By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The date was May 1, 1865. One year after Arlington National Cemetery was founded in Virginia, another cemetery 532 miles south was becoming part of history. Located in Charleston, SC, it was the final resting place of over 200 soldiers of color who died during the Civil War.
What happened some 152 years ago would remain buried for over a century until a renowned white Yale University professor made a stunning discovery. After years of research, a respected Yale scholar discovered that Blacks founded what is now known to millions of Americans as Memorial Day.
Erased from history, it’s a story that has stirred mixed emotions and jolted the pride of white cities, some of which for decades have claimed to be the birthplace of one of the nation’s most hallowed holidays.
None of these claims included the Black narrative, but what was once Union Cemetery is now a sprawling, 60-acre park in predominantly white Charleston, which amid lush gardens, ponds, a gazebo and fountain sits a bronze plaque acknowledging the park as the site of the first Memorial Day and where thousands decorated the graves of Black soldiers who were re-buried there after Confederate soldiers interred them in a mass grave in 1865.
The soldiers’ families held a parade and decorated the graves on May 1, 1865. Back then, it was an event that was known as “Decoration Day.” Today, the holiday is known as Memorial Day, after Congress passed a law in 1968. The move made Memorial Day an official federal holiday that went into effect in 1971.
Today, Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start of summer as beaches and theme parks around the country open for the season.
While the holiday has become a time for picnics and backyard barbeques, Memorial Day is still considered a solemn time to honor fallen war heroes. For decades cities have spun their own narrative of how Memorial Day began. It’s a practice that increased after Charleston created its own story while ignoring local news reports of Blacks starting a new tradition of honoring dead soldiers.
For many Black veterans, the day can be bittersweet as they honor a nation’s heroes after experiencing decades of racism and discrimination in America. Despite integration and civil rights gains, many Blacks struggle to feel accepted as Americans because their history is often not included or is shut out of the national narrative.
In 2001, David W. Blight, an author, scholar and professor at Yale University, published his award-winning book, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.” Blight, who spoke to the Crusader during a telephone conversation from the Ivy League school in New Haven, CT, says the book capped years of research that began when he found records about Blacks during the Civil War at one archive at Harvard University. There, he found a story from the New York Herald Tribune about Blacks celebrating and honoring the war dead. He said the old newspaper clipping was on a piece of cardboard in a file labeled, “First Decoration Day,” the same title Blight used for his article that was published in several newspapers.
“I was quite surprised,” Blight said. “I was like ‘praise God. I hope this is true.’ One thing led to another. I kept digging and digging and there it was.”
Blight said the discovery led him to other stories in the Charleston Daily Courier and the New York Herald Tribune—both newspapers published stories about the final days of the Civil War, where Blacks celebrated the North’s victory over the South on Charleston’s prominent Meeting Street.
Vivid in detail, the book includes notes of the New York Herald Tribune reporter’s personal account of the celebrations that led to today’s most eye-opening event: Blacks decorating the graves of their fallen soldiers who had been reburied in what was then called Union Cemetery, which is today Hampton Park.
Blight published excerpts from the book in 2011 in the New York Times. Titled “The First Decoration Day,” the story also ran online in several media outlets. The story has since been published in memoirs and daily newspapers in Charleston and Newark, NJ.
The New York Times ran the piece in its editorial section in 2011. Several years ago, Rev. Al Sharpton interviewed Blight during his radio show in New York. In May 1867, Harper’s Weekly ran a sketch of white people visiting Union Cemetery on page 309 of its publication. A caption explaining the sketch was below the illustration.
Historical reports indicate that between 90,000 to 179,000 Black soldiers fought during the Civil War; of this number, 40,000 died.
Blight stated that during the final year of the war, Confederate soldiers in Charleston in 1865 had converted the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club—a former plantation—into an outdoor prison. Horrible conditions existed there for Black Union soldiers. After they died from exposure to diseases, the Black soldiers were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.
Blight noted that, “Twenty-eight Black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over the entrance on which they inscribed the words, ‘Martyrs of the Race Course.’” The burial ground became known as Union Cemetery.
In May 1865, seven days before President Abraham Lincoln declared the end of the Civil War, freed Blacks in Charleston, SC were already celebrating the defeat of Robert E. Lee and his Confederacy. Whites in Charleston had abandoned the city to escape the war, but Blacks had remained.
About 10,000 Blacks, in cooperation with white missionaries, “staged an unforgettable parade on the slaveholders’ race course.” The 54th Massachusetts U.S. Colored Troops, the infantry where Denzel Washington portrayed a fearless, but tormented leader in the movie, “Glory,” was among a full brigade of troops marching up Charleston’s prominent Meeting Street.
The 21st U.S. Colored Infantry was the first to march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs. They would eventually be joined by 3,000 Black school children, who at 9 a.m. led a parade procession carrying armloads of roses singing, “John Brown’s Body.”
The children were followed by several hundred Black women with baskets and flowers, wreaths and crosses. According to Blight, many parade spectators gathered at Union Cemetery’s entrance, where Black children sang, “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and several spirituals before several Black ministers read scriptures.
Following the solemn dedication, Blight said in his reports, the crowd held picnics, listened to speeches and watched the 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th Colored Troops perform a special double-column march around Union Cemetery.
“This was the first Memorial Day [Monday, May 1, 1865],” wrote Blight in Race and Reunion. “African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, SC. What you have there is Black Americans 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.”
Despite the size and some newspaper coverage, the memory was “suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day,” Blight wrote. From 1876, after white Democrats took control of South Carolina politics and the Lost Cause (the other Confederacy) defined public memory and race relations, the day’s racecourse origin vanished, according to Blight’s account in the New York Times in 2011.
Over a dozen predominantly white cities have claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.
In 1906, the Richmond Times-Dispatch claimed that the city was the location of the first Civil War soldier’s grave to be dedicated on June 3, 1861. There is also a claim that women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers in 1862. In 1863, the city of Gettysburg, PA commemorated the graves of dead soldiers. In Carbondale, IL on April 29, 1866, a Civil War memorial ceremony was held in the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
The official birthplace of Memorial Day was declared in 1966, when President Lyndon B. Johnson chose the town of Waterloo, NY because it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
However, many historians agree that Memorial Day’s origins are deeply rooted in the Civil War and Blight’s account of the first celebration in Charleston has gained the attention of scholars and mainstream news organizations.
Union Cemetery is no longer a burial site. The graves were eventually removed and reinterred in the 1880s to a national cemetery in Beaufort, SC. The former Union Cemetery became a zoo in 1932, before it became Hampton Park in 1975. The old racetrack—an oval roadway—is still there.
In 2010, the park unveiled a statue of Denmark Vesey, one of the founders of the historic, 202-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site where nine people were killed during a bible study in the church basement in 2015.
The statue was created by Ed Dwight, a former NASA astronaut applicant, who also created the statue in front of the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
Near a reflecting pool at Hampton Park is a plaque commemorating the site as the place where Blacks held the first Memorial Day on May 1, 1865. It was dedicated on May 31, 2010. It was an extraordinary proclamation, considering Charleston is a predominantly white city and the park is named after Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton III, one of the biggest slaveholders in the South at the time.
During the dedication of the plaque, the city’s mayor, Joe Riley, was present to celebrate the historic occasion which included a brass band and a reenactment of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.
Dot S. Scott, the president of the NAACP branch in Charleston, attended the 2010 dedication.
“It was a revelation because I wasn’t aware of it,” she told the Crusader. “I was thinking, all these Black soldiers were being memorialized there, and it was like going to graves of people who you didn’t know at all.”