1865: Black Americans' First Memorial Day

1865: Black Americans' First Memorial Day
Posted on May 27, 2023 by Dr. Shannon

During the Civil War, the Confederate soldiers in Charleston, South Carolina held Union prisoners at a former race course country club. Over 260 soldiers died in that prison, mainly due to disease, and were buried onsite in an unmarked mass grave. When the Confederacy lost, those troops quickly evacuated the place and a group of recently freed Black Americans went to the site to give the Union soldiers a proper burial. They reburied the soldiers and marked the graves. Upon completion they built a ten-foot-white wall fence and labeled the area “Martyrs of the Race Course”. Then on May 1,1865, they held a Memorial Day ceremony.

Flowers, Singing, and Prayer

The ceremony was attended by 10,000 people, mostly Black residents. The program included 3,000 Black school children carrying flowers and singing the song, “John Brown’s Body”, followed by men and women representing different societies that supported the newly freed Black citizens. Black pastors delivered sermons, and led the audience in prayer and singing spirituals; there were also speeches given by union officers, missionaries, and Black ministers. And there were formal military marches by both Black and White Union regiments to honor the soldiers whose lives were lost in the war.

The New York Tribune, described the event as a tribute to “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” The gravesites looked like “one mass of flowers” and “the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them” and “tears of joy” were shed.

Humble beginnings of a National Holiday

Memorial Day is an American holiday, celebrated the last Monday in May to honor the men and women who died in military service to their country. It was first celebrated nationwide as “Decoration Day'' in 1868, and made a federal holiday as Memorial Day in 1971, but it was May 1,1865 when the first formal ceremony was organized for fallen union soldiers in Charleston, South Carolina, by recently freed enslaved African Americans.

Explore Black history and “re-remember” the lost, untold, and hidden memories of the contributions and legacy of the Black experience here in the United States and abroad.

Happy Memorial Day!

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