Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Me? I'm proud to be known as An Angry-Ass Black Woman, and I'm just as proud to say that I served five years in the United States Navy.
And Memorial Day means as much to Blacks in the United States as to any race here. In fact, the very first gathering to honor fallen soldiers was organized by Blacks.
It was in 1865, the year after the Civil War had ended. Ten thousand people, mainly Black people, gathered to pay homage to Union soldiers who had died fighting to keep the United States as one nation -- and, in doing so, rid the country of slavery.
During the wa r captured Union soldiers were held at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which had been turned into a Confederate prison camp. Two-hundred and fifty-seven soldiers died in captivity, and were buried there in a mass grave.
In April 1865, Blacks living in Charleston, along with a few white teachers and missionaries undertook the task of digging fresh graves for each individual soldier, and transferred their bodies, one-by-one, to their new resting places. They built a fence around the site, then constructed an arch with the inscription "Martyrs of the Race Course."
On May 1st, 10,000 paid tribute to the newly re-buried dead. Three thousand led the procession singing John Brown's Body and the Star-Spangled Banner, they were followed by women carrying flowers, wreaths, and crosses. Behind them came the men and Union soldiers. By the time the procession was finished almost the entire site was covered with rose petals.
Both local and national newspapers covered the event -- which was called "Decoration Day" -- including the New York Tribune.
Other cities in both the North and South have claimed to be the first to celebrate Decoration Day, but none of the claims -- that can be verified by newspaper or other published mention -- can be substantiated. It wasn't until the late 1990s that David Blight, a Yale professor, uncovered archives in Charleston that verfied the existence of this early celebration.
In 1868, Major General John A. Logan actually called for Decoration Day to be recognized as a national holiday, and proposed that it be celebrated on May 30th -- the thinking that there would more flowers in bloom at that time. It wasn't until 1967, though, that it officially became a federal holiday.
So there you have it . . . May 1, 1865. Charleston, South Carolina . . . the first organized celebration of what would become Memorial Day was started by grateful newly-freed Blacks.
Don't you just love a teaching moment?