Memorial Day holds a special place for many Americans, especially those who serve in the nation’s military. While past and current members of the armed forces are most certainly honored, what few realize is that the practice of celebrating America’s soldiers gained popularity due to a group of freed Blacks in the South.
In the town of Charleston in South Carolina, the celebration of what was called “Decoration Day” was held to give respects to fallen soldiers from the Union Army in the North. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, with the Union victorious over its Confederate foes. In order to celebrate the victory and honor the dead, on May 1 of that year around 10,000 freed Black men and women gathered in historic Hampton Park.
The group placed flowers on the graves of unknown soldiers, a practice held often in times of war. The event caught the attention of the nation, and it was largely understood by Whites to be a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation passing in 1863. However, it was far more than that for those gathered.
The town was a Confederate stronghold, and over 250 soldiers died as prisoners there as Union forces began to overtake the region. The Confederate soldiers buried the dead in unmarked graves and fled in fear. The freed Blacks who came to the Decoration Day event viewed those soldiers as martyrs who died selflessly for their freedom. While their were Black soldiers in the Union Army, the celebration was in honor of all who fought for the winning side.
David Blight, a history professor at Yale University, has credited the Black population of Charleston as the inventors of the first Memorial Day celebration although other cities have made similar claims in attempts to dispute Blight’s research. Still, most historians agree that it is at least the first widely recognized celebration of fallen soldiers in history.