Memorial Day Has Roots In Black History

by Gail V. Wells

According to Yale University historian, David Blight, former Black slaves honored dead Union soldiers in a ceremony that is seen as the precursor to the observation of the modern Memorial Day. When one says that Black History is American history, truer words were never spoken.

Although the exact origins of Memorial Day are disputed, the earliest recorded observation occurred on May 1st 1865 in Charleston, SC when 250-257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp were honored. Lead by freedmen (former enslaved Africans), they dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom.

The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 Black school children newly enrolled in Freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, Black ministers, and White northern missionaries.

Most brought flowers to be placed on the burial field The ceremony was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.
A subsequent memorial service was organized in 1866 in the village of Waterloo, NY by Henry Carter Welles and General John B. Murray to honor those who fought and died in the Civil War.

The House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously passed Resolution 587 on May 17th and May 19th, 1966 respectively that reads in part as follows: “Resolved that the Congress of the United States, in recognition of the patriotic tradition set in motion one hundred years ago in the Village of Waterloo, NY, does hereby officially recognize Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day…” Despite these early memorials some claim that the modern Memorial Day originated with an order issued in 1868 by Major General A. Logan, a Union soldier, who declared May 30th as “Decoration Day”. Decoration Day was renamed Memorial Day which was established as a federal holiday in1971 by Congress.

Yet David W. Blight described what occurred in 1865 this way: “This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is Black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, 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.”
Interestingly, “Decoration Day” was so closely linked with the Union cause that many Southern states refused to celebrate it. They acquiesced only after World War I, when the holiday was expanded beyond honoring fallen Civil War soldiers to recognizing Americans who died fighting in
all wars.

Some critics say the original focus — on, as Frederick Douglass put it, the moral clash between “slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization” — had been lost. According to the 2000 National Moment of Remembrance Act, which was passed to emphasize the meaning of Memorial Day.

All Americans should “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.”
Please join the Woman’s Auxiliary of the Jesse Clipper Post 430, the Copper Town Block Club and the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor on Monday May 27th in the Jesse Clipper Park (William and Michigan) in a Memorial Day Service honoring Jesse Clipper and the
African American soldiers from WNY who fought and died in combat.
All are invited.
This year a special ceremony will be held for the family of University District Council Member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt when his family receives a flag for his mother and medals that his father, Army Pvt. Norman Calieb Wyatt, never received.

Mr. Wyatt’s father was killed in the line of duty just months before he was born. Staff Sgt. Janet Smith was featured and acknowledged in the Buffalo News Monday in the “Saluting Our War Heroes” feature for her volunteer work with Veterans, and the help she gave the Wyatt family. Sgt. Smith, a 23 year veteran, has coordinated the Jessee Clipper Memorial Day ceremonies for the past five years.