The origins of Memorial Day are shrouded in confusion and uncertainty, that being said, the Time Magazine highlights how an event organized by Black people after the Civil War, is seemingly the FIRST Memorial Day event ever!
There is confusion as to the origins because several towns all claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Researchers traced the earliest claim from one of those towns to women who laid flowers on soldiers’ graves in the Civil War hospital town of Columbus, Miss., in April 1866.
Historian and Pulitzer Prize winning writer David Blight, challenges this narrative. He highlights how newly freed slaves created the first Memorial Day event that drew approx. 10,000 people! This event took place May 1st, 1865! A year prior to the earliest event traced.
The event was to honor union soldiers at a planter’s racetrack in Charleston, South Carolina. Confederate solider’s held captured Union soldiers here, MANY dying of disease. These men were buried sloppily in unmarked graves.
In the 10 days leading up to the event, about 2 dozen newly freed black men went to where those union men were buried, gave them a proper burial, organized and marked their gravestones, and built a 10-foot-tall white fence around them. An archway overhead spelled out “Martyrs of the Race Course” in black letters.
Once May 1st came, and the event began, approx. 10,000 people attended the tribute, primarily black people. At 9 am, 3,000 black schoolkids went on a parade around the track singing the Union song “John’s Brown Body“. Highly suggest giving it a listen on YouTube.
Black pastors gave sermons, they sang, they had picnics, and speeches, to honor the men lost to the War. In the afternoon, three white and black Union regiments marched around the graves and staged a drill.
This story highlights how Memorial Day is an American tradition started by black people, unsurprisingly however, this story isn’t widely told.