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How a group of African Americans was almost erased from the history of Memorial Day

Small flags are placed in front of the graves at Arlington Cemetery for Memorial Day.
Small flags are placed in front of the graves at Arlington Cemetery for Memorial Day.
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer and a cherished three-day weekend, usually means cookouts, visiting national memorials, and hard-to-beat retail sales. But contemporary celebrations don't necessarily mirror the holiday's dark origins.

Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was created in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, one of the bloodiest wars in American history, which resulted in as many as 750,000 deaths between the North and South.

But a particular moment of postwar healing — an event often credited as the inspiration for Memorial Day and led by a group of newly freed African Americans — was almost purposely left out of the holiday's history.

Trying to identify Memorial Day's origins is a little tricky; dozens of cities have claimed to be the holiday's birthplace. But official credit is typically given to John A. Logan, a Union Army general who, on May 5, 1868, issued an order designating May 30 as an annual day of remembrance for fallen soldiers. (A century later, it became the last Monday in May.)

Logan simply asked for people to use flowers to decorate the graves of those lost in battle, "whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land" — a testament to the number of lives lost in the American Civil War.

But while Logan gets credit for his order, Yale University history professor David W. Blight says this may be because not all early Memorial Day celebrants — particularly recently freed slaves in 1865 — are remembered equally.

While researching at a Harvard University library, Blight came across an account from a Union soldier about an event held by newly liberated blacks in Charleston, South Carolina. After contacting the Avery Research Center in Charleston, Blight found an 1865 Charleston Daily Courier article that corroborated the soldier's story.

Hundreds of dead Union soldiers' bodies were kept in a mass grave at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which was used as a Confederate Army prison camp. However, when the Confederate Army fled the area at the end of the war, the newly freed African Americans went to the space to give the Union soldiers a proper burial. They then built a fence around the site, and erected a sign that read, "Martyrs of the Race Course."

On May 1, 1865, an estimated 10,000 people gathered to march around the track to honor the unnamed fallen Union soldiers who fought for their freedom. Blight said a New York Tribune writer noted that it was "a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before."

Three thousand black children carried roses and sang "John Brown's Body," a tribute to the fervent abolitionist, and "The Star-Spangled Banner," according to the report. Black women followed with flowers, wreaths, and crosses. Black men and Union soldiers followed behind them. By the end of the procession, the graves were covered in rose petals.

The ceremonial decorations are similar to those laid out in Logan's decree, but there is no historical evidence to suggest he took the idea from them.

Nonetheless, in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), Blight contends that African Americans were erased from the story by white Democrats after regaining control of state politics at the end of Reconstruction.

But, Blight wrote for the New York Times, "by their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade on their former owners' racecourse, black Charlestonians created for themselves, and for us, the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution,"

Upon being freed, one of the first things this group of black Americans did, like other Americans across the country, was pay tribute to the dead who gave their lives for their freedom. Today, Americans continue to do the same. And while this means we continue to remember those who have fallen in battle, Memorial Day also reminds us not to forget those who have fallen through the cracks of this holiday's story.