History has not settled on the origins of the holiday we now celebrate as Memorial Day.
According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly two dozen places claim to be the birthplace of the holiday. Yale historian David W. Blight places the origin in Charleston, South Carolina, in the waning days of the Civil War. By May, 1965, most white Charlestonians had fled the city but thousands of formerly enslaved Black residents remained and carried out demonstrations. On May 1, they gathered at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which had served as a Confederate prison camp where hundreds of Union soldiers died under filthy and deplorable conditions. They were memorialized as “The Martyrs of the Racecourse.”
According to the New York Tribune, “At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing ‘John Brown’s Body.’ The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses …. when all had left, the holy mounds — the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them — were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond … there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.”
This Memorial Day, as we reflect on our gratitude for those who gave their lives in defense of our country, we also honor our ongoing triumph over enslavement, repression and injustice.