UPDATED: 2:00 p.m. ET, May 28, 2021
Memorial Day has long been known as a holiday to celebrate and honor America’s soldiers. It’s also the day that officially kicks off summer, a seasonal beginning that is typically celebrated with cookouts, picnics and fun in the sun. And, to some of our delight, it also represents the return of white shoes, pants and dresses.
While most of those traditions are beginning to return to normal as the coronavirus pandemic inches toward being under control in the U.S., one thing COVID-19 cannot do is erase the very real Black history behind the Memorial Day federal holiday.
But did you know that African Americans were the first to celebrate the holiday? While it’s unclear if they were wearing white, we do know that recently freed slaves founded the holiday in 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina.
According to BlackAmericaWeb, David Blight, a history professor at Yale University, said that “Decoration Day” was held in Charleston to honor fallen soldiers from the Union Army in the North, though other cities have refuted his findings.
The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, with the Union victorious over its Confederate foes. In order to celebrate the victory and honor the dead, on May 1 of that year around 10,000 freed Black men and women gathered in historic Hampton Park.
The group placed flowers on the graves of unknown soldiers, a practice held often in times of war. The event caught the attention of the nation, and it was largely understood by Whites to be a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation passing in 1863. However, it was far more than that for those gathered.
The town was a Confederate stronghold, and over 250 soldiers died as prisoners there as Union forces began to overtake the region. The Confederate soldiers buried the dead in unmarked graves and fled in fear. The freed Blacks who came to the Decoration Day event viewed those soldiers as martyrs who died selflessly for their freedom. While their were Black soldiers in the Union Army, the celebration was in honor of all who fought for the winning side.
The myth-busting research website Snopes, which also acknowledges that Blacks founded the Memorial Day, says the commemoration was formalized by an order issued in 1868 by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, who called for the annual decoration of war graves.
According to Snopes:
Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country….
In May 1966 the city of Waterloo, New York, was designated as the “Birthplace of Memorial Day” via a Congressional resolution and presidential proclamation commemorating a patriotic observance held in that town one hundred years earlier[.]
We are happy to be able to add Memorial Day to African Americans’ innumerable contributions to the United States.
Happy Memorial Day!