Freed slaves observed the country’s first Memorial Day

Just over a week ago, I attended the funeral of my uncle, Alvin Hill, the 9th of 12 children. Alvin served in the army in the South Pacific during World War II; his ship was torpedoed, willing to risk all that this nation might remain strong and free. He was wounded by shrapnel,hung onto the side of his ship in the Pacific Ocean for 36 hours. As he watched his brothers in arms give up one by one, he was just at the point of letting go, he saw a light far off and continued holding in the hopes that he would be rescued.  Alvin received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for heroism during combat in New Guinea.

My grandmother gave six sons to the United States Army during World War II. All wore the uniform proudly, even though full equality and justice was denied to them. They fought because they believed that one day, this nation would live up to it's creed. Unfortunately, when it came time to recognize the mother in St. Louis with the greatest number of son's serving this country during World War II, my grandmother was overlooked and a white mother with five sons serving in the military was recognized. My father, a Korean War Veteran and Alvin's brother, is the last surviving sibling.

Today, as this country celebrates Memorial Day, another group of African Americans contributions are also overlooked. Black history is often suppressed and the history of Memorial Day is tied to a group of ex-slaves whose ceremony would later become he basis and foundation of Decoration Day, which is now Memorial Day. 

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Excepted from the Digital Journal: The port city of Charleston is where the Civil War started in April, 1861, but by the spring of 1865, the city was nearly deserted of its white population. The first Union troops to enter the city and march up Meeting Street were the Twenty-First U. S. Colored Infantry, and it was their commander who accepted the formal surrender of Charleston that day.

While the city may have been deserted by most of the white folks, there were over 10,000 freed slaves who gathered to greet the Union Army. The story goes that these freedmen and women dug up a mass grave containing the bodies of 257 dead Union soldiers, only to rebury them on May 1, 1865 in a cleaned up and landscaped burial ground.

For two weeks in April, former slaves had worked to bury the soldiers. Now they would give them a proper funeral. The procession began at 9 a.m. as 2,800 black school children marched by their graves, softly singing "John Brown's Body." Soon, their voices would give way to the sermons of preachers, then prayer and — later — picnics. It was May 1, 1865, but they called it Decoration Day.

They built an archway with a placard that said "Martyrs of the Race-Course," and buried the bodies with a ritualized remembrance celebration, attended by thousands of people, white and black. The ceremony was covered by the New York Tribune and other national newspapers of that day. For over 50 some odd years, white Charlestonians tried to suppress the memory of that first Decoration Day, but the memory has been rediscovered and has a certain amount of profound meaning, if not the fact that it has been brought back into its historical context.

A few years ago, the city of Charleston and the state government authorized plans for a historical marker in Hampton Park to honor the first Dedication Day. Harlan Greene, director of archival and reference services at Avery, said the time is right; "Charleston has begun to recognize its African-American history." On May 2, 1865 the Charleston Daily Courier reported, the exercise began with the reading of a Psalm. The crowd sang a hymn, then prayed. Everyone in the procession carried a bouquet of flowers.

"We're approaching a tipping point," Greene said. "The irony of the story is that Charleston is the cradle of the Confederacy, but the memorial was for Union soldiers. It shows the richness of Charleston history."

The Charleston Post and Courier article, "The First Memorial Day", stated the May 1, 1865 ceremony had been mentioned in some history books, including Robert Rosen's "Confederate Charleston," but the story gained national attention when David W. Blight, a professor of American history at Yale, took interest. He discovered a mention of the first Decoration Day in the uncataloged writings of a Union soldier at a Harvard University library. He contacted the Avery Research Center in Charleston, which helped him find the first newspaper account of the event. An article about the "Martyrs of the Race Course" had appeared in the Charleston Daily Courier the day after the ceremony. Blight was intrigued and did more research. He published an account of the day in his book, "Race and Reunion." Soon he gave lectures on the event around the country.

"What's interesting to me is how the memory of this got lost," Blight said. "It is, in effect, the first Memorial Day and it was primarily led by former slaves in Charleston." While talking about the Decoration Day event on National Public Radio, Blight caught the attention of Judith Hines, a member of the Charleston Horticultural Society. She was amazed to hear a story about her hometown that she did not know. "I grew up in Charleston and I never learned about the Union prison camp," Hines said. "These former slaves decided the people who died for their emancipation should be honored."

Three years former slave honored Union Soldiers, General John Logan issued a special order that May 30, 1868 be observed as Decoration Day, the first Memorial Day — a day set aside “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.”, as mentioned in the article, "Who Invented Memorial Day?"