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First Memorial Day Created by Blacks Here in Hampton Park
5/21/2014 3:12:11 PM

Union Troops - Twentry-First Colored Infantry
By Bob Small

Memorial Day may signal the beginning of the summer for many. A time for cook-outs and being with friends and family, but few know that the first widely publicized event, then called “Decoration Day”, was held in Charleston to honor the Union dead and was put together by many of the newly freed Black men and women.

On May 1, 1865, more than 10,000 black freedmen and women including 3,000 children gathered at the old Race Track now known as Hampton Park track to honor dead Union soldiers who were buried there. They cleaned up the area and placed flowers on the graves of the unknown soldiers.

The event was highly publicized and covered by a number of newspapers nationally. To many of the white citizens it was looked upon more as an Emancipation for the newly freed black men and women. Preachers and white northern missionaries gave speeches and thanks to those who had lost their lives in the Civil War. A war that claimed over 600,000 lives on both sides.

Charleston had been a holding place for captured Union Soldiers and at least 257 soldiers died while in the custody of Confederate soldiers. They were buried in hastily dug unmarked graves around the race track as Confederates fled the city from advancing Union troops.

Northern missionaries who helped organize the events for Decoration Day participated in songs and speeches. The response by the Black population was tremendous. Freedmen came from all over the state to participate. Many feeling that the Union soldiers had given their lives for their freedom rather than to bring the seceded states back into the Union. They cleaned up the burial grounds and erected an enclosure with an arch that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Many of those in attendance brought flowers to lie on the graves.

For the newly freed people it was their way of honoring those who had given their lives for their beliefs and the black population’s newfound freedom.

Honoring fallen soldiers was not a new thing. Flowers had been placed on the graves of fallen soldiers since the Revolutionary War. The practice became more prevalent in the South after the Civil War where much of the fighting had been done.

David Blight, a reporter with the New York Tribune who covered the event described the day as the first “Memorial Day,” and credited the Black population as its inventors.

Although Charleston has been credited with having the first Memorial Day celebration several other cities also lay claim to having services to honor their war dead.

In 1862 in Savannah, Ga. White residents held services to honor their Confederate war dead. Similar observances were carried out in Boalsburg, Va. on July 4, 1864 and in Gettysburg in 1863. Over the years several cities have made bids to be known as the first city to hold Memorial Day commemorations but President Lyndon Baines Johnson issued a proclamation on May 26, 1966 proclaiming Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day although some claim observances had been held in others cities earlier.

In 1866 Confederate Memorial Day was established in 1866 by the women in the city of Columbus, Ga. The official annual commemoration of Memorial Day began in 1868. In 1913 both Confederate and Union Soldier met at Gettysburg to honor their dead.

In 1882 Decoration Day was officially changed to Memorial Day but it would take until the end of World War II before the event gained more popularity. Memorial Day was signed into national law in 1967.

This Memorial Day millions of Americans all over the Nation will visit cemeteries to place flowers and flags to honor those who gave their lives for what they believed and the Black citizens of Charleston can take solace in the fact that one of the first commemorations was held in Charleston, SC.

Visitor Comments

Submitted By: Tonya F. Sims-Hill Submitted: 5/26/2014
History we should all know.

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