Last month, we celebrated Memorial Day. The day is an opportunity for Americans to honor fallen soldiers who sacrificed their lives, so that the ideals on the founding documents could be perfected by those they fought for.
In light of our current political climate, Memorial Day offers another opportunity. That is the opportunity to teach Black history as an essential component of the American story.
No? Welp, let me explain… and while you may be wondering why I am talking about Memorial Day after the date has passed, it’s because Black history is taught 365 days a year baby… we don’t need a reason other than it’s a day on the calendar.
Memorial Day traditionally dates back to the late 1860’s with the calling of communities to decorate, or memorialize, the grave sites of Civil War veterans, Union and Confederate soldiers. However, according to historian David Blight, the first memorializing of soldiers—the first Memorial Day—was organized by recently freed African people with some white missionaries took place on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C., at a former planters’ racetrack where Confederates held captured Union soldiers during the last year of the war.
Charleston, S.C. is a seminal location in the history of the United States, where African people made a mighty mark.
Charleston is in what’s called the Lowcountry—a term to designate a region in South Carolina where the land is sunk lower into the water. Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston was once the largest port where more than 40% of all Africans, many from the rice growing regions of West African arrived to be enslaved.
The descendants of those West and Central Africans, the Gullah Geechee people—West African descended people who speak the only African creole language in the United States—retained West African ways of knowing and memory, displayed currently in their cuisine, artistry, music and language.
Charleston was one of the sites where “refugees” of Saint Domingue fled the righteous cause that was the Haitian Revolution. A man by the name of Telemaque, who once labored in Saint Domingue, heard of the revolution. After he purchased his freedom and renamed himself Denmark Vesey, he planned a massive rebellion of enslaved Africans in Charleston, soliciting support from Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer. However, the revolt was betrayed.
Charleston was home to Robert Smalls, who cunningly seized the Confederate warship, the Planter, while soldiers were out for a night on the town and sailed he, the crew and all their families to Union waters and to freedom.
As a result of the Civil War, Charleston was likely unrecognizable to Smalls had he returned. Charleston was bombarded with shells from the Union army in 1863, resulting in people fleeing the city in 1864. By February of 1865, the vast majority of Charleston’s reduced local population were people of African descent.
Confederate forces evacuated the city by February 17, 1865, with Union troops arriving the very next day. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry.
In South Carolina, February 18, 1865 is commonly known as Febteenth.
A few months later that year, well after Confederates left Charleston, Black workmen went to the site where Confederates converted the city’s horse race track into a prison, reburied the Union dead properly, built a high fence around the cemetery, and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
The newly freed African people of the Lowcountry staged a parade around the track of 10,000 people. According to Blight, the procession was led by Black school children singing John Brown’s Body—the song named for the abolitionist who led a rebellion of the enslaved and freed alike to make war on enslavement. Following the children, according to Blight, were Black women carrying flowers, wreaths and crosses, Black men and Union soldiers.
After the parade, folk gathered and enjoyed a meal… I’d like to think they had some African inspired barbecue. The New York Tribune described the tribute as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”
Sadly, the coverage of the event’s memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day. This includes renaming the gravesite Hampton Park after a Confederate general and having the graves reinterred at another site; legacy of the Lost Cause.
But the truth is that Memorial Day was founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. Some will only acknowledge Memorial Day as only a day to mourn fallen soldiers. But Memorial Day is a day in remembrance of Black resistance and Black liberation.