Written By DeArbea Walker
Korean War veterans of an all-Black and first-ever to be formed Ranger unit during the Korean War. Melina Mara/ The Washington Post via Getty Images
Newly-freed African Americans who fought in the Civil War decorated soldiers' graves on the first cited Memorial Day on May 1, 1865.
More than 10,000 formerly enslaved people and white missionaries held a parade at a race track in Charleston, South Carolina.
Memorial Day became a national holiday in 1889.
The origin of Memorial Day is hotly debated, with many cities across the country claiming to have been the birthplace of the first celebration. Those include Waterloo, New York and Carbondale, Illinois, among others. However, in Charleston, South Carolina, it is thought that one celebration occurred prior to any other in the country. In 1865, newly-freed African Americans who were fighting in the Civil War decorated soldiers' graves in the first recorded Memorial Day celebration, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, David W. Blight.
At that point, it was called "Decoration Day."
According to Blight's 2001 book, "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory," on May 1, 1865, more than 10,000 formerly enslaved people and white missionaries held a parade where school children, members of the Black Union battalions, and Black religious figures marched around a racetrack in Charleston.
"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," Blight told History.com of the discovery in 1996.
James Redpath, a white director of Freedmen's Bureau (an organization that helped establish schools for newly freed slaves), had over two dozen Union officers, missionaries, and Black ministers give speeches as attendees sang songs like, "We'll Rally around the Flag" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Later that afternoon, three white and Black Union officers marched around the soldier's graves and gave a tribute. The New York Tribune described it as "a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before."
Blight wrote in his book, "The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration."
According to Blight, for many years, "white Charlestonians suppressed from memory this founding." Allegedly, roughly 50 years after the Civil War, someone at the United Daughters of the Confederacy asked the Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston if the commemoration on May 1, 1865 actually happened and a woman said, "I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this."
That denial was routine for many archivers in the area.
By 1868, the Memorial Day celebration under the direction of General John A. Logan, the president of a Union Army veterans group was written into the historical record. He urged Americans to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers at Arlington Cemetery with flowers on May 30th.
In 1889, Memorial Day became a national holiday.
Roughly 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, most from disease.
Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday in the month of May. It is a federal holiday honoring those who have died while serving.