How Memorial Day Originated In Black Communities

Juneteenth celebration at Emancipation Park circa 1880
Briona Lamback
May 26, 2021

Before there was Memorial Day as we know it now – cookouts with Frankie Beverly and Maze playing – there was a group of Black Charlestonians who held the first celebration in honor of the Black lives lost during the Civil War.

As the war came to an end, Black Union soldiers who had been captured and then left to die were tossed into mass graves at a race course converted into a Confederate prison. 

But a group of formerly enslaved Black people dug up nearly 300 bodies, determined to create proper burial sites for their people.

Just three weeks after the defeat of the Confederate South, on May 1, 1865, a group of 10,000 people – mainly the formerly enslaved – gathered in what would become the country's first official "Memorial Day" parade.

In honor of the “Martyrs of the Race Course,” our ancestors laid flowers, sang hymns, Black pastors delivered sermons, and they barbecued too. 

But this painful and damning truth isn’t the version of Memorial Day that whites wanted. So they rewrote history.

The inaugural Black-led celebration was practically erased from history by white Charlestonians, who wanted a version of the holiday that didn’t mention the truths of the Civil War. 

Despite the constant erasure of our history, we must continue to honor our ancestors by remembering the truth!

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