David W. Blight is a man whose work I respect. In his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the author describes how freed African slaves provided our nation with the first Memorial Day observance on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C. Union soldiers had been held as prisoners of war at a make-shift Confederate prison camp (then a horse racetrack, and now Hampton Park ). More than 250 died and were buried in mass, unmarked graves there.
The former slaves dug up the bodies of those Union soldiers and worked for two weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. “Together with teachers and missionaries, black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony that year which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers,” according to an entry in the African American Registry.
Blight, a class of 1954 Professor of American history at Yale University and director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, describes the day: “This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
Nearly 10,000 people attended the event. The newly freed slaves, along with Union troops and white northern missionaries placed an arch on site with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
In war, our sons and daughters too often return with shattered souls or bodies. My prayer for this Memorial Day is that we as a nation learn how to care for and respect the sacred lives that pledged to defend us. Let’s make sure that this nation will not send them into harm’s way unnecessarily.
May we love, live and vote in ways that make such possible. Do you have a family member who has gone to war for his or her country and paid the ultimate price? Name them here so we can lift them up in prayer.
Inez Torres Davis is director for justice for Women of the ELCA.
Photo in public domain @ Library of Congress: Club house at the race course in Charleston, S.C., where Federal officers were confined.