Monday, May 28

A day to remember

Joyeux anniversaire ma chère amie, Cécile!

While enjoying your holiday weekend (and Cécile's birthday) please remember those who have died for your freedom.

Memorial day has its origins in Decoration Day, which began during the Civil War among Freedmen (freed slaves) and other Black American families, as a celebration of both black and white Union soldiers who fought for liberation and justice. Together with teachers and missionaries, Blacks in Charleston organized a May Day ceremony on May 1, 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers.

During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves.

The sheer number of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, who perished in the civil war meant that burial and memorialization would take on new cultural significance. Particularly under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had already taken shape. 

The freedmen had cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, "Martyrs of the Race Course." Nearly 10,000 people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the dead. Involved were 3,000 schoolchildren newly enrolled in freedmen's schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, and black ministers and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field.

In 1865, the federal government began a program of creating national military cemeteries for the Union dead; Decoration Day was soon expanded (and de-politicized) from its origins in Black America to the broader Memorial Day tradition more well-known today.

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