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Decoration Day, May 1, 1865: Nation’s first Memorial Day

Happy Decoration Day!

The Good Genes Genealogy team remembers when our Maternal Great Grandmother Edna Robinson would rise early in Omaha, Nebraska with family members so that they would be the first at the cemetery to clean and decorate the humble grave markers. On both sides of my family, we visited the relatives who were buried primarily in Omaha’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. It was a solemn time, yet a memorable time for me as a child. 

Many family members who transitioned before Aunt Beverly had humble grave markers that were reminiscent of the enslaved grave markers of rocks or humble engravings on stone.


Little did I know that the humble celebration of the lives of our deceased relatives was born in the kind and respectful practices of Black formerly enslaved women and children. I was unaware because the stories that were passed along through the last century, focused on the well-earned service of U.S. military men and women. However, the origins of Memorial Day are historic, especially for African Americans whose ancestors lived in South Carolina. 

“Make sure you are telling the right story,” said Bishop Jack L. Bomar, presiding minister of Atlanta’s Hillside International Truth Center. On the eve of Memorial Day, Bomar reminded the in person and online, worldwide congregation, “Before it was called Memorial Day, it was originally known as Decoration Day.”


The Civil War was closing in April 1865 after the Union troops entered the city of Charleston, S.C. Historical accounts reveal that most of the white residents fled the city years earlier. The Black residents of Charleston remained to celebrate and welcome the troops, including the Twenty-First Colored Infantry. It was May 1, 1865 and the first-named Decoration Day later became known as Memorial Day. Even current-day accounts neglect to give credit where credit is due. However, noted historians are reviving the original founding of Memorial Day with great detail.

Historian David Blight retold the story:

During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some 28 black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. The

y whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freed people. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

At 9 a.m. on May 1, the procession stepped off led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.

Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathered in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens’ choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals be

fore several black ministers read from scripture. (“The First Decoration Day,” Newark Star Ledger).

This grave marker is of an unknown slave. It was placed on this tree after likely being tossed in a Florida storm.

54th Massachusetts Infantry

The Colored 21st Infantry and the Colored 54th Infantry are both credited for its direct and indirect involvement in the celebration of the first Decoration Day. From the archives of the University of Southern California:

Assigned to command the assault on a South Carolina Confederate fort during the battle at Battery Wagner in July 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry of the Civil War was composed primarily of freed black slaves from northern Union states.

Though the siege was unsuccessful, the heroism of a number of members of the infantry drew the attention of the nation. In particular, Sgt. William Carney risked his life to lead the troops forward, erecting the Union flag. He suffered two bullet wounds but survived, going on to become the first African American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his unprecedented courage.

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