Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day. It is believed to have been initially proclaimed in 1868 to commemorate fallen Union and Confederate soldiers. The roots of the Memorial Day holiday, however, reach further back to Black South Carolina, where newly freed slaves expressed gratitude for the Yankee invasion that became the Civil War.
According to Black and White historians, those Black South Carolinians, “understood the necessity for celebrating the legacy of fallen soldiers who fought to make them free,” said Civil War historian Carroll Gibbs of the Carter G. Woodson Association for the Study of African Life and History in Washington, D.C.
Gibbs told the AFRO that the origin of Memorial Day is another example of the Black contribution to American culture, one hidden in the annals of history.
“It is important that more of us know the role Black folks played in the struggle to commemorate and preserve our legacy to keep sacred the sacrifices to end slavery and protect the North by Black and White soldiers of the Union Army,” said Gibbs.
Gibbs said the Memorial Day tradition also stems from several precursor ceremonies, such as the small group of people who, in October 1864, grieved over Civil War dead in Boalsburg, Pa. in a small ceremony.
However, a better documented Memorial Day observance occurred in Charleston, S.C. on May 1, 1865, when freed slaves reinterred the remains of hundreds of Union prisoners of war from mass graves to fenced-in plots, Yale University historian David Blight told Black Radio Network May 27.
“A procession stepped off led by 3,000 Black school children carrying arm loads of roses and singing,” he said. “The children were followed by several hundred Black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.”
“Then came Black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other Black and White citizens,” said Blight, who is White. “As many as possible gathered in the cemetery enclosure; a children’s' choir sang `We'll Rally Around the Flag,’ `The Star-Spangled Banner’ and several spirituals before several Black ministers read from scripture….They were now freed.”
More than 10,000 people participated, the Yale historian said. “It is the first post-Civil War commemoration of the Union dead,” said Gibbs.