The First Memorial Day Ever Recorded Was Held by Newly Freed African Americans in South Carolina

The club house at the race course where Union officers were confined. (Photo from the Library of Congress.)

“This was a story that had really been suppressed both in the local memory and certainly the national memory. But nobody who had witnessed it could ever have forgotten it,” says History and African American studies scholar Dr. David Blight.

The mention of Memorial Day easily conjures images of cookouts, military ceremonies, and gravesite visits, and yet, the stories of how these traditions were born are still under-told.

Fundamentally we’re taught that Memorial Day is about remembering the veterans who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice to secure our freedoms as Americans, but what’s too often omitted is that the first Memorial Day celebration on record dates back to 1865 when newly emancipated Black people in Charleston, South Carolina exhumed a mass grave for Union soldiers who made that sacrifice toward the end of the civil war.

Union soldiers were held as captives by the Confederacy in Charleston’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a country club that had been converted into a prison. When the Union army seized Charleston, emancipated peoples honored the sacrifices of the brutalized and discarded soldiers who died in prison by giving them a new burial, according to

In a grand gesture of care, the emancipated exhumed the mass grave of roughly 260 Union soldiers in April 1865 and reinterred each soldier in their own grave in a new cemetery they built with a tall white-washed fence; the effort took about two weeks according to the College of Charleston. On the fence, free Black Americans wrote the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

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SOURCE: The Grio, Sytonia Reid