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Black American Soldiers And Their Fallen Comrades

Black American soldiers stand beside the graves of their fallen comrades from the present Normandy war to fire a volley in their memory during Memorial Day. The memorial was held at Blosville American Cemetery (Blosville Temporary Cemetery Memorial) near Sainte-Mère-Église, France, on June 13, 1945. | Source: Archive Photos / Getty

UPDATED: 9:00 a.m. ET, May 27, 2024

With the topic of Black history increasingly coming under attack, both at the educational level and particularly among Republican-led state legislatures, it’s important to keep things in their proper perspectives as this year’s installment of Memorial Day takes place.

The federal holiday that is devoted to honoring America’s fallen soldiers who defended the U.S. as servicemen and women in the armed forces also marks the day that officially kicks off summer. The seasonal celebration is typically rung in with cookouts, picnics and fun in the sun.

And, to some of our delight, it represents the return of white shoes, pants and dresses.

Victory, World War I Black Soldiers' Memorial by Leonard Crunelle

A crowd gathers for the unveiling of a memorial for African American soldiers killed during World War I on Chicago’s South Side on Armistice Day, 1936. | Source: Bettmann / Getty

So it’s understandable how some people might lose sight of what the actual Memorial Day holiday is all about and be tempted to only focus on fun for the holiday.

However, a deeper look at the annual observation can also serve as a reminder of the very real Black history behind the Memorial Day federal holiday.

For instance, 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.

LaDonna McTiller, left, Eve Purvis-Allen, center, and Dr. Robert Hollis, right, with the National Association of Black Veterans East Bay Chapter, make their way through the National Cemetary placing flowers on the graves of Buffalo Soldiers duruing Memori

Members of the National Association of Black Veterans East Bay Chapter make their way through the National Cemetary placing flowers on the graves of Buffalo Soldiers during Memorial Day ceremonies in San Francisco, California, on May 27, 2013. | Source: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images / Getty

More from BlackAmericaWeb:

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 n 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 there 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.

Washington's Memorial Day Parade Honors WWII Veterans

Military cadets march with flags in the Memorial Day Parade on Independence Avenue May 31, 2004, in Washington, D.C. | Source: Matthew Cavanaugh / Getty

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!