Author Says Blacks Were The First to Celebrate Memorial Day

May 27, 2011  |  

By B. Hutson

On Monday, the nation will pause to honor those courageous men and women who have served and gave their lives all in the spirit of patriotism. But did you know that African Americans were the first to celebrate our fallen soldiers?

According to Black America Web, Yale University history professor David Blight says that blacks in Charleston, South Carolina launched the first Decoration Day, in which they decorate the graves of dead soldiers, in honor of the Union’s war dead on May 1, 1865.

“That ceremony on May 1, 1865 was actually the first recorded Decoration Day or Memorial Day,” said Blight.

Fifteen years ago, Blight was in a Harvard University library doing research for his book, “Reunion and Race,” when he came across a box of unorganized papers of a Union veterans’ organization and a folder labeled “First Decoration Day.”

The information contained in that folder led Blight to South Carolina and the former Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a once prestigious horse racing track that became a prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War. Blight said many soldiers died there, but were not properly buried.

Following the Confederate surrender ending the Civil War, blacks went to the place where hundreds of prisoners had been buried, many in mass graves. Those blacks, many of which were recently freed slaves, gave the soldiers a proper burial, explained Blight. Following the burials, there was a ceremony.

“They put up a fence around the area and painted it,” he said. “More than 260 were buried there. We don’t know the names. We don’t know the race.”

Blight admits that finding an account of the celebration was difficult at first.

“That shows that some parts of history can be lost, depending on who is in control,” Blight said. “You have to realize that the white Democrats in South Carolina soon returned to power. The Republicans were out of office. The blacks were out of office. Southerners did not want to remember the war, especially through an event such as this.”

Though this news surely won’t have any affect on how Memorial Day is celebrated, it’s still a nice history lesson to take in, seeing as how all the contributions blacks have made to this country are consistently overlooked.

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