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Birth of Memorial Day begins with benevolent gesture by former slaves


Before we fire up the grill, flock to the beach or flag down those holiday bargains, it’s important to remember the meaning of Memorial Day—the unofficial start of summer—as the day we set aside to honor those who died in service to their country.

As the name would imply, Memorial Day grew out of the grief and tragedy of war, specifically the Civil War, and is one of the great American traditions of reverence worthy of recognition. By the end of the Civil War, some 750,000 Americans in the North and South (more than two percent of the population) had been killed. In 2016 numbers, such a percentage would exact a death toll of more than 6.4 million Americans. During the five years of bloodlust that began with the shelling of Fort Sumter, onto Antietam and Gettysburg, arriving at Appomattox Courthouse and culminating in, arguably, the final shot at Ford’s Theatre, loss of life became commonplace and America’s basic faith in a righteous God was severely tested.

‘Martyrs of the Race Course’

At that time, Americans had to identify—specifically find, invent and/or create—the means and mechanisms to manage more than a half million dead. Not long after the war ended, a grassroots effort began to honor the dead. The first thing the living had to do was identify and properly bury the fallen soldiers. Two weeks after Lincoln died, former slaves in Charleston, S.C. performed a reburial service for fallen Union soldiers. During the final years of fighting, Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison where some 257 Union soldiers had succumbed to exposure and disease. A small group of Black workmen recovered the bodies from a mass grave behind the track’s grandstand and over two weeks dug individual graves—complete with a whitewashed picket fence—around the makeshift cemetery naming it “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

On May 1, 1865, history reveals that about 10,000 Charlestonians—Black and White—paraded around the former racecourse with a procession of 3,000 Black children carrying flowers and singing “John Brown’s Body” (the original melody for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). Historian David W. Blight of Yale University described what came next in his 2001 book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory”:

‘For it is jubilee…’

“The children were followed by three hundred Black women representing the Patriotic Association, a group organized to distribute clothing and other goods among the freed people. The women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses to the burial ground. The Mutual Aid Society, a benevolent association of Black men, next marched in cadence around the track and into the cemetery, followed by large crowds of White and Black citizens. They declared the meaning of the war in the most public way possible—by their labor, their words, their songs and their solemn parade of roses, lilacs and marching feet on the old Planter’s Race Course. Among the burial rites the spirit of Leviticus was surely there: “For it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you…in the year of this jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possessions.”

After the dedication of the cemetery, the crowds retired to hear speeches, have a picnic lunch, sing hymns and watch a parade of Union soldiers—much like a modern Memorial Day celebration. Hampton Park (named after former South Carolina Governor Wade Hampton) occupies the old racetrack-turned-cemetery. There is no marker to identify what transpired 151 years ago, nor is there mention of the historic cemetery on the park’s website. However, the site sits adjacent to the Citadel, the famous military academy whose cadets can often be seen jogging around the old track. There is an ongoing effort among some Charleston residents to declare Hampton Park a National Historic Landmark.

Celebrating a ‘homecoming’

By the mid-19th century, it was not unusual for Whites to witness Black persons care for the dead. However, it was once against the law for Blacks to give their loved ones a decent funeral and proper burial. In early 17th-century America, Blacks were prohibited from gathering together in any form. Slaves could not assemble or meet in a group for fear that they would plot a revolt against their master. When a slave died he/she was usually buried without ceremony on “non-crop” producing land in an unmarked grave, sometimes dug by slave children too young to work the fields. Therefore, the first African Americans were denied the opportunity to mourn their loved ones together and were not given an opportunity to publicly celebrate a life lived.

Slaves did play a major role in White funerals, particularly when a member of the master’s family died. House slaves were given the responsibility of washing, preparing and dressing the dead, as well as planning and servicing the repast. Africans, of course, had performed burial rites for centuries but with the introduction of Christianity, slave owners began to allow slaves to meet more often for religious services and funerals. Prior to that, slaves who worshiped Christ had to meet in so-called “hush harbors” for fear of being caught and punished. Whites were reportedly shocked to witness the behavior of slaves at funerals because they were happy, jubilant and celebrated the “homecoming” of their loved ones. Slaves had no hope of returning to their ancestral home(s), so death was often seen as “going to be with Jesus” and symbolized going home. As well, death was seen as a relief from the agony and humiliation of slavery and many slaves looked forward to leaving their squalid shacks for their “mansion in the sky.”

Once called Decoration Day

Between 1865 and 1868 up to 25 cities claimed to be the progenitor of Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day. About one year after the Charleston parade, the Ladies Memorial Association in Columbus, Ga. set aside April 26 as a day to “wreath the graves of our martyred dead” with flowers and encouraged other southern women to do likewise. In many southern states, April 26 is still celebrated as Confederate Memorial Day. On May 5, 1866, residents of the small town of Waterloo, N.Y. closed their businesses and flew flags at half-staff in commemoration of the Civil War dead; it was 100 years later that President Lyndon Johnson and Congress officially declared Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day, mostly because historians had long forgotten the old Charleston story.

The early years of Memorial Day found the holiday closely linked to the Union, and for that reason many southern states did not celebrate the observance. That changed when Memorial Day was expanded to honor those that died while fighting in any American war. Some states, such as Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, have a separate Memorial Day celebration just to honor Confederate soldiers. In 1866, for instance, women in Columbus, Miss. laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate dead in the city’s cemetery. The early Confederate Memorial Day observances were simple, somber affairs, but by 1890 there was a shift from the emphasis of honoring specific soldiers to a public commemoration of the lost Confederate cause. Changes in the nation’s hymns and speeches tended to reflect the evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the south. In essence, the theme of the “Southern Lost Cause” would gradually share equal time with American nationalism.

A growing tradition

Decoration Day did not take on widespread prominence and become a shared day of celebration until 1868. That’s when John Logan, a retired Union general, petitioned Congress to set aside May 30 for the “…purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating, the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, hamlet and churchyard in the land.” Legislation was soon sent to Congress which approved the suggestion and soon 5,000 people gathered on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia—the former home of Gen. Robert E. Lee—and conducted the nation’s first official Memorial Day ceremony. Future President James Garfield spoke and veterans and orphaned children decorated the graves. Similar ceremonies were conducted that day at 183 cemeteries across 27 states. The next year saw ceremonies take place in 336 cities in 31 states—including some in the South—to observe the call to remembrance. In 1873, New York became the first state to institutionalize the observance of Decoration Day and by 1890 all Northern states had followed suit.

By the end of World War I, with more than 116,000 Americans killed in Europe, Memorial Day broadened its scope even further to honor America’s war dead. As in other allied nations, Americans began using the poppy as a flower of remembrance, and the sale of the flowers was used to provide aid to orphaned children. The popularity of the poppy stems from John McCrae’s 1915 poem “In Flander’s Fields” in which the Canadian soldier paints a haunting picture of flowers growing amid the graves of World War I.

‘Some will never return…’

America lost 405,000 lives in World War II, and when including the 96,000 deaths spanning the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan wars, Memorial Day would become a national call for peace, so much so that since 1950 every American president has included such a plea in his Memorial Day remarks:

—“They, and we, are the legacies of an unbroken chain of proud men and women who served their country with honor, who waged war so that we may know peace…” Barack Obama, 2009;

—“Looking across this field, we see the scale of heroism and sacrifice. All carried with them memories of a family that they hoped to keep safe by their sacrifice.” George W. Bush, 2005;

—“We are descendants of a common creed—one nation under God. Partners with a common purpose; to keep our nation free and strong; a force for peace and progress…” Bill Clinton, 1996;

—“Each of the patriots whom we remember on this day was first a beloved son or daughter, a brother or sister, or a spouse, friend and neighbor.” George H.W. Bush, 1992;

—“I have no illusions about what little I can add to the silent testimony of those who gave their lives for their country. It is this honesty of mind that can open paths to peace.” Ronald Reagan, 1982;

—“Peace is the real and right memorial for those who have died in war.” Richard Nixon, 1974;

—“Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them. Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, evening of June 5, 1944.

Minute of silence at 3 p.m.

About 5,000 people gather each year at Arlington National Cemetery, where the president or vice president of the United States places a wreath a the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God”), while members of the Army’s Third US Infantry place miniature American flags in front of more than 260,000 gravestones. Communities nationwide will hold similar ceremonies, decorating graves, attending parades, giving speeches and remembering the dead. Southland national cemeteries such as those in Los Angeles, Riverside, Bakersfield and in San Diego (Miramar and Fort Rosecrans) will host on Monday solemn ceremonies in remembrance of  men and women who perished far from home. On Monday, Americans are requested to pause for a minute of silence at 3 p.m. to pay tribute to the dead. Congress instituted this practice in 2000 with the passage of The National Moment of Remembrance Act.

Across the country, the flag of the United States will be raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to half-staff where it will remain only until noon. Then it will be raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the dead, while the noon position is designed to “raise their memory” so that their sacrifice will not have been in vain.

List of Southland observances

At the end of the day on Monday, the National Memorial Day Concert attracts tens of thousands to the west lawn of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. where the popular acts of the day will pay tribute to fallen soldiers. Also this weekend, the Indianapolis 500 will be held in conjunction—since 1911—with Memorial Day and a host of little towns and big cities will conduct special events in honor of the occasion. The following is a brief list of some of the activities scheduled in the southland:

—Memorial Day Ceremony in Palmdale: Desert Lawn Memorial Park, 2200 E. Avenue S, 11 a.m.;

—Forest Lawn Memorial Park(s): Patriotic ceremonies honoring veterans;

—Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier: Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and American Heritage Ensemble will be joined by chamber singers, performances and a keynote address;

—USS Iowa Military Appreciation Day in San Pedro: Carnival games, food trucks and live entertainment. Free for military and veterans (with ID):

—Knott’s Berry Farm and Knott’s Soak City Honor U.S. Military Personnel in Buena Park: Free admission through Monday for all military personnel (with ID);

—Queen Mary Salutes U.S. Military Personnel in Long Beach: Free admission on Monday for all military personnel (with ID);

—Canoga Park Memorial Day Parade: Beginning at 10 a.m. at corner of Sherman Way and Owensmouth Avenue.

William Covington contributed to this story.