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Mon, 05.01.1865

The First American Memorial Day is Commemorated

Black residents of Charleston, 1865

*On this date in 1865, former Black slaves started Memorial Day in America.

This occurred at The Charleston Racetrack (below), in Charleston, SC., after the American Civil War.  It was to honor about 257 dead Union soldiers buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for two weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom.  With teachers and missionaries, Black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony that year which the New York Tribune and other national papers covered.

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.  About 3,000 Black schoolchildren were 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.

David W. Blight of the New York Tribune described the day: "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.”

Today the site is used as Hampton Park.

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