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In 1865, newly emancipated African Americans created and started Memorial Day in America.
The first celebration occurred in Charleston, South Carolina to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting in the service of their freedom. Together with teachers and missionaries, black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony that year which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers.
African Americans cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly ten thousand people, mostly African Americans, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 Black school children newly enrolled in Freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, black ministers, and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to be placed on the burial field. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.
David W. Blight described the day: “This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
Let’s us celebrate Memorial Day in the spirit of its original founders and know that fidelity to its meaning is central and essential to honoring those who have fought and died only in the service of “freedom.” We would do well to remember this and insist that those who go to war do so reluctantly and with great displeasure, and that they fight, die, and are remembered only in the service of freedom from oppression and exploitation.