by Jack R. Johnson
In his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Professor David W. Blight declared that our first official recognition of Memorial Day began not with Union Soldiers, or Confederate soldiers for that matter. But rather with liberated slaves who wished to honor the Union Dead.
According to the Charleston Post and Courier, on a Monday morning, May, 1865, nearly 10,000 former slaves marched onto the grounds of the old Washington Race Course, where wealthy Charleston planters and socialites had gathered in old times. During the final year of the war, the track had been turned into a prison camp. Hundreds of Union soldiers died there and were buried in mass graves.
For two weeks in April, former slaves had worked to re-inter the Union soldiers in proper individual graves.
On May 1, 1865, they sought to give them a proper funeral. The procession began at 9 a.m. as 2,800 black school children marched by their graves, softly singing “John Brown’s Body.”
According to the Post and Courier, Former slave children strew flowers on the graves as they walked past. After “John Brown’s Body,” they sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America” and “Rally Round the Flag.” By the end, the graves looked like a massive mound of rose petals.
Soon, their voices would give way to the sermons of preachers, then prayer and — later — picnics. It was May 1, 1865 — they called it Decoration Day, but on that day, former Charleston slaves started a tradition that would come to be known as Memorial Day.
The first official declaration of Memorial Day came decades later in 1971, as a federal holiday by Congress.