Though Memorial Day was first formally declared in 1868 by General Logan, in charge of the GAR—an organization of Civil War vets, in order to decorate the graves of those who died in the Civil War, there are many cities and regions who claim to be the first to have celebrated this holiday before its formal adoption.
The historian David W. Blight in his Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory makes the case for Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. He says this celebration predates most of the other claimants, though it is unclear whether this celebration itself had any influence on General Logan in his official proclamation. However, the depth and sincerity of this ritual, Professor Blight continues, demonstrated a meaning to this day that more closely connects to what our Memorial Days have become.
As Professor Blight describes it in his book:
African Americans founded Decoration Day at the graveyard of 257 Union soldiers labeled “Martyrs of the Race Course,” May 1, 1865, Charleston, South Carolina.The “First Decoration Day,” as this event came to be recognized in some circles in the North, involved an estimated ten thousand people, most of them black former slaves. During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable enclosure for the burial ground at the Race Course. In some ten days, they constructed a fence ten feet high, enclosing the burial ground, and landscaped the graves into neat rows. The wooden fence was whitewashed and an archway was built over the gate to the enclosure. On the arch, painted in black letters, the workmen inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course.” At nine o’clock in the morning on May 1, the procession to this special cemetery began as three thousand black schoolchildren (newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools) marched around the Race Course, each with an armload of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by three hundred black women representing the Patriotic Association, a group organized to distribute clothing and other goods among the freedpeople. The women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses to the burial ground. The Mutual Aid Society, a benevolent association of black men, next marched in cadence around the track and into the cemetery, followed by large crowds of white and black citizens.All dropped their spring blossoms on the graves in a scene recorded by a newspaper correspondent: “when all had left, the holy mounds — the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them — were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond … there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.” While the adults marched around the graves, the children were gathered in a nearby grove, where they sang “America,” “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The official dedication ceremony was conducted by the ministers of all the black churches in Charleston. With prayer, the reading of biblical passages, and the singing of spirituals, black Charlestonians gave birth to an American tradition. In so doing, they declared the meaning of the war in the most public way possible — by their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses, lilacs, and marching feet on the old planters’ Race Course.After the dedication, the crowds gathered at the Race Course grandstand to hear some thirty speeches by Union officers, local black ministers, and abolitionist missionaries. Picnics ensued around the grounds, and in the afternoon, a full brigade of Union infantry, including Colored Troops, marched in double column around the martyrs’ graves and held a drill on the infield of the Race Course. The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.
These first celebrators rooted this day in great meaning. There were very real, tangible reasons for this ritual these former slaves began in honor of those who died to end slavery, to promote freedom for all. Almost 150 years later, and many wars since, commemorating, respecting, honoring those who have died in the name of “protecting” this country and upholding”democracy” is what Memorial Day has become. As each war and its dead are added to the “celebration,” the purpose and point to each specific war is somewhat diminished and the sacrifices generalized. Let us work to remember the distinctions of each so that we are grounded not in the platitudes of patriotism but rather in the real work of equity and justice.