Remembering the First Memorial Day
I noticed it on Wikipedia, and then again on David Crumm's blog, Read the Spirit. In his reflections for Memorial Day, David Crumm, former Religion writer for the Detroit Free Press, reminds us that the first Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, hearkens back to an event in 1865, when 10,000 African Americans, all recently freed slaves, gathered to mark the graves of Union soldiers, who had fallen in battle in South Carolina. I'm including part of the conversation in this extended quote. David has other information that provides context and definition.
It is good to remember the foundations of our observances, for they may surprise us.Real Story of Our “First” Memorial Day
Here’s why it’s important to remember—and spread word—about the real story of Memorial Day. Yale University historian David W. Blight undertook the groundbreaking research that is changing the way this milestone is understood. He published his findings in a 2002 history, “Race and Reunion.” Even the History Channel’s current “History of Memorial Day” video ignores the stirring 1865 chapter of U.S. history that Blight finally uncovered. (Over time, scholars expect that our collective “history” will be restored to include the 1865 event. Wikipedia’s version already includes this 1865 revision. Or, really this represents a restoration of the record.)
The first Memorial Day was marked by former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, who created proper, individual graves for fallen Union soldiers who had been buried en masse near a Confederate prison camp. For most of the 20th century, however, the “first” Decoration or Memorial Day was credited to Waterloo, New York, mainly because the freed slaves of Charleston, South Carolina, didn’t have the connective clout enjoyed by the men promoting Waterloo’s ceremonies. News of the Charleston effort never spread across the U.S. and eventually vanished from our national memory. Of course, the Waterloo effort was noble, too, but its claim as our “first” now must be qualified as perhaps a “first in the North.”
According to Blight’s research: On May 1, 1865, 10,000 former slaves gathered at the cemetery site they had rebuilt and elaborately decorated in Charleston, South Carolina. Their courage is inspiring, because they were making a large-scale public demonstration of their love and respect for fallen Union soldiers—within weeks of the end of the war. Their brave actions easily could have brought their families into harm’s way from white neighbors who still strongly supported the defeated Confederacy.
Preparing for that first Memorial Day was an expensive, back-breaking effort in which a proper cemetery actually was built from the ground up by African-American volunteers prior to May 1. On a spiritual level, these freed slaves were intent on starting their new lives by literally digging up and reshaping a key part of their past. The site of this first Memorial Day, once a local race course, had been a Confederate prison camp where Union soldiers’ bodies were heaped in a mass grave. Volunteers prepared for May 1, 1865, by digging up the discarded remains, burying them properly, adding a wall around the cemetery, plus a proper arched entryway for visitors. The site, today, is Hampton Park. If you know Charleston, you’ll realize there is no Civil War cemetery there now. Eventually, these remains were moved again to a new U.S. national cemetery in Georgia.
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