The first Memorial Day on record was held by freed African Americans

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“This was a story that had really been suppressed both in the local memory and certainly the national memory. But nobody who had witnessed it could ever have forgotten it,” says History and African American studies scholar Dr. David Blight

The mention of Memorial Day easily conjures images of cookouts, military ceremonies, and gravesite visits, and yet, the stories of how these traditions were born are still under-told.

Fundamentally we’re taught that Memorial Day is about remembering the veterans who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice to secure our freedoms as Americans, but what’s too often omitted is that the first Memorial Day celebration on record dates back to 1865 when newly emancipated Black people in Charleston, South Carolina exhumed a mass grave for Union soldiers who made that sacrifice toward the end of the civil war.

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The club house at the race course where Union officers were confined
The club house at the race course where Union officers were confined. (Photo from the Library of Congress.)

Union soldiers were held as captives by the Confederacy in Charleston’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a country club that had been converted into a prison. When the Union army seized Charleston, emancipated peoples honored the sacrifices of the brutalized and discarded soldiers who died in prison by giving them a new burial, according to History.com.

In a grand gesture of care, the emancipated exhumed the mass grave of roughly 260 Union soldiers in April 1865 and reinterred each soldier in their own grave in a new cemetery they built with a tall white-washed fence; the effort took about two weeks according to the College of Charleston. On the fence, free Black Americans wrote the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

On May 1, 1865, almost a month after the Civil War formally ended with the Confederate army in Virginia’s surrender, Charleston’s Black community, white missionaries, and school children threw a parade that drew over 10,000 people at the race track. It was replete with songs, marches, flowers, prayers and a picnic, according to some of the earliest articles from the Charleston Courier and the New York Tribune.

Union gravesite built by emancipated Black people in Charleston
Union gravesite built by emancipated Black people in Charleston (Photo: College of Charleston)

According to Yale History and African American studies professor and scholar Dr. David W. Blight, the story of the first Memorial Day (also called Decoration Day) celebration was purposefully untold. “This was a story that had really been suppressed both in the local memory and certainly the national memory. But nobody who had witnessed it could ever have forgotten it,” said Blight.

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Blight excavated the under-told story in 1996 while going through archival materials from Union soldiers in a Harvard University library. In recent years, Charleston’s first Memorial Day celebration has been more properly recognized, reported, and remembered.

While historians aren’t sure if the 1865 celebration in Charleston inspired the 1868 Decoration Day in Illinois — which is still considered by many to be the first major Memorial Day celebration, many say the African American influence on the holiday is evident.

“African Americans across the South clearly helped shape the ceremony in its early years. Without African Americans the ceremonies would have had far fewer in attendance in many areas, making the holiday less significant,” says Adam Domby, a history professor at College of Charleston.

“That cultural link is what interests many historians including David Blight and myself. So, while the ceremony in Charleston may not have been the direct inspiration for Logan, the 1865 ceremony clearly shared many of the meanings that would come to characterize future ceremonies.”

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