Why Former Slaves Can Claim the First Memorial Day

Every year since its publication in 2011 I share a piece written by historian David Blight that lifts the veil on what is very likely the first Decoration (Memorial) Day celebration. It’s a wonderful example of how history is lost and later remembered and why. On May 1, 1865 Charlestonians black community (mainly former slaves) gathered at the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, where Union prisoners had been kept during the war. They decorated graves, listened to patriotic speeches, and beautified the grounds with new paint and built an archway over the entrance that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

Yesterday historian Ethan Kytle shared a wonderful newspaper clip from a speech delivered by James Redpath in 1869 in which he explains why this event should be remembered as the first Decoration Day celebration.

There is a boldness in the way Redpath makes his argument, especially in his insistence that this celebration was “confined to the decoration of the graves of the soldiers of the Union.”

Kytle’s recently co-authored book with Blain Roberts – which I can’t recommend enough – offers much more detail about the history and memory of this particular event. It turns out that it has been remembered and forgotten more than once.

It is entirely appropriate that over 150 years later it is former slaves who offer a reminder of the true meaning of Memorial Day to all Americans.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

7 comments… add one
  • Lawrence Glickman May 27, 2018 @ 9:46

    What Blight doesn’t note is that James Redpath was the New York Tribune correspondent who wrote the article he cites.

  • Billy Bearden May 26, 2018 @ 10:39

    Kingston, Georgia holds the Honor of the first Memorial Day, April 26, 1865, where women placed flowers on graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers.
    Charleston is legitimately the 2nd Memorial Day

    • Kevin Levin May 26, 2018 @ 16:38

      Does it satisfy all of Redpath’s conditions?

      • Billy Bearden May 27, 2018 @ 0:36

        Does the Kingston Decoration Day of April 26 1865 meet the standards set forth by England born John Brown supporter Redpath?
        “Both races”?? Reckon that leaves out Hispanics, so no, the precident set by Georgians both in Kingston 65 and Columbus 66 doesn’t meet his dictates.
        As the son of a highly decorated 3 war US Army veteran buried in Arlington National Cemetery, having some politician spout political speeches at cemetery services is the wrong thing at the wrong place at the wrong time, so again, Kingston and Columbus don’t meet his dictates, because it is simply honoring and remembering the fallen soldiers.
        But then the widows and children of the deceased soldiers don’t need to be told by someone not from either this continent nor this section of the country how to decorate graves, what two races should receive flowers, or to be sure to include political speeches over their loved ones during a time of mourning.
        I’m proud that people began the process of Decoration Day and it became what we now know as Memorial Day,

        • Kevin Levin May 27, 2018 @ 2:15

          I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there is an answer to the question of who celebrated the first Memorial Day or when it took place. If you need it to be white “Americans” so be it.

          • Billy Bearden May 27, 2018 @ 15:30

            It was Redpath who wanted 2 races. I said he excludes Hispanics. I forgot to include Indians among others too.
            I never said anything about white Americans – that was you.
            I was pointing out Redpath was either racist for excluding the other races, or so out of touch with the actual ethnicity of the military forces he couldn’t see beyond black and white.
            In either case, Redpath had race issues for sure – witness his own writing in your post

            • Kevin Levin May 27, 2018 @ 15:31

              I forgot the Confederacy was a progressive experiment in race relations. How silly of me. Thanks, Billy. LOL

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