Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day and the Former Slaves Who Started It

h/t Kris Broughton at Big Think/Resurgence for starting me on this trail. I'm all for honoring the fallen each Memorial Day. I want to honor all the fallen, though, and this is my contribution to that end. From another perspective it's a good case study of how history may be "lost" and how it can be rediscovered.

Broughton's May 30 post popped up on my Blogger reading list with the headline "S.C. Black Freedmen Organized First Memorial Day Celebration In 1865"-- and after replacing my uppers, I went straight to Wikipedia, font of all wisdom. Sure enough, the Memorial Day entry says, and I quote:

Formerly known as Decoration Day, which was first recorded to have been observed by Freedmen (freed enslaved southern blacks) in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865, at the Washington Race Course, to remember the fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War. Today, what is now known as Memorial Day, is a day of reflection and recognition of ordinary people who sometimes visit cemeteries and graves to honor their deceased relatives while also commemorating all U.S. Service Members who died while inmilitary service.[2] The recognition of the fallen victims was then enacted under the name Memorial Day by an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)[3] — to honorUnion soldiers of the American Civil War. Over time, it was extended after World War I to honor all Americans who have died in all wars.

I knew about the expansion after WWI part, but not the prior history of the holiday. That never got mentioned, somehow, in the required history that was covered during my military service.

After a quick skim of the Wikipedia entry, I dutifully went to the Broughton post. Seems he had been inspired by a Ta-Nehisi Coates post at The Atlantic... (with some quite cogent comments there, by the way, and not too much racist chaff, as TNC screens for that)

...which was in turn inspired by an excellent David Blight article in the New York Times...

...which drew upon research Blight had done some time earlier, and earlier discussed near the end of...

...a lecture he gave about the end of the Civil War called "To Appomattox and Beyond: The End of the War and a Search for Meanings." [video at the link, transcript available here]

Back to the Resurgence/Big Think post, there was one link I had skipped so I went back for it. The link leads to an article titled "Slaves Started Memorial Day" that was republished in May 2010 by the L.A. Watts Times. (This Brian Hicks article first appeared under the title "The First Memorial Day" on May 24, 2009 in the [Charleston, S.C.] Post and Courier. It may be read here.)

The Hicks article also brings a bit more of the local view and that makes it worth a read.

1 comment:

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It was May 1, 1865, but they called it Decoration Day. On that day, former Charleston slaves started a tradition that would come to be known as Memorial Day ...