Memorial Day is a day I associate with the smell of barbecue and sounds of music in backyards. It’s a day celebrated by people in this country of all backgrounds, and therefore, it’s a holiday whose own background has been disputed. Some people trace Memorial Day back to former Union soldiers, a few people even trace it back to families of Confederate soldiers, but the most popular and widely debated theory is that the first Memorial Day was celebrated by freed slaves.
Some historians consider the first celebration of Memorial Day to have taken place in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. On that day, a group of freed slaves gathered at a former Confederate prison, where hundreds of union soldiers died, and they dug up a mass grave of Union soldiers to give them proper burials in individual graves. The burials were followed by the gathering of townspeople to sing songs, leave flowers at graves, and hear sermons delivered by Black preachers. But despite the truth that there was a ceremony held by freed slaves on May 1, the first widely recognized holiday didn’t come about until three years later, when Major General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic declared May 5th, 1868, the first “Decoration Day.” On that day, a U.S. Army General gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and thousands of attendees proceeded to adorn the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and flags.
That is the day the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs recognizes as the first celebration of Memorial Day, but it’s not the day all Americans acknowledge. For generations, many Southern states refused to recognize either of these days as Memorial Day, and in a few states, a Confederate Memorial Day is still officially observed on either Confederacy President Jefferson Davis’s birthday, or on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, which painfully and ironically falls on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In addition to Confederate Memorial Day, there are many towns in both the North and South that claim to be the home of the first Memorial Day, including Richmond, VA and Waterloo, NY.
The truth is, there really is no “first Memorial Day”. The concept of decorating a fallen soldier’s grave is older than our country itself, and following the Civil War, Americans had a lot of graves to decorate. Towns across a war torn United States had dozens of their own first Memorial Days. That being said, the celebration held by freed slaves in May of 1865 was one of the earliest recorded versions of what our Memorial Day looks like today, and one of the largest of its time. At this point, with the facts we have, we choose how to recognize Memorial Day for ourselves. That speech given in Arlington Cemetery may be widely recognized as the first Memorial Day, but that doesn’t mean I can’t personally recognize the work of freed slaves in Charleston instead.
Surreal Lewis is a student who lives Windsor Hills. He’s currently in his first year at Columbia University in New York City. [email protected]