Amid the teasing camaraderies about who has the best bar-be-que sauce, and other family discussions around May’s last holiday a few days ago, and the solemnity of celebrations for this country’s war dead, it would have been nice for once to hear ANY commentators mention the fact that Memorial Day (not to be confused with Veterans’ Day), is an invention of the African American population.
Respectful recognition is still a very good thing in this country, in spite of the continuing car wreck of a presidency that found too many of us glued to a TV screen to see how badly Mr. Trump would handle the ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns.
On May 1, 1865, in what is now called Hampton Park, in Charleston, South Carolina (a former thoroughbred racetrack), a group of newly freed slaves had two weeks earlier unearthed the burial of 257 Union soldiers from a mass grave created in what had been a Confederate prison camp, landscaped and converted the space into a cemetery, dressed the bodies for a proper reinternment, built a wooden fence around the property with the masthead, “Martyrs of the Race Course,” and sent word out to all the townspeople about a gathering they would have. They then met, on May 1, 1865, in both a solemn and festive parade and ceremony to honor the heroism of those who had died in the fight to end slavery in the USA. All told, approximately 10,000 people came out, including over 3, 000 school children from the new Freedmen’s Bureau schools, Union soldiers still in the area, some Black ministers, who presided over the ceremony, and Northern anti-slavery activists. Most of those gathered brought flowers to be placed on the new burial field and individual grave sites, the latter which had been carefully laid out in rows.
The gathering was reported on by the New York Tribune newspaper as the “First Decoration Day.” One writer, Yale historian David Bright, called this day the “Independence Day of a Second American Revolution,” and the first Memorial Day, “a ritual of remembrance and consecration.”
The Tribune writer put it this way, “When all had left, the holy mounds—the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them—were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond … there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.” “While the adults marched around the graves, the children were gathered in a nearby grove, where they sang “America,” “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
After the formal program was finished, people meandered into the infield and had picnics and conversations, listened to a few speeches, and watched soldiers, like the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, drill and march in uniform.
However, much controversy continues to exist over which American area should be credited with the first Memorial Day in American history, and Charleston’s claim remains in dispute. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that more than 24 different cities and associations have claimed that distinction. However, though several of those claimants do recreate the same celebration with flowers, the first such celebration recorded remains the Charleston, South Carolina observation in May, 1865. Every other one post-dates that celebration.
Officially, the modern Memorial Day holiday is said to have originated with a May 5th field order (#11) issued in 1868 by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, for the annual decoration of war graves. Calling it Decoration Day (similar to that in Charleston), it was to be a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30 either because by that date flowers would be in bloom all over the country, or because no known Civil War battles had been engaged on that date.
General Logan made clear that the purpose of the day was to remember those who had died fighting and to decorate, “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 and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
After WWI, the holiday was adjusted by Congress and President Lyndon Johnson to honor all Americans who had died fighting in any war, not just the Civil War. In 1971 with congressional approval of the National Holiday Act, it became a federal holiday to be celebrated annually on the last Monday in May. There are now 10 such national holidays.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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