Memorial Day’s Black History: A Forgotten Legacy

Many understand Memorial Day to be a time to commemorate the fallen veterans of all wars and conflicts. Its origin began as “Decoration Day” after the American Civil War where over half a million lives were lost.

Although the birthplace of the federally recognized holiday is contested, the U.S. government declared the annual commemoration began in Waterloo, New York in 1866 with people laying flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers. Recently, however, historians such as David W. Blight state that formerly enslaved people decorated soldiers’ graves the previous year – a historical truth often incorrectly documented and suppressed by white Charlestonians.

President Abraham Lincoln, with young son Tad and Senator Charles Sumner, salutes a detachment of African-American Union troops in Richmond, Virginia at the end of the American Civil War. Published in 1883, the illustration is now in the public domain. Digital restoration by Steven Wynn Photography.

In Blight’s book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” he writes that the first commemoration took place in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1st in 1865 after many soldiers were buried in unmarked graves. To give the soldiers a proper burial, two dozen African American Charlestonians shifted and organized the graves into rows circled by a fence and archway marked “Martyrs of the Race Course” in preparation for remembrance.

On the day of commemoration, 10,000 mainly Black residents held a parade, sang songs, delivered speeches and sermons, and ended with a Union regiment march. It was described by the New York Tribune as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” Now many people believe and honor this as the actual first Memorial Day remembrance.

Learn More: The Overlooked Black History of Memorial Day

The Forgotten Black History of How Memorial Day Started | Time

Learn More: Memorial Day HistoryThe facts behind Memorial Day’s controversial history (