Another Untold Black History Story: Memorial Day Commemoration

The History of Memorial Day

On May 30, 1868, in Arlington National Cemetery, the first known commemoration of Memorial Day was done. However, there were many who claimed to have had a version of Memorial Day prior to this date, but did not have proof of the event. 

During the late 80s, an incredible discovery was made while reviewing Harvard University’s archives. In it was proof that a group of Black people who were freed from enslavement before 1865 organized a commemoration for the fallen soldiers.

How Black People Made the Earliest Memorial Day Commemoration

A professor named David Blight from Yale looked through boxes of material in Harvard Houghton Library. That was where he found a file named “First Decoration Day” and a dated article from The New York Tribune which was written by an old veteran. This made an incredible addition to his book about the parade on the racetrack back in 1865.

The moment Charleston, SC fell, the Confederate army evacuated, but the enslaved men and women who were freed had chosen to stay. Upon deciding this, they also gave the fallen Union soldiers a proper burial. They took their exhumed bodies and buried them in a new cemetery where the words “Martyrs of the Race Course” were written.

According to Blight, on May 1, 1865, ten thousand people who were mostly freed slaves, participated in a parade around the racetrack to pay respect to the fallen soldiers. Thousands of Black children carried flowers. Black Union members attended, and Black ministers did Bible readings.

Black People’s Efforts Erased from History?

It wasn’t until the 90s when the earliest commemoration of Memorial Day was truly introduced to the public. According to Blight, after the war had passed and Charleston was rebuilt, white residents failed to recognize the efforts of Black people in properly burying the bodies of soldiers and celebrating their martyrdom. 

After Blight published his book Race and Reunion, he gave a talk at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History regarding Memorial Day. This was when an older Black woman approached him to ask, “You mean that story is true?” She then revealed that her grandfather had told her the story of the parade at the racetrack. The white residents may have forgotten this parade, but the Black people still told stories about it.

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