Memorial Day Started by Slaves

Did You Know?

Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May, 1, 1865, (post Civil war) in Charleston, SC to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who were buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp? They dug up the bodies working for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. Afterwards a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children marched, sang and celebrated.

During the Civil war, Union soldiers, who were prisoners of war being held at the Charleston Race Course, died and were buried in unmarked graves. Together with teachers and missionaries, Black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers.

The Black freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, and built an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Nearly ten thousand people, mostly Black freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the dead soldiers. Involved were 2800 school children newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, Black ministers, and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field.

Today the site is used as Hampton Park. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.

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