How “Decoration Day” in May 1865, Held by African Americans in South Carolina Led to Memorial Day

by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)

On Memorial Day 2022, we take a look at the African American origins of the federal holiday established to remember America’s fallen soldiers.

To read about it, read on. To hear about it, press PLAY:


[You can follow or subscribe to the Good Black News Daily Drop Podcast through Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, rss.com or create your own RSS Feed. Or just check it out every day here on the main website. Full transcript below]:

Hey, this is Lori Lakin Hutcherson, founder and Editor-in-Chief of goodblacknews.org, here to share with you a daily drop of Good Black News for Monday, May 30th, 2022, which is also Memorial Day, based on the “A Year of Good Black News Page-A-Day Calendar” published by Workman Publishing.

Although May 30, 1868 is cited as the first national commemoration of Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, events lead by African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers occurred on May 1, 1865, less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered.

Reports of this early version of Memorial Day or “Decoration Day” as it was called, were rediscovered in the Harvard University archives in the late 1990s by historian David Blight, author of the 2018 biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

To quote from history.com:

When Charleston fell and Confederate troops evacuated the badly damaged city, those freed from enslavement remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial. They exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall, whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

And then on May 1, 1865, something even more extraordinary happened. According to two reports that Blight found in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track.

Three thousand Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body.” Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.

Despite the size of the gathering and newspaper coverage, the memory of this event was “suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day,” Blight stated in the New York Times in 2011.

On May 31, 2010, near a reflecting pool at Hampton Park, the city of Charleston reclaimed this history by installing a plaque commemorating the site as the place where Blacks held the first Memorial Day on May 1, 1865.

During the dedication of the plaque, the city’s mayor at the time, Joe Riley, was present to celebrate the historic occasion which included a brass band and a reenactment of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.

In 2017, the City of Charleston erected yet another sign reclaiming the history and commemorating the event:

“On May 1, 1865 a parade to honor the Union war dead took place here. The event marked the earliest celebration of what became known as “Memorial Day.” The crowd numbered in the thousands, with African American school children from newly formed Freedmen’s Schools leading the parade. They were followed by church leaders, Freedpeople, Unionists, and members of the 54th Massachusetts 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Infantries. The dead were later reinterred in Beaufort.”

To learn more about African Americans’ role in the creation of Memorial Day, check out the links to sources provided in today’s show notes and in the episode’s full transcript posted on goodblacknews.org.

This has been a daily drop of Good Black News, written, produced and hosted by me, Lori Lakin Hutcherson.

Beats provided by freebeats.io and produced by White Hot.

If you like these Daily Drops, follow us on Apple, Google Podcasts, RSS.com, Amazon,Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Leave a rating or review, share links to your favorite episodes, or go old school and tell a friend.

For more Good Black News, check out goodblacknews.org or search and follow @goodblacknews anywhere on social.

Sources: