On May 1, 1865, thousands of newly freed Black people gathered in Charleston, S.C., for what may have been the nation’s first Memorial Day celebration. Attendees held a parade and put flowers on the graves of Union soldiers who had helped liberate them from slavery.
The event took place three weeks after the Civil War surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and two weeks after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It was a remarkable moment in U.S. history — at the nexus of war and peace, destruction and reconstruction, servitude and emancipation.
But the day would not be remembered as the first Memorial Day. In fact, White Southerners made sure that for more than a century, the day wasn’t remembered at all.
It was “a kind of erasure from public memory,” said David Blight, a history professor at Yale University.
In February 1865, Confederate soldiers withdrew from Charleston after the Union had bombarded it with offshore cannon fire for more than a year and began to cut off supply lines. The city surrendered to the Union army, leaving a massive population of freed formerly enslaved people.
Also left in the wake of the Confederate evacuation were the graves of more than 250 Union soldiers, buried without coffins behind the judge’s stand of the Washington Race Course, a Charleston horse track that had been converted into an outdoor prison for captured Northerners. The conditions were brutal, and most of those who had died succumbed to exposure or disease.
In April, about two dozen of Charleston’s freed men volunteered to disinter the bodies and rebury them in rows of marked graves, surrounded by a wooden, freshly whitewashed fence, according to newspaper accounts from the time.
Whites erasing Black history from the national narrative and creating depoliticized holidays for white national reconciliation? I know I am shocked.