Through the fog of history, several groups lay claim the invention of Memorial Day. To some extent that is because the holiday has had different names. To some extent, the fame of starting one of America’s great traditions is irresistible. A group of Black American’s has as much of a claim, or better, than anyone else’s.
Memorial Day, and its antecedents were meant to remember America’s fallen soldiers. It became a particularly large celebration after the Civil War. In 1868, the holiday was Decoration Day. According to the U.S Department of Veteran Affairs:
Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
The Southern Historical Society Papers put the founding much later. It was, however the celebration for Confederate soldiers in 1906. In the book “The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday” authors Dr. Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware write that 25 cities across America made claims that the holiday began in their municipalities.
The holiday’s history shows that a group of Black American’s holds a claim as good, if not better than any other group. According to Time magazine’s “A Brief History of Memorial Day:
The exact origins of Memorial Day are disputed, with at least five towns claiming to have given birth to the holiday sometime near the end of the Civil War. Yale University historian David Blight places the first Memorial Day in April 1865, when a group of former slaves gathered at a Charleston, S.C., horse track turned Confederate prison where more than 250 Union soldiers had died. Digging up the soldiers’ mass grave, they interred the bodies in individual graves, built a 100-yd. fence around them and erected an archway over the entrance bearing the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.” On May 1, 1865, some 10,000 black Charleston residents, white missionaries, teachers, schoolchildren and Union troops marched around the Planters’ Race Course, singing and carrying armfuls of roses. Gathering in the graveyard, the crowd watched five black preachers recite scripture and a children’s choir sing spirituals and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” While the story is largely forgotten today, some historians consider the gathering the first Memorial Day
Based on this history, and the date of the celebration, the 1865 date trumps any other.