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Today marks Memorial Day, and as with many American traditions, there are competing histories of its origin.
Memorial Day is, of course, a long-established federal holiday dedicated to honouring America’s veterans who have died in service. It lands on the last Monday in May. It began its life as “Decoration Day” and it started following the Civil War, a war with more than 600,000 solider causalities.
Later, it progressed to incorporate 20th century wars, such as the First and Second World War, Korean, Vietnam, and the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Biden is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan after a protracted US presence in the Middle Eastern nation.
One racial justice activist and lawyer spoke out on Twitter on Monday to assert that Memorial Day’s origins were not what most people thought, and nothing like what Gone With The Wind would have you believe.
“Let everyone know the truth: Newly liberated Black people in Charleston created Memorial Day to honor Black soldiers for their courage and tenacity after they fought on the frontlines of the Civil War,” wrote Ben Crump on Twitter.
Let everyone know the truth: Newly liberated Black people in Charleston created Memorial Day to honor Black soldiers for their courage and tenacity after they fought on the frontlines of the Civil War. pic.twitter.com/FTBCvrCh5U
— Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) May 31, 2021
According to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author exploring the life of Frederick Douglass, a former slave, thinker and rumoured friend of Abraham Lincoln, historian David. W Blight of Yale University, the origins of Memorial Day did indeed stem from Black veterans.
Blight spoke to History.com about his 1996 discovery about the role of Black soldiers in the genesis of the federal holiday.
“There was a file labeled ‘First Decoration Day’ and inside on a piece of cardboard was a narrative handwritten by an old veteran, plus a date referencing an article in The New York Tribune. That narrative told the essence of the story that I ended up telling in my book, of this march on the race track in 1865,” he said.
On 1 May 1865, according to newspaper archives uncovered by Blight, over 10,000 people, mainly freed slaves, put on a parade around the race track. This included schoolboys, members of Black Union battalions such as the 54th Massachusetts and Black relgious figures. It is believed to be the earliest Memorial Day celebration recorded.
Black history and Black people’s contribution to history have often been swept away from the national conversation. That includes the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred 100 years ago as of Monday. It was not until it bled into popular culture through television shows such as Watchmen’ and Lovecraft County that people began to take notice of one of the most violent racist attacks in US history.
However, attempts have been made to rectify this through a remembrance festival and earlier on Monday, President Joe Biden declared 31 May 2021 as a “Day of Remembrance”.
On 19 May, the last survivors of the attack on “Black Wall Street” testified before Congress about the impact the horrific violence had left on them.
"I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot," said Viola Fletcher, who at 107 is the oldest living survivor.