Today is "Memorial Day," the day on which (some) people in the United States remember and honor their war dead. What few white Americans realize is a bit of whitewashed history -- the first such celebration was initiated and carried out by black people.
Thousands of freed slaves gathered to honor fallen soldiers for the first time at the end of the U.S. Civil War, in 1865. Several American towns have since claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, but they each trace their claims back to a later date, 1866.
Historian David Blight tells the story:
After a long siege, a prolonged bombardment for months from all around the harbor, and numerous fires, the beautiful port city of Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun in April, 1861, lay in ruin by the spring of 1865. The city was largely abandoned by white residents by late February. Among the first troops to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the Twenty First U. S. Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the formal surrender of the city.
Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters' horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried 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."
Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable [sic] parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders' race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy's horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. 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."
At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing "John Brown's Body." The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathered in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens' choir sang "We'll Rally around the Flag," the "Star-Spangled Banner," and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. . . .
Following the solemn dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: they enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantry participating was the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite. The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been all about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders' republic, and not about state rights, defense of home, nor merely soldiers' valor and sacrifice.
According to a reminiscence written long after the fact, "several slight disturbances" occurred during the ceremonies on this first Decoration Day, as well as "much harsh talk about the event locally afterward." But a measure of how white Charlestonians suppressed from memory this founding in favor of their own creation of the practice later came fifty-one years afterward, when the president of the Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry about the May 1, 1865 parade. A United Daughters of the Confederacy official from New Orleans wanted to know if it was true that blacks had engaged in such a burial rite. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith responded tersely: "I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this." In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream dominance. . . .
Over time several American towns, north and south, claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. But all of them commemorate cemetery decoration events from 1866. Pride of place as the first large scale ritual of Decoration Day, therefore, goes to African Americans in Charleston. By their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of flowers and marching feet on their former owners' race course, they created for themselves, and for us, the Independence Day of the Second American Revolution. . . .
The rest of David Blight's article appears here.
Blight also describes "Decoration Day" in greater detail in his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, as well as the name-change to Memorial Day, and the contested and changing meanings of this national remembrance. You can listen to "John Brown's Body," the song sung by thousands of freed slaves on that day, here (that page also explains why it sounds so much like another well-known American tune).
David W. Blight teaches American History at Yale University, where he is the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He's also the author of the award-winning book A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation.