NEW HAVEN, CT -What was once a little known fact is now being outed by Yale University history professor David Blight, who, 15 years ago was doing research for a forthcoming book when he stumbled upon a box of unorganized papers of a Union veterans’ organization.
Blight discovered that three years before the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic called on Union veterans’ organizations to decorate the graves of dead soldiers, blacks in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865 launched the first Decoration Day in honor of the Union’s war dead, says Yale University history professor David Blight.
Black Ameerica Web reports, “That ceremony on May 1, 1865 was actually the first recorded Decoration Day or Memorial Day,” said Blight, author of several books, including "Reunion and Race."
Today, the national observance on the last Monday in May still serves as a day to remember those who died in wars. It’s also mixed with parades, picnics and other displays of patriotism.
Blight was in a Harvard University library doing research for "Reunion and Race" about 15 years ago when he stumbled across a box of unorganized papers of a Union veterans’ organization and a folder with the words “First Decoration Day” written on it.
He sifted through those papers and landed on a research path that would take him to South Carolina and the former Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a place that was once a prestigious horse racing course for the state’s low country planters and others in the wealthy, aristocratic class.
During the Civil War, that track was turned into a prison for Union soldiers. Many died there, but were not buried properly, Blight said.
Following the Confederate surrender ending the Civil War, blacks went to the place where hundreds of prisoners had been buried, many in mass graves.
“Blacks, many of them recently freed slaves, buried the soldiers properly. They put up a fence around the area and painted it. More than 260 were buried there. We don’t know the names. We don’t know the race,” Blight told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Following the burials, there was a ceremony.
Blight found more information about the rites in old newspapers and magazines such as Harper’s Weekly. Several large newspapers from the North would send reporters into the South to cover the war and its aftermath, with some writing narratives with great detail, Blight said.
“At 9 a.m. on May 1, a procession stepped off, led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing. The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens," Blight said. “As many as possible gathered in the cemetery enclosure; a children’s' choir sang 'We'll Rally Around the Flag,' 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. This was their way of saying what the war meant to me and what America means to me. They were now freed men and women.”
According to Blight, they paid tribute to the dead on the very grounds where the wealthy enjoyed the good life.
“Some of their former owners probably went to the track," he said. "Some of the people who buried the dead soldiers and carried flowers may have even worked at the track.”
Finding an account of the celebration at the track led by blacks proved to be quite difficult for Blight, at first.
“That shows that some parts of history can be lost, depending on who is in control,” Blight said. “You have to realize that the white Democrats in South Carolina soon returned to power. The Republicans were out of office. The blacks were out of office. Southerners did not want to remember the war, especially through an event such as this.”
Recognition of the Memorial Day event finally did come to Charleston. Last year, a historic marker was placed on the grounds, now the site of a park located near the Citadel, a prestigious military academy.
Blight was invited to speak at the dedication of the marker, along with Bernard Powers, a history professor at the College of Charleston.
The dead who had been buried on the racetrack grounds were reinterred a few years after the Decoration Day and buried in a national cemetery in the 1880s.
But memories of those blacks and whites who died fighting in the war and those who paid tribute to fallen Union soldiers the first time have not gone away, Blight said.
“This shows that even at a time when blacks did not know what the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution would mean for them, they appreciated those who fought so that they all would have a right to claim this as their country – those who died a terrible death so that they could be free.”