The First Decoration Day

Formerly enslaved Black people inspired the establishment of Memorial Day.

Charleston, South Carolina, where the Civil War began in 1861, lay in ruins by the spring of 1865.

In the late stages of the Civil War, the Confederate army transformed a Charleston country club into an outdoor makeshift prison for captured Union soldiers. The soldiers were kept in horrible conditions; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

When Charleston fell and Confederate troops left the ruined city, Blacks freed from enslavement remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to move the bodies of the Union soldiers to a new cemetery. They labored for two weeks to give them a proper burial in gratitude for fighting for our freedom. An archway over the entrance of the new cemetery was inscribed with the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

On May 1, 1865, a crowd of 10,000 people, the majority of them formerly enslaved Black people, held a parade around the race track. More than 2,800 Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred Black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses. Several Black ministers recited verses from the Bible. The famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th US Colored Troops performed a special double-columned march.

“Black Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day”

The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. Following the ceremony, the crowd enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill.

A New York Tribune correspondent described the event as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” This makes the 1865 gathering at the Charleston race track one of the earliest Memorial Day commemorations on record.

The national observance of Memorial Day began in 1868 when the Union veterans organization called on all former northern soldiers and their communities to conduct ceremonies and decorate the graves of their fallen comrades. Years later, in the 1880s, the Union soldiers’ graves were moved from the humble white-fenced graveyard in Charleston to the Beaufort National Cemetery.

The details of this history were recovered in 1996 by David W. Blight, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for History. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, as well as annotated editions of Frederick Douglass’s first two autobiographies.


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