Monday, May 31, 2010

forget the black origins of "memorial day"

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.


  1. What a fascinating piece of history. Mrs. Beckwith sounds as if she's head of the Texas School Board. This really is very interesting and I thank you for posting it.

  2. There is a documentary titled For The Love of Liberty The Story of America's Black Patriots that give historical facts about the men and women who have served in defense of this nation. I have heard nothing but positive things about this film. There is also a website that provides historical information.

    I have family that have served and are currently serving in the Armed Forces of The United States. Their story deserves to be included in the national story.

    People need to realize that there are many people of color who have fought for this nation. Even when they were not fully recognized as citizens.

    Good looking out on this post.

  3. This is interesting stuff. I didn't know half of the real history of Memorial Day until I read this post. I guess you learn something new everyday.

  4. Thank you for posting this story, I had no clue as to Memorial Day's origins.

    msladydeborah... thank you for the documentary suggestion, I just added it to my queue on Netflix!

  5. Interesting tale...didn't know about this, either!

  6. Great story, thanks for putting it up.

    First heard about this in one of Blight's lectures on the Civil War posted up on the Academic Earth website. The entire course is actually online there free of charge for those who have the time--it's a nuanced yet accessible treatment and I can't recommend it highly enough.

    I also know that Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic is a Civil War junkie and often focuses on the experiences of black soldiers, slaves and former slaves, for anybody interested in exploring more stories commonly erased by white mainstream history.

  7. Macon, I am so surprised to learn this. It wasn't taught to me in high school or college history classes. My 10th grader never read about it either.

  8. I was so HOPING you'd make a post about this Macon! It gets somewhat annoying when people forget/re-write the origins of certain holidays.

  9. Wow, I truly didn't know that, mind I didn't know much about Memorial Day in the first place, I was one of those people who used to just take it for granted as another day off from school. Great Post.

  10. This is a fascinating and eye-opening piece.

  11. I think maybe this would be better titled "IGNORE the Black origins of memorial day" since I do not believe that too many people have ever HEARD the true story behind the holiday. The whole system of white supremacy is intentionally "leaving things out" when it comes to educating people about the contributions of POC. Forgetting is less innocuous then ignoring, because it can be chalked up to "a mistake". IGNORING is purposeful, and since most of the people leaving comments here have never even been taught this information in the school system, it is more accurate. IMHO.

  12. Thank you so much for this article, I never knew the history behind Memorial Day.


    Thank you for the heads up to Academic Earth. I didn't even know a site like that existed. This has the potential to become my new big (but educational!) time waster.

  13. wow, I did not know this. Thanks. Worth asking why I didn't know it.

  14. I just discovered this history yesterday when I googled the origins of Memorial Day (I think I read about it on the wiki page). Amazing that I've never heard it before (okay, not amazing at all -- just sad).

  15. This was something about my History that I did not know. I am a soldier and I did not even bother to research the history of memorial day. I just assumed it was started after WWII or some other "big" war. I never knew it could be traced back to the Civil War. Thank-you for this and for making me realize that even though I know some things about my history in these Divided States of America, there is still a lot I don't know.

  16. Yes, thank you; I, too, had not read about this before.

    Not to diminish your post on this topic, I also wonder, though, how many know the origins of Veteran's Day. Before it was Veteran's Day, it was Armistice Day--a day set aside to celebrate peace. Armistice means the cessation of hostilities, and Armistice Day recognized the end of World War I. At the time, there was widespread belief there would be no more wars (hence "The War to End all Wars" name also applied to WWI).

    Now that we're in the business of constantly waging war, it's easy to see why we no longer celebrate Armistice Day, isn't it?

  17. >> "At the time, there was widespread belief there would be no more wars (hence "The War to End all Wars" name also applied to WWI)."

    I have always thought this was either really arrogant or really delusional. In 1918 more than half the world was still under imperial control. Were the U.S. and Western Europe really just expecting the other countries to be happy and chill with that forever? I mean, how did the U.S. shake off *our* imperial overlord, huh? Not to mention internal revolts when the peasants aren't fed--was Europe (and the U.S!) forgetting its own 19th century history? (My point is not that those uprisings should be considered "wars", but that, if similar conditions sparked a revolt in a colonized area, it probably *would* be considered a war. At least, it would if the revolt succeeded. Important point, I guess. They weren't expecting any revolts to be successful).

  18. Like many others here, this is the first I'd heard about Memorial Day's true origins. It even inspired a blog post from me!

    Have you heard of the later fanboy freakout over the fact that Donald Glover, a black actor, has considered auditioning for the role of Spiderman in the next flick? SWPD: insist on staying true to the source when it means a nonwhite may play a lead role.

  19. Willow wrote: "I have always thought this was either really arrogant or really delusional. In 1918 more than half the world was still under imperial control. Were the U.S. and Western Europe really just expecting the other countries to be happy and chill with that forever?"

    Well, at least from my reading, the sense that there would be no more war came more from the people than the regimes. Poets, soldiers and citizens experienced a horror and a loss in a new way--warfare had become mechanized and the public knew of it in a way they hadn't before. The regimes may have been arrogant, but the people weren't delusional so much as duped, perhaps--by later wars and supposed reasons for fighting them. At the time, there appeared to be sincere belief, at the grassroots, in peace. Sadly, we all know how that turned out.

  20. @ TLS,

    I'm not talking about a leaders/people distinction--I mean a colonizer/colonized. I don't know, it's probably the benefit of a century of distance, but it just seems like to assume that people in colonized areas would prefer the subjugation and brutality of Empire to a war is a little...arrogant. (And I am meaning "subjugation and brutality" in the sense of grand sweeping ideals of Independence and Freedom, not so much the actual reality, since we are mostly talking about the works of poets, am I correct? My understanding is that the view that WWI was a waste doesn't really start gaining traction until the mid/late 1920s.)

  21. Am i glad to hear the TRUE version of it....& am going STALK your blog! *grinning*...feel am at home....really,why still racism in this AGE?....i don't understand!

  22. @willow

    Perhaps people believed something short of war would bring justice, because war was simply too horrifying.

    The consciousness that WWI was too horrific to repeat is present before the 1920s--in letters, newspaper articles and poetry written during the war by those engaged in and affected by it. The poetry became more prominent after the 1920s, while the horror of war faded in people's memories.

    Poet and soldier Wildfred Owen wrote, "We laughed, — knowing that better men would come,/And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags/He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags." Owen was gunned down 7 days before the Armistice was signed in 1918.

    I think it's maybe beyond comprehension that 20,000 soldiers were killed in one day in 1916 (or that 800,000 Rwandans were butchered in a single month in 1994). So we just don't think about it too much. I think that's at the root of forgetting that Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day. And if we're content to forget that we once celebrated peace above all else, how can we ever hope to achieve it?

  23. @ TLS,

    Didn't Armistice Day become Veterans' Day so as to incorporate more wars? ("Armistices Day" does not roll off the tongue)

    WWI is not my era of expertise and I defer to anyone with actual knowledge, but Todman's book on how the idea that the war was a total waste is created by later historiography is worth a Great War: Myth and Memory, maybe?

  24. @willow and tls

    I believe that tls is right in saying that "veterans day" was created to include more veterans of foreign wars than just WWI.

    However, there were a lot of poets, not just Wilfred Owen (dulce et decorum est pro patria mori) but also Siegfried Sassoon and others who criticized the war during the war and were widely read. This had little to do with colonialism awareness, though.

    Even among Europeans less than a decade after the war however, there came grumbling and a belief that WWI was not at all a war to end all wars but a harbinger of worse things still to come. The existentialists are the ultimate example of this (Sartre and Camus and the WWII and after existentialists built their popularity on a long already existing sentiment and corpus of literature).

    Even among people who weren't academics or well read on historiography, and well before WWII, there was an enormous cultural pessimism, much of it preoccupied with the belief that England and France's possession of colonies would eventually come to violence.

    Though, yes, I think that willow is right to say that there was an outright naievity in some writers' minds about the "pacifiability" of some colonial peoples, even well after WWII! Not just in hindsight, but even in Camus' time, many, especially Sartre, thought it absurd that Camus seriously believed France and Algeria could just go on being "joined." Even today, it's astounding to read about how this nobel Prize winning author wrote books that took place in Algeria when there were few or no Arabs in his stories, unless used as plot devices to spur on the white characters' narrative.

    Sorry to go off on a tangent too long, but in my experiences in France, I found that I, the foreigner, was not the only one who thought it absurd that "Armistice Day" (still celebrated as exactly that in several European countries) is treated as a holiday, when all the world admits today that the terms of the Allied/Central treaty after WWI were one of the greatest causes of WWII (and for that matter, the Bolshevik experiment, and more causes of mass death, etc.)

  25. Sorry to belabor the point, but I would go on to say that the attitude that "the natives" of third world countries can be cowed into submission continues to this day. There's an interesting racial component and a failure to take seriously the cultural beliefs of those "natives" on the part of voters and citizens of first world countries, not just writers and rulers.

    Google Fareed Zakaria, or watch episodes of his show. There's a debate over how much the Taliban can be incorporated into the Afghani government, as well as just how much the US military can do to keep the peace there without winning over hearts in minds (ie. doing more than blowing shit, and people, up and building schools) or perhaps just getting out. Many Americans, both in the public and the military, seriously believe that any attempt to reconcile with the Taliban equates to accepting Al Quida.

    I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that if America acts as though no Taliban members should never be treated as anything but terrorists, Americans will go out of Afghanistan with the legacy of many deaths but not the peaceful coalition of Afghanis they'd like to have, perhaps reducing all to naught.

    Likewise, the drone attacks in Pakistan are creating terrorists at the same time that they're killing them, because they're also killing civilians and violating Pakistani sovoreignty.

    Americans believe that "winning" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in the Pakistani mountains is so much easier than it actually is, that I would say it's just as naive as the attitude of the French vis-a-vis Algeria and Vietnam, and for that matter the US vis-a-vis Vietnam as well. On that note, I'd note that everyone forgets that the war in Vietnam resulted from the Vietnamese attempt to kick out colonial powers long before communism became the primary issue.

    The attitude that "won't those silly third world natives just accept that first world powers are doing what's in our and their interests alike without making such a mess" is not dead and I don't think it will die anytime soon.

  26. Thanks, MIke and Willow. It may be a bit off the blog topic, but I'm glad to read what you've written.

    I think you're right, Mike, that celebrating Armistice Day as if peace reigns throughout the world is hypocrisy. And if setting aside a day to focus on Peace is used by colonialist/imperialist regimes to further violent, aggressive goals, then it is an Orwellian travesty. (By the way, the Armistice preceded the treaty that ended WWI--the former is simply a cessation of hostilities; the latter a messy political document that Mike describes well.)

    And perhaps I am idealistic (not naive--who could be in the face of world events?), but isn't it better to have peace as a goal than to never even mention it any more? Saying we will never have peace because we never have had peace is a statement without hope.

  27. @tls

    Sorry about the lack of specifity between the armistice and the treaty of Versailles - It was early for me when I was writing (I also should note that WWI, not the treaty, was what caused the Bolshevik revolution, which doesn't really come out in the way I phrased it above).

    On the matter of peace and hope, I must respectfully disagree. Consequences of diplomacy and war matter more than statements of intent on the part of nations at war. I think the celebration of Armistice Day is not unlike Bush's declaration of "Mission Accomplished." Yeah, the war against the central powers was over, and in the latter the regime was changed, but who gives a #@$% if you're not yet sure that the conditions of peace that'll follow haven't warded off a potentially more calamitous future (see> power vacuum and sectarian conflict).

    There are some forms of "peace" that are less preferable than conflict. The history of colonialism and the subsequent revolts are good proof of this. Maybe we're just arguing semantics though, because I don't think you can really have "peace" in the sense of comfortable lives lived in self-determination without making conflict against nations that want other nations or peoples to keel over and accept exploitation. I guess if there were no exploitation, there would be no need for conflict, but I don't see that happening either. I just mean to say that being opposed to "pitched battles" or traditional "big armies running at each other" wars is meaningless if one is not also opposed to the creation of conditions that make some peoples feel the need to make even tiny, seemingly futile skirmishes.

    A neat quote from Sartre (though he was indeed in other respects a Stalinist apologetic asshole prototype of some leftist modern hipster/suburbanite white persons) that I think is actually quite relevant to SWPD (I'm paraphrasing 'cause I don't remember it verbatim):
    "When a colonized person kills a colonizer he is killing two people at once - the oppressor and the oppressed." He meant the killing of the oppressed mind in a metaphorical way and with a positive meaning.

    Colonialism can kill souls and hope but realizing that one can actually stand up for oneself, even if it means the non-metaphorical kind of killing, can bring hope of a better peace, even if it means war in the interim to get there.

  28. Mike,

    Is this it?

    [To] shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man . . .

    (from Sartre's discussion of rebellion by the colonized in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth)

  29. @Macon

    Yep, that's it.


  30. Mike--

    Maybe we ARE just at semantic odds here, but it sounds like you’re saying the only way to resolve conflicts of oppression is through war/violence. And that until all such conflicts are resolved, it is hypocritical to celebrate peace.

    This makes me think of how the preponderance of words spoken by Haile Selassie at the UN in 1963 related to peace, diplomacy and the bloodless resolution of conflict, but what we remember about it is the song “War” by Bob Marley.

    One of the phrases I like in Selassie's speech is this: "Peace is not an 'is', it is a 'becoming.' "

  31. I almost let this go, but my curiosity got the better of me. It seems that the claim "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", may not be all that accurate.

    According to Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 35 (, there were Decoration Day celebrations 5 years earlier - June 3, 1861.

    Apparently, the first Memorial Day depends on where you happen to come from.


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