Memorial Day Spotlight: A Brief History of “Decoration Day”

Published on May 21st, 2020 by Enrichmond Foundation

ExPRT advisory team member, Janine Bell of Elegba Folklore Society, provided a history of the first Memorial Day, a tradition begun by former slaves following the U.S. Civil War.
Photos also provided by Ms. Bell.

The first Memorial Day was May 1, 1865 when black soldiers entered Charleston, South Carolina to celebrate the end of the Civil War and enslavement and their victories towards these goals. More than 250 Union soldiers had been buried in a mass grave at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, converted from a confederate society haven to a prison. Black workmen had just earlier re-buried the dead properly, creating a cemetery where the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course,” were inscribed at the entrance. Nearly 10,000 Africans, formerly enslaved, marched to the site led by almost 3,000 children in song. Sermons, prayers and breaking bread followed to give the dead a proper funeral. 

What we now know as Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. It was a tradition initiated by former slaves to celebrate emancipation and commemorate those who died for that cause.

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