The Overlooked Black History Of Memorial Day

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When the last Monday of May comes around, Americans fire up the grill, welcome the upcoming summer season, and most importantly, honor U.S. soldiers who gave their lives to defend the country.

Initially called Decoration Day, the observance was held in remembrance of Union troops who perished during the Civil War. Over the next century, more states and government agencies started observing the holiday for all U.S. soldiers who died in wars. It didn’t become a national holiday until 1971.

While many American towns claim to have held the earliest celebrations of the holiday, U.S. officials declared Waterloo, New York the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. Historians say residents closed businesses, flew flags at half-staff, and held a ceremony to remember local Civil War soldiers on May 5, 1866 — three years after the bloody conflict ended.

It wasn’t until a resourceful historian stumbled upon forgotten evidence of one of the earliest recorded Memorial Day celebrations that we learned about the Black community’s role in establishing the well-known holiday.

A Massive Tribute In Charleston

USA Flags on Memorial Day under Sunny Day with Blue sky
Photo: Moment RF

Award-winning historian David W. Blight discovered the information while going through Howard University’s archive in 1996. According to a New York Tribune article he found, freed Black slaves and some White missionaries organized a Decoration Day commemoration that occurred on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina.

In Blight’s 2001 book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the event unfolded at a former planter’s racetrack where Confederates held captured Union soldiers during the last year of the war. Over 250 prisoners died, most of them from disease, and were buried in unmarked graves. Black Charlestonians decided to give them a proper burial by reorganizing the graves and erecting a fence around them, TIME cites from the book. They named the burial site “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then came May 1, when thousands of Black residents and schoolchildren showed up to sing patriotic songs, listen to religious sermons and speeches, and hold picnics in honor of the fallen Union troops. Black Union regiments concluded the event by marching around the graves. According to Blight, nearly 10,000 people, mostly Black, attended the massive tribute.

The history professor said the celebration “gave birth to an American tradition… The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.” The New York Tribune described the event as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before,” per TIME.

The National Cemetery Administration today calls the Charleston Decoration Day commemoration an “enormous and historically significant program.”

Decades Of Celebrations And Shenanigans

Frederick Douglass
Photo: traveler1116 / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

Following the Civil War, Black Americans made up the bulk of Memorial Day observers throughout the Reconstruction era, especially in the South. In 1898, President William McKinley allowed Confederate war dead into national cemeteries as a means of reconciliation between the North and South. According to, Black critics regularly admonished people trying to revive Confederate causes on the holiday, including prominent figures like Frederick Douglass.

“There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason,” Douglass told a crowd of New York Union veterans in 1877.

Going into the new century, Black battalions regularly marched in Memorial Day parades and celebrations across the nation. Some events weren’t without controversy. The National Park Service shared the story of a local Black Grand Army of the Republic being placed behind a white cadet brigade during the 1898 Memorial Day parade in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Black veterans abandoned the parade in protest and led the procession the following year.

Suppressing The Truth

While Blight aimed to shine a light on Black people’s contributions to Memorial Day celebrations, he also wanted to highlight the ways it was nearly erased from history. Race and Reunion detailed how white people often brushed over the facts or took credit for Black Charlestonians’ role in organizing the May 1865 event.

The historian argues white Charlestonians started suppressing nearly 50 years after the celebration happened. A 1937 book that incorrectly claimed James Redpath, the leader of freedmen’s education in the region, organized the commemoration all by himself. Redpath was only responsible for organizing the speeches. The publication also downplayed Black Americans’ actions by calling them “black hands which only knew that the dead they were honoring had raised them from a condition of servitude.”

As generations passed, the truth behind Charleston’s “Decoration Day” celebration was only preserved through a sparse piece of correspondence and local news coverage from both the Charleston Daily Courier and the New York Herald Tribune. The Martyrs of the Race Course was replaced by a park named after a Confederate general, and the graves were reinterred at a national cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina in the 1880s, Blight wrote.

It wasn’t until Blight’s 2001 book that more Americans became aware of the rich Black history behind Memorial Day, paving the way for other sources to unearth buried information.

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