Monday, May 31, 2010

How The Freedmen Started Memorial Day

Like most Americans, my earliest memories of Memorial Day involve cookouts with family and friends.  It's hard to imagine kicking off the summer without something fresh off the grill and old stories.  In fact, some of my favorite childhood memories involve my mother's barbecue mutton and stories created on Memorial Day.

In addition to those American traditions, Memorial Day also reminds me of cemeteries.  I'm not talking about Arlington National Cemetery or any of the countless others dedicated to those who served in our nation's military.  I'm talking about any neighborhood graveyard where members of your family are buried.

In the African-American culture--particularly in the South--Memorial Day is about honoring all of those who have passed, not just those in the military.  So even despite my father serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, our Memorial Day celebrations were more about grandparents and uncles rather than colonels and privates.

Once I was old enough to understand the military aspect behind Memorial Day, I assumed the reason black Americans honored all family members on this holiday was due to the fact that African-Americans--both civilians and enlisted men--suffered so many indignities at the hands of military personnel over the course of hundreds of years.  Thankfully, I didn't allow my ignorance and assumptions to cement such a belief in my mind.  Instead, they led me to research and a proud discovery.

Some might call this a little known Black History fact, but this is straight American history:  Memorial Day was actually started by African-Americans!

Now before you start trying to correct me with Wikipedia links to the holiday established on May 30, 1868 by Civil War General John Logan known as Decoration Day, allow me to share with you another story about honoring our nation's veterans that originates three years earlier.

In Charleston, South Carolina in 1865 Freedmen (freed slaves) celebrated at the Washington Race Course (today the location of Hampton Park). The site had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp for captured Union soldiers in 1865, as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, Freedmen 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. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of up to ten thousand, mainly black residents, including 2800 children, proceeded to the location for events that included sermons, singing, and a picnic on the grounds, thereby creating the first Decoration Day.

Wow!  Can you think of a better story of anyone honoring and celebrating the lives of American soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country?  If so, I would love to hear it.

The story of the Freedman was first discovered by Yale history professor, David W. Blight.  You can read more about it in Decoration Day: The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South.

During a lecture entitled, To Appomattox and Beyond: The End of the War and a Search for Meanings as part of his The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877 course at Yale, Blight talked about how the story of the Freedman was lost and how he happened upon it.  Here's an excerpt:

"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."

So while we all should give thanks on this Memorial Day--and everyday--to the millions of soldiers who have served this country in the various branches of our military, pardon me while I also honor those who first gave our country the idea for such a holiday.

God Bless America!

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