Every year I look forward to Memorial Day. It’s a holiday when our nation celebrates the war dead as well as usher in the beginning of summer. For many Americans, it is a holiday to throw barbecues, go to blockbuster movies, prepare for graduations or hang out at a favorite beach. However, many Americans are not aware of the African-American influence in the early days of celebrating the holiday of what used to be known as Decoration Day.
My father, rest his soul, was a three-war veteran. He was drafted right after the beginning of War World II and he went on to fight in two other wars, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam. I have always had a healthy respect for the military and the men and women who risk their lives to keep our nation safe. Recently I ran across some forgotten history, an important fact hardly mention when talking about the origins of this great holiday.
David Blight, a history professor from Yale University stumbled upon a folder of papers from a Union Veterans Organization while doing research a few years ago. The papers had these words written on it “The First Decoration Day.” The papers revealed the following story:
After the Confederate Union surrender ending the Civil War, African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, newly free slaves went to the place where hundreds of war prisoners were buried , many in mass graves. They buried the soldiers properly and then built a fence around the gravesite creating a cemetery. They painted the fence white. More than two hundred and sixty soldiers were buried there.
After they buried the war dead, there was a ceremony at nine o ‘ clock the next morning on May 1, 1865. A procession of three thousand school age African-American children carried arm loads of roses to the newly built cemetery to decorate the soldiers’ graves. They sang spirituals while women follow close behind with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came the Massachusetts 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, brave African-American men who marched in step forming a doubled column circle around the newly built cemetery. They all gather inside of the cemetery giving honor to the nation’s war dead and then they rallied around the United States Flag. They celebrated because the war was over in a ritual of remembrance and as history tells it The First Decoration Day was born. The nation’s African-Americans, newly free slaves turned out to be the original founders of the current Federal Holiday as we know it, Memorial Day.
When David Blight first brought this forgotten history to light, there was much debate whether it took place or not. However, in 2011, this forgotten historical fact was finally recognized by the South Carolina Legislature and a historic marker was erected on the grounds of the First Decoration Day Cemetery in the City of Charleston.