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Understanding the Origins of Memorial Day

How formerly enslaved Black Americans held the first-known commemoration

spinner image Hampton Park in Charleston, SC, a parade to honor Union soldiers and the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club
On land now known as Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina, a parade to honor the Union’s Civil War dead took place May 1, 1865. Clockwise from bottom left: The clubhouse of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club; Company A, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, made up of Black Americans; and Hampton Park. Memorial Day is recognized on the last Monday in May.
Photo Collage: AARP (Source: Getty Images; Library of Congress (2))

Memorial Day can take on a whole host of meanings. For some people, it is a special day to remember Americans who died fighting for our country — perhaps particularly so for the roughly 72 percent of American veterans who are 50 and older, according to the Pew Research Center. Others view it as a chance to get together with friends and family. No matter how you mark the last Monday of May, it’s important to know the history behind the holiday.

Hilary Green, the James B. Duke professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College in North Carolina, says many people think of the holiday as “a day that kicks off summer.” But there is much more to it.

“I​t is important to understand Civil War origins and how African Americans and other Americans honored those who died to secure emancipation and the federal victory in the American Civil War,” she says.

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How did Memorial Day get its start?

Memorial Day as we now know it arose from the aftermath of the Civil War, the deadliest conflict in American history, which lasted from April 1861 to April 1865. That’s why Hunter Moyler, a research assistant at Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, says slavery plays a central role in the holiday.

“Memorial Day is about America fixing arguably one of its biggest problems with itself,” says Moyler.

Scholar, author and public historian David Blight says the holiday’s “deepest beginnings” were when people, particularly women, went to the battlefields looking for their loved ones. “A lot of soldiers were simply buried on battlefields,” explains Blight, the Sterling professor of history and African American studies at Yale University. There were many attempts to reinter fallen soldiers in national cemeteries, “but many just remained buried in the ground and in the dust of battlefields,” he says.

The battlefield searches were rarely successful, Blight adds, but it gave people a chance “to commemorate their loved ones with flowers.” Hence the origin of Decoration Day — another name for Memorial Day — born of the practice of adorning graves with flowers.

The first grassroots procession of what became Memorial Day, however, was in Charleston, South Carolina, the same city where Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Blight says in 1865, roughly 28 formerly enslaved Black Americans decided to do something about the Union soldiers who died in an open-air Confederate prison located at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club. The dead had been buried in a mass grave on the racecourse.

To give the soldiers a proper burial, they reburied the Union dead, built and painted a fence around the grave site, and inscribed the words “Martyrs of the Race Course” over an archway crafted for the entrance.

“They were commemorating the dead because those men who had died in that open-air prison had died for them,” Blight says. “At least, that was their take on it.”

On May 1, 1865, a multiracial group of thousands staged a parade around the racetrack.

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“Here were actually several thousand former slaves and soldiers, Black and white, on arguably the most symbolic site of the Low Country planter class — their horse track,” Blight says.

The formerly enslaved Black Americans were not only commemorating the Union dead, says Blight, but also celebrating their own freedom.

Eventually, the large gathering transformed into something akin to the Memorial Day happenings of today, with picnics, speeches and performances by drilling soldiers.

Blight says he found a file labeled “first Decoration Day” while doing research at Harvard in the late 1990s. Inside he discovered a piece of cardboard with a penciled description of this event on May 1, 1865. Additional research led to his assurance that this was the first known Memorial Day celebration.

“No one had officially, on this scale anyway, done this kind of thing at the grave sites of soldiers before May of ’65,” Blight says. “There were a number of places ... that claimed to have the first Memorial Day parades and commemorations at grave sites, but they all claimed 1866.”​

Why don’t more people know about May 1, 1865?

After the roughly 267 Union dead were reinterred at Beaufort National Cemetery in the 1880s, memory surrounding this commemorative event began to fade. One reason for that, Blight says, is the myth of the “Lost Cause,” an ideology that attempts to paint the Confederate cause in a more positive light. In doing so, the ideology wrongly implies secession had little or nothing to do with the institution of slavery.

“The Lost Cause and its etiology took over Southern memory, and this story [of the first Memorial Day] kind of just got publicly obliterated,” Blight says.

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Moyler also points to the Lost Cause as a reason this story stayed hidden for so long, noting that Black people’s involvement and, at times, centrality to American history has often been erased to create a more favorable version of events.

Blight first publicly shared his findings about the origins of Memorial Day in 2001 in his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Since then the story has gradually infiltrated popular memory. In 2017, Charleston erected in Hampton Park, the site of the former Washington Race Course, an official state historical marker commemorating the first Memorial Day.

Green says efforts from historians like Blight and others have helped shine a light on this piece of history. But there is still more work that needs to be done.

“While the nation forgot, African American communities and scholars remembered the roots but also kept the tradition alive within the annual commemorative calendar,” she says. “More education is needed to correct the previous intentional silencing of this history from popular memory.”

The slow acceptance of this crucial piece of Memorial Day history reminds Moyler of how people were recently hesitant to accept the origins of the Statue of Liberty. “A lot of inspiration for the Statue of Liberty was due to France basically congratulating the United States on abolishing slavery,” says Moyler. “And it kind of upset some people because they were like, ‘No, it’s about immigration only.’ ”

Adding that the statue’s association with immigration came later, Moyler says that the U.S. has a hard time reconciling with its past, particularly pertaining to slavery. “I think it makes a lot of certain people, I guess, uncomfortable that something so iconic and so American has very much to do with Black people and with slavery,” Moyler says.

How has Memorial Day evolved over the years?

An event’s origin story, as a whole, gives us context. It’s a chance to consider current ways and how to move forward. Understanding the origins of Memorial Day, Moyler says, is crucial because “we need to have all the facts.”

Memorial Day is seen as “quintessentially American” for a lot of people, he adds. But it’s important that we make a conscious effort to recognize the role of slavery in the holiday’s history, even if we’re trying to celebrate the country we have today.

Moyler wants to reassure people that understanding the historical context surrounding Memorial Day doesn’t negate any associations people may have with the holiday.

In other words, you can recognize that Memorial Day started with Black Americans honoring Union soldiers who died while fighting for abolition and still honor your grandfather who died while fighting in World War II. You can understand these origins and also honor your loved one who fell during the Iraq War, or simply celebrate the start of summer with a family get-together and burgers on the grill.

Green says “informal decorations of Civil War dead, speakers, parades and community gatherings became formalized in 1868” when Union Gen. John A. Logan issued General Orders No. 11. It was then that May 30 became a “national day of remembrance.” It wasn’t until 1971 that Congress declared Memorial Day as a national holiday and designated it as the last Monday in May.

“The day remained a popular community celebration where white and Black Americans celebrated with decoration of graves, parades and other traditions over the 19th and 20th [centuries],” she says. “After later military conflicts, the holiday expanded to include individuals who died in other conflicts.”

Blight considers Memorial Day to be “a changing American commemoration of its war experience born out of the most divisive and colossal war experience we’ve ever had.” He recognizes that the holiday’s evolution has led to an even greater variety of celebrations.

“Some people use Memorial Day just to remember their own family, going to graves, like All Saints’ Day in the Catholic tradition,” Blight says. “It has many uses, but in most places, it’s a day of shopping, picnics, bike rides, etc. It’s a day off.”

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