Memorial Day is here.
Think barbecues, lemonade. A precious three-day weekend full of sun, sales and slacking off. But this is The Root, and you know there’s another part of this story.
Little-known fact: African Americans created Memorial Day.
Rewind to the end of the Civil War. In 1865, Charleston, S.C., was in ruins, and many Union soldiers were being held prisoner in a converted racecourse. At least 257 of the captives died because of the horrific conditions, and their bodies were discarded in a mass grave.
Later, a group of black workmen dug up the bodies and reburied them to properly honor the fallen.
On May 1, 1865, over 10,000 people—recently freed slaves, black schoolchildren, colored soldiers and their allies—held what was the first Memorial Day parade.
“They paraded around the racetrack, and then they gathered as many as could fit into the cemetery compound; about three or four black preachers read from Scripture,” said David Blight, a professor of history at Yale and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery. His research is responsible for bringing this little-known history to light. The historian says that the white South controlled much of the nation’s narrative, which explains why this heroic story was practically erased.
“Can one imagine that someday children will grow up learning this story, instead of Paul Revere’s ride, or Lincoln at Gettysburg?” Blight told The Root.
See the entire video above.
Correction: 05/31/21, 01:06 p.m. ET: At minute 01:46 in the above video, David W. Blight misstates the song sung during the first Memorial Day parade. They sang “John Brown’s Body.”