Remembering the Black Roots of Memorial Day and the Revolutionary Holiday That Might Have Been

Different stories told differently matter. Consider Memorial Day and the holiday that could have been if white media hadn’t erased Black history.

In May 1865, a week before President Abraham Lincoln declared the end of the Civil War, freed Blacks in Charleston, SC were already celebrating the defeat of the Confederacy. On May 1, the first “Memorial Day” (originally “Decoration Day”) occurred when ten thousand African Americans in Charleston held a parade to decorate the graves of 257 Black Union soldiers who’d been held prisoner, starved, and interred in a mass grave on a former plantation-turned-racetrack.

A handful of workmen had dug up and re-buried the dead. To honor them, on May 1, 1865,  members of the 21st US Colored Infantry marched up to the new Union cemetery, led by three thousand singing children and women with baskets of crosses and wreaths to decorate the graves.

Following a solemn dedication, the crowd held picnics, listened to speeches, and watched the victorious Black troops march in formation. “What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution,” writes historian David Blight, who dug up the original documents and published his account in a book in 2001.

We had a chance right then—especially White Americans had a chance—to celebrate that Second Independence Day of a Second Revolution every year. Every year, come Memorial Day, we could have been celebrating the defeat of the Confederacy and its superior race idea.  We could have been celebrating our liberation from the deadly practice and theory of white supremacy, and by now, after 156 years, it might have sunk in.

But we didn’t take that opportunity. Instead, white media, starting with white segregationist newspapers, rewrote the history, erased the African American part, and we’ve been fighting versions of the same old Civil War ever since.

Now a pandemic should be driving the lesson home once more: no racial identity brings immunity from a virus. We are one world. We have another chance to liberate ourselves from lies. Perhaps this Memorial Day, we could begin.

Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species.  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media.