Monday, May 29, 2017

African-Americans invented Memorial Day

The graves on the racecourse
When I was a child, my mother would take me to the cemetery on what she called "Decoration Day" to check the placement of the memorial flowers which the management was paid to place on the graves of family veterans, including ones who fought in the Union army during the Civil War. They pretty much always located them wrong; we'd move the vases ... I remember feeling bemused by the ritual.

Yale historian David Blight has made it his business to correct the national memory of Memorial Day as a part of the project of correcting the wider historical understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. In Race and Reunion, he documents how the white Southern side won the history after losing the battles and tries to retrieve a more truthful story.

As part of a Yale Online Course he told the story of the first Memorial Day.
[In April 1865, shortly after the South surrendered to the Union army] ... the black folks of Charleston had planned one more ceremony. That ceremony was a burial ceremony. It turns out that during the last months of the war the Confederate Army turned the planter's horse track, a racecourse — it was called the Washington Racecourse — into an open air cemetery — excuse me, prison. And in that open air prison, in the infield of the horse track — about 260-odd Union soldiers had died of disease and exposure — and they were buried in unmarked graves in a mass gravesite out behind the grandstand of the racetrack. And by the way, there was no more important and symbolic site in low country planter/slaveholding life then their racetrack.

Well, the black folks at Charleston got organized, they knew about all this. They went to the site. They re-interred all the graves, the men. They couldn't mark them with names, they didn't have any names. Then they made them proper graves and they built a fence all the way around this cemetery, about 100 yards long and fifty, sixty yards deep, and they whitewashed the fence and over an archway they painted the inscription "Martyrs of the Racecourse."

And then on May 1 they held a parade of 10,000 people, on the racetrack, led by 3000 black children carrying armloads of roses and singing John Brown's Body, followed then by black women, then by black men — it was regimented this way — then by contingents of Union infantry. Everybody marched all the way around the racetrack; as many as could fit got into the gravesite. Five black preachers read from scripture. A children's choir sang the national anthem, America the Beautiful, and several spirituals, and then they broke from that and went back into the infield of the racetrack and did essentially what you and I do on Memorial Day, they ran races, they listened to sixteen speeches, by one count, and the troops marched back and forth and they held picnics.
In one marker that the South Carolina white planter class has so far won the battle for historical memory, the site of the racecourse is now "Hampton Park," named for Wade Hampton, a Confederate general later turned politician who is remembered for violently suppressing the Black vote.

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