Beyond the Cookout: Black Folks Started Memorial Day! 

The African-American history of the federal holiday has been nearly wiped from public memory, the history books and most  official accounts.

Memorial Day has long been known as a holiday to celebrate and honor America’s soldiers. It’s also the day that officially kicks off summer, a seasonal beginning that is typically celebrated with family gatherings,  cookouts, picnics and fun in the sun. 

But did you know that on May 1 in 1865, former Black enslaved Africans  started Memorial Day in America?

This occurred in Charleston, SC., after the American Civil War.  It was to honor about 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom.  Together with teachers and missionaries, Black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony that year which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers.

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 on May 1st 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. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.

The myth-busting research website Snopes, which also acknowledges that Blacks founded the Memorial Day, says the commemoration was formalized by an order issued in 1868 by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, who called for the annual decoration of war graves.           Not surprisingly, Logan is – incorrectly – often credited with founding Memorial Day . 

Today the site is used as Hampton Park.