The Overlooked Black History of Memorial DayHistorians in the News
tags: Civil War, Reconstruction, African American history
The work of honoring the dead began right away all over the country, and several American towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Researchers have traced the earliest annual commemoration to women who laid flowers on soldiers’ graves in the Civil War hospital town of Columbus, Miss., in April 1866. But historians like the Pulitzer Prize winner David Blight have tried to raise awareness of freed slaves who decorated soldiers’ graves a year earlier, to make sure their story gets told too.
According to Blight’s 2001 book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, a commemoration organized by freed slaves and some white missionaries took place on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C., at a former planters’ racetrack where Confederates held captured Union soldiers during the last year of the war. At least 257 prisoners died, many of disease, and were buried in unmarked graves, so black residents of Charleston decided to give them a proper burial.
In the approximately 10 days leading up to the event, roughly two dozen African American Charlestonians reorganized the graves into rows and built a 10-foot-tall white fence around them. An archway overhead spelled out “Martyrs of the Race Course” in black letters.
In 1996, Blight stumbled upon a New York Herald Tribune article detailing the tribute in a Harvard University archive — but the origin story it told was not the Memorial Day history that many white people had wanted to tell, he argues.
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