece of history no one should ever forget. It shows a class that most Americans will never reach. Thank you very much for this article.

    Reply
  2. Jeff McClure

    I find it interesting that there was a "21st United States _Colored_ Infantry". As someone who is often a bit too concerned about making sure his accomplishments/progress are noted by others, I think I recognize some of the motivation behind that.

    Reply
  3. Tamara Gates

    According at a letter to Seward from the commander of the 1st North Carolina Colored Regiment, Jamed Bee her, it was that regiment who created the first Memorial Day.

    Reply
  4. Gary Hilson

    Woooow!!!!! What they don't tell you in the history books. Not even in the modern Wikipedia.

    Reply
  5. Christopher H. Smith

    Thank you for sharing this Black American history of appreciation and gratitude that was shown to the fallen soldiers of our nation during a very painful fight and struggle for freedom, independence and the respect for the dignity of life for all men and women from different ethnic backgrounds, that still being fought for, by the people and for people throughout America today.

    Reply
  6. Peter Holman

    May 1, 1865 Charleston SC – The freed people decorated the graves of Union soldiers who'd died in captivity – and some say Confederate graves also.

    But it's a bit of a stretch to call it "Memorial Day" since the decoration of graves with flowers had gone on long before the War of the Rebellion…. and this did not become an annual event. There's a Confederate claim of 1862 but that also did not become an annual event:

    SAVANNAH [GA] REPUBLICAN, July 21, 1862, p. 2, c. 1
    A Beautiful Tribute.—Yesterday being the anniversary of the Battle of Manassas, a number of ladies repaired to Laurel Grove Cemetery and commemorated the day by appropriately decorating the graves of the gallant Bartow and his comrades in arms who fell in the memorable struggle of the 21st of July. It is a fit task for noble woman, and we hope her patriotism and love for the dear departed will move her annually to lay these beautiful tributes on the resting places of the brave.

    The official "first" memorial day observance was in Waterloo, NY May 5, 1866: http://www.waterloony.com/mdayhistory.html

    But you know, all the stories are good ones.

    Reply
  7. photini

    I can't help but wonder what happened to those graves in Hampton Park. Were they moved for the West Indian Exposition in 1902? And if so, to where were they moved?

    Reply
  8. Iam

    I wish I'd drawn a better image to represent the holiday. Such a sad yet moving story about the grace and dignity of those freed people. This is a history lesson that deserves a chapter in text books. Thank you.

    Reply
  9. jim atleson

    Thanks so much for posting this. Blight's book is very informative and enlightening. He noted that for many years historians ignored slavery as a cause of the war, a view reflected in common views of the origin of the war. This is one of the many stories, like the promise and termination of reconstruction, of which most Americans are unaware.

    Reply
  10. Douglas Weeks

    The Commander of the 1st North Carolina Colored Regiment, which was formed of freed men in New Bern, North Carolina was Colonel James C. Beecher. They fought in a number of battles alongside the 54th Mass and other units. At the end of the war they were stationed in Charleston and tasked with re-burying the dead who had died in the racetrack prison camp. By this time Brevet General Beecher was in charge of the 35th US Colored Infantry. The original cemetery had to be moved after a storm and at least part of it, including the graves of the 54th mass. were re-interred in Beaufort, SC at the national cemetary

    Reply

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