Former slaves honouring Black soldiers: Civil rights lawyer issues reminder of Memorial Day origins

Like the horrors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the first recorded Memorial Day celebration has been obscured in the American story

Clara Hill
Monday 31 May 2021 19:53 BST
Black service people have an under research aspect of their contribution to the honouring of American veterans
Black service people have an under research aspect of their contribution to the honouring of American veterans (Getty Images)

Today marks Memorial Day, and as with many American traditions, there are competing histories of its origin.

Memorial Day is, of course, a long-established federal holiday dedicated to honouring America’s veterans who have died in service. It lands on the last Monday in May. It began its life as “Decoration Day” and it started following the Civil War, a war with more than 600,000 solider causalities.

Later, it progressed to incorporate 20th century wars, such as the First and Second World War, Korean, Vietnam, and the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Biden is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan after a protracted US presence in the Middle Eastern nation.

One racial justice activist and lawyer spoke out on Twitter on Monday to assert that Memorial Day’s origins were not what most people thought, and nothing like what Gone With The Wind would have you believe.

“Let everyone know the truth: Newly liberated Black people in Charleston created Memorial Day to honor Black soldiers for their courage and tenacity after they fought on the frontlines of the Civil War,” wrote Ben Crump on Twitter.

According to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author exploring the life of Frederick Douglass, historian David W Blight of Yale University said the origins of Memorial Day did indeed stem from Black veterans.

Blight spoke to about his 1996 discovery about the role of Black soldiers in the genesis of the federal holiday.

“There was a file labeled ‘First Decoration Day’ and inside on a piece of cardboard was a narrative handwritten by an old veteran, plus a date referencing an article in The New York Tribune. That narrative told the essence of the story that I ended up telling in my book, of this march on the race track in 1865,” he said.

On 1 May 1865, according to newspaper archives uncovered by Blight, more than 10,000 people, mainly formerly enslaved people, put on a parade around the race track. This included schoolboys, members of Black Union battalions such as the 54th Massachusetts and Black relgious figures. It is believed to be the earliest Memorial Day celebration recorded.

Black history has often been swept away from the national conversation. That includes the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred 100 years ago as of Monday.

However, attempts have been made to rectify this through a remembrance festival. Earlier on Monday, President Joe Biden declared 31 May 2021 as a “Day of Remembrance”.

On 19 May, the last survivors of the attack on “Black Wall Street” testified before Congress about the impact the horrific violence had left on them.

"I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot," said Viola Fletcher, who at 107 is the oldest living survivor.

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