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Started by Charleston residents honoring Black Civil War soldiers, Memorial Day is an American holiday using African customs

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Today’s celebration of Memorial Day, recognizes dead soldiers and in particular, those who were in combat when they served. Yet, Memorial Day origins actually trace themselves back to formerly enslaved and free Blacks in Charleston, South Carolina who honored Black Civil War soldiers buried in disgrace. 

The current narrative locates Memorial Day in white lives and in particular, those who served and supported the Confederate Army. On the contrary, Memorial Day is very much rooted in African and indigenous rituals of honoring ancestors.

For years, the first Memorial Day was credited as a multi-sited event springing up from the insistence of white wives, sisters and daughters of fallen soldiers in the Confederate and Union armies. The earliest evidence of white participation points to Sue Landon Vaughan who called for a “Decoration Day” on April 25, 1965. During this time, she implored for the barren graves of Civil War soldiers to be consecrated in the white-only, military cemetery in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. As a tribute, she laid pink roses on them.

| Read: Ceremony to rebury old remains of Charleston’s early enslaved ancestors |

Yet, weeks before Vaughan’s tribute, dozens of organizers in Charleston had already started to prepare to re-inter 257 bodies of Black soldiers held as prisoners of war in the area. While detained, they were starved and tortured until many died. Eventually, the slain military forces were buried in a mass grave without any recognition. 

Five days before Vaughan’s decoration tribute, it was recorded that dozens of volunteers in Charleston reconstructed burial plots according to local Black custom. Bodies would be laid facing the east.  As well, a 10-foot white picket fence was put up along with an iron archway at the entrance announcing, “Martyrs of the Race Course”. The white fence in some West African traditions symbolizes the crossing over, while the iron fence stands for entering into a sacred, protected site.

According to research by Pulitzer Prize winning historian, David Blight, the May 1, 1865 commemoration drew 10,000 participants. The day included a parade with 3,000 children singing Union songs. Additionally, Black pastors and white missionaries officiated a ceremony at the site. 

Blight says that so many flowers were placed on the plots of the graves that “the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them.” From then on, Memorial Day evolved into a celebration of ancestors for Black Charlestonians.

The role of South Carolina in the Civil War

1st Louisiana Native Guard 1861. Photo credit National Archives.

Civil War battles in South Carolina played a significant role for the Union Army to win. Famed Underground Railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman also served as an officer in the Civil War who led a key victory in the state. 

| Read: Black spies played pivotal roles in the US Civil War |

After learning of a Confederate stockpile of ammunition and supplies in South Carolina, Tubman led a regiment of colored troops down the Combahee River on June 2, 1863 and into battle. They burned down most of the large slave plantations, thus freeing 750 people.

While in combat, Tubman also served as a spy, cook and nurse for the Union. Since she was only paid $200, to survive, she set up a small bakery in Charleston selling baked goods and root beer to escaped slaves, soldiers and residents. 

| Read: Fine-dining chef collective conjures complex meals over tough conversations at pop ups |

Not only did Charleston serve as an important site in the Civil War, it was a booming antebellum city. Full of skilled artisans, crafts persons and those who worked in architecture and construction, Charleston had a burgeoning Black working class. This demographic would be part of the Memorial Day celebration held on May 1, 1965.

Erasing history

So how did this critical fact get lost? Just like much of American history involving contributions from the under-represented, it gets revised.

During this time, the Daughters of the Confederate remapped the memory of the war. Confederate soldiers who were traitors to the United States at the time of the war, were held up as heroes in the South. As white Confederates gained local celebrity, Black contributions and contributors were erased. So much so, local Daughters of Confederate said there was no mass community memorial on May 1, 1865. Rather, a gathering at a cemetery, which became the common thought until Blight produced information from one of the local papers at the time.

Today, Black Charlestonians are still holding ceremonies honoring their dead. In 2019, they held a ceremony for 36 unearthed bodies of enslaved Africans dating back 250 years. Like their forebears who started Memorial Day, they used African traditions and pointed the bodies facing east.

Kaia Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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