Untold History: How Black People Created Memorial Day

May 30th, 2018 - by admin

Felice Leon / The Root & David Blight / The New York Times & Paul Harvey / Religion in American Culture – 2018-05-30 00:50:30


Black People Created Memorial Day — Literally
Felice Leon / The Root

(May 28, 2018) — Memorial Day is here. Think barbecues, lemonade. A precious three-day weekend full of sun, sales and slacking off. But this is The Root, and you know there’s another part of this story.

Little-known fact: African Americans created Memorial Day.

Rewind to the end of the Civil War. In 1865, Charleston, S.C., was in ruins, and many Union soldiers were being held prisoner in a converted racecourse. At least 257 of the captives died because of the horrific conditions, and their bodies were discarded in a mass grave.

Later, a group of black workmen dug up the bodies and reburied them to properly honor the fallen.

On May 1, 1865, over 10,000 people — recently freed slaves, black schoolchildren, colored soldiers and their allies — held what was the first Memorial Day parade.

“They paraded around the racetrack, and then they gathered as many as could fit into the cemetery compound; about three or four black preachers read from Scripture,” said David Blight, a professor of history at Yale and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery.

His research is responsible for bringing this little-known history to light. The historian says that the white South controlled much of the nation’s narrative, which explains why this heroic story was practically erased.

“Can one imagine that someday children will grow up learning this story, instead of Paul Revere’s ride, or Lincoln at Gettysburg?” Blight told The Root.

Forgetting Why We Remember
David Blight / The New York Times Opinion Pages

(May 29, 2011) — Most Americans know that Memorial Day is about honoring the nation’s war dead. It is also a holiday devoted to department store sales, half-marathons, picnics, baseball and auto racing. But where did it begin, who created it, and why?…

Paul Harvey / Religion in American Culture

(May 30, 2011) — From historian David Blight, an essay on Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865 — an event of enormous symbolic significance at the time but forgotten afterwards in the “national reconciliation” mode of late 19th-century Memorial Days following their semi-official beginnings in 1868.

Blight begins by describing how the “Lost Cause tradition thrived in Confederate Memorial Day rhetoric; the Southern dead were honored as the true ‘patriots,’ defenders of their homeland, sovereign rights, a natural racial order, and a ’cause’ that had been overwhelmed by ‘numbers and resources” but never defeated on battlefields.”

But before the Civil War was over, black soldiers had established a meaning for that day consonant with their experience of fighting for freedom:

But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops.

Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.

Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill.

Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

Despite the size and some newspaper coverage of the event, its memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day. From 1876 on, after white Democrats took back control of South Carolina politics and the Lost Cause defined public memory and race relations, the day’s racecourse origin vanished . . . .

Found Voices: Slave Narratives Pt 1

(August 9, 2011) — Very Unique Nightline that introduces us to voices from the past. These are actual slave recordings done in the 1930’s and recently digitized. Crafted beautifully by Producer Karen Dewitt. Field Producer & Camera: Fletcher Johnson, Audio: Wayne Boyd.

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