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Fact: African-Americans Commemorated the First Memorial Day

Each year on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day comes around — a national day of observance where the United States calls on citizens to remember those in the armed forces and those who lost their lives serving in any of the nation’s wars. American culture teaches that this national holiday gets its origins from May 5, 1868, when Union commander General John A. Logan chose May 30th as “Decoration Day” by calling on communities to decorate the graves of those who died protecting the Union during the Civil War, which ended just three years earlier on May 9, 1865.

However, this was not the first instance where people came together and organized activities and ceremonies to commemorate Memorial Day. On May 1, 1865, African-American communities held the first Memorial Day commemoration in Charleston, South Carolina. In the final year of the Civil War, Union soldiers were captured and held prisoners in Charleston’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which the Confederates transformed into a prison camp. Approximately 257 Union soldiers died and were buried all in a single, massive grave. After the war ended, Black freedmen dug up the grave, burying each of the Union soldiers individually “as gratitude for their [African Americans’] freedom.” The freedmen then built an archway over the entrance of the burial site, engraving “Martyrs of the Race Course” on it, providing the soldiers with the proper burials deserved for their deeds.

In addition to the burials, the African-American community held a procession, wheres thousands of people gathered together to remember the deceased. According to the African American Registry, the procession involved residents from all places – Union troops, Black ministers, and white missionaries from the North – and was led by 3,000 black children, all newly enrolled in schools instituted for the families of free black slaves. The New York Times states that the commemoration included picnics, readings from the Bible, and the singing of national songs and spirituals by the black children’s choir.

It’s important to know the true origins of significant events that occurred within our nation, not the white-washed history American society created and tries to perpetuate. The first Memorial Day was created and consecrated by African American freedmen in 1865, and their remembrance and observance lives on.

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