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According to Professor David Blight of the Yale University History Department, the first memorial day was observed by formerly enslaved black people at the Washington Race Course (today the location of Hampton Park) in Charleston, South Carolina. The race course had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp in 1865 as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, formerly enslaved people exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them properly with individual graves. They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. The work was completed in only ten days. On May 1, 1865, the Charleston newspaper reported that a crowd of up to ten thousand, mainly black residents, including 2800 children, proceeded to the location for included sermons, singing, and a picnic on the grounds, thereby creating the first "Decoration Day".
David W. Blight in his own words from The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877, lecture 19, To Appomattox and Beyond: The End of the War and a Search for Meanings:
African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866; they were too late. I had the great, blind, good fortune to discover this story in a messy, totally disorganized collection of veterans’ papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard some years back. And what you have there is black Americans, recently freed from slavery, announcing to the world, with their flowers and 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. That story got lost, it got lost for more than a century. And when I discovered it, I started calling people in Charleston that I knew in archives and libraries, including the Avery Institute, the black research center in Charleston–”Has anybody, have you ever heard of this story?” And no one had ever heard it. It showed the power of the Lost Cause in the wake of the war to erase a story. But I started looking for other sources, and lo and behold there were lots of sources. Harper’s Weekly even had a drawing of the cemetery in an 1867 issue.
The old oval of that racetrack is still there today. If you ever go to Charleston go up to Hampton Park. Hampton Park is today what the racecourse was then. It’s named for Wade Hampton, the white supremacist, redeemer, and governor of South Carolina at the end of Reconstruction and a Confederate General during the Civil War. And that park sits immediately adjacent to the Citadel, the Military Academy of Charleston. On any given day you can see at any given time about 100 or 200 Citadel cadets jogging on the track of the old racecourse. There is no marker, there’s no memento, there’s only a little bit of a memory. Although a few years ago a friend of mine in Charleston organized a mock ceremony where we re-enacted that event, including the children’s choir, and they made me dress up in a top hat and a funny old nineteenth century suit and made me get up on a podium and make a stupid speech. But there is an effort, at least today, to declare Hampton Park a National Historic Landmark.
What the History of Memorial Day Teaches About Honoring the War DeadMemorial Day got its start after the Civil War, when freed slaves and abolitionists gathered in Charleston, S.C., to honor Union soldiers who gave their lives to battle slavery. The holiday was so closely associated with the Union side, and with the fight for emancipation, that Southern states quickly established their own rival Confederate Memorial Day.
Over the next 50 years, though, Memorial Day changed. It became a tribute to the dead on both sides, and to the reunion of the North and the South after the war. This new holiday was more inclusive, and more useful to a forward-looking nation eager to put its differences behind it. But something important was lost: the recognition that the Civil War had been a moral battle to free black Americans from slavery.
In “Race and Reunion,” his masterful book about historical memory, David Blight, a professor at Yale, tells the wistful story of Memorial Day’s transformation — and what has been lost as a result. War commemorations, he makes clear, do not just pay tribute to the war dead. They also reflect a nation’s understanding of particular wars, and they are edited for political reasons. Memorial Day is a day not only of remembering, but also of selective forgetting — a point to keep in mind as the Iraq war moves uneasily into the history books.
Less than a decade later in 1877 — when Reconstruction ended in the South — at New York City’s enormous Memorial Day celebration, there was much talk of union, and almost none of slavery or race. The New York Herald declared that “all the issues on which the war of rebellion was fought seem dead,” and noted approvingly that “American eyes have a characteristic tendency to look forward.”
There were dissenting voices. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist leader, continued to insist that Memorial Day should be about the battle between “slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization.” But the drive to make the holiday a generic commemoration of the Civil War dead won out.
The new Memorial Day made it easier for Northern and Southern whites to come together, and it kept the focus where political and business leaders wanted it: on national progress. But it came at the expense of American blacks, whose status at the end of Reconstruction was precarious. If the Civil War was not a battle to determine whether a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure,” as Lincoln declared in the Gettysburg Address, but a mere regional dispute, there was no need to continue fighting for equal rights.
And increasingly the nation did not. When Woodrow Wilson spoke at Gettysburg on the 50th anniversary of the battle, in a Memorial Day-like ceremony, he avoided the subject of slavery, Professor Blight notes, and declared “the quarrel” between North and South “forgotten.” The ceremony was segregated, and a week later Wilson’s administration created separate white and black bathrooms in the Treasury Department. It would be another 50 years before the nation seriously took up the cause of racial equality again.
Since 1913, Memorial Day has changed even more. It has expanded — after World War I, it became a tribute to the dead of all the nation’s wars — while at the same time fading. Today, Memorial Day is little more than the start of summer, a time for barbecues and department store sales. Much would be gained, though, by going back to the holiday’s original meanings.
Memorial Day also began with the conviction that to properly honor the war dead, it is necessary to honestly contemplate the cause for which they fought. Today we are fighting a war sold on false pretenses, and the Bush administration stands by its false stories. Memorial Day’s history, and its devolution, demonstrates that the instinct to prettify war and create myths about it is hardly new.
But as the founders of the original Memorial Day understood, the only honorable way to remember those who have lost their lives is to commemorate them out in the open, and to insist on a true account.