The Black Roots of Memorial Day

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Some history….

the end of this our Fourth Century in this tortuous land draws inexorably ever closer, it is well that we do some deep remembering. Remembrance is a necessary, essential, exercise in order to keep the present in proper perspective.

A proper appreciation of the past renders the future accessible, even malleable. We must know where we came from before we can decide where we are going, in which direction…and, crucially, why.

“Memorial Day” is a touchstone for black people. Most of us, though, have not the slightest inkling as to its “meaning” for us. Yes, yes. I know I’m six months ahead of myself here. But the true story of “Memorial Day” is 154 years in the making.

Indeed, I wrote this essay on Memorial Day weekend seven years ago. I saw the new movie “Harriet” a couple of weeks ago and decided then and there to honor Sistah Tubman not just with a ”review” of that work of art, but with with this re-print as well….More importantly, to also remember, to honor, to commemorate, to appreciate and to thank all, as James Baldwin so eloquently put it, the “Many Thousands Gone.”

“This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

Did you know that freed black slaves invented Memorial Day?

The Huffington Post has published a fascinating piece by Jim Downs, author of Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford U.P., May 2012). Downs is also an associate professor of history at Connecticut College.

The Bodies Had Not Yet Been Buried

May 1, 1865, freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina met by the thousands to remember, honor, and commemorate the deaths of Union soldiers, and to celebrate the end of the American Civil War, and, yes, to confirm and affirm their hard-won freedom.

Ten Thousand black people, including 3,000 school children newly enrolled in new Freedmen’s Shools, mutual aid society members, Union troops, black preachers, and white northern missionaries — all marched down Charleston’s main street to remember the fallen, to thank the fallen, to let the world know that there was a new dispensation in this now really united United States of America.

“Decoration Day”

1868, General John Logan issued a Special Order that May 30 would forever be observed as “Decoration Day,” the first Memorial Day. It was to be a day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.”

The first few Decoration Day commemorations following Charleston’s were not universally recognized or celebrated. But, the federal government — controlled by the “Radical Republicans” — began setting aside the very first “national” cemeteries specifically for those killed in the war. They began with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s own home and expansive grounds (including the “slave quarters”) at Arlington, Virginia.

Throughout the North, from New York to Michigan, Decoration Day slowly became an official state-by-state holiday as the 1870s progressed.

As Professor Downs details, in the South, from each April to June, white women and little white girls dressed in white, and prayed under the first statues erected in commemoration of their white Confederate heroes. They recounted war stories about their brave white husbands, white fathers, white sons, white brothers, white uncles, white cousins, and white nephews — white men who had been lost in the “The War Between The States,” “The War of Secession,” or more often,”The War of Northern Aggression.” This is where and when began the meme of “the Lost Cause” and The Great White Hope that “the South shall rise again!”, that “state’s rights” had not really been “defeated” and will some day resurge and finally, righteously, win.

By the early 20th century, as America’s imperial role in the world began to take shape, many surviving and now aged, white Civil War veterans, fearful of being forgotten, began to embrace Decoration Day as a national holiday.

But, again, it was the newly freed black people of Charleston who originally got the ball rolling. Yes, those black folks recognized and honored all those who had fought and died for their freedom. But their celebration was much, much more, much deeper than a simple pause to remember dead soldiers.

Black Disease and Black Death

rofessor Downs unpacks the War as a complex and complicated process that involved the deaths of hundreds of thousands of former black slaves, as well as the more than 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the war. We know little or nothing of the “astonishing mortality of many ex-slaves.”

Professor Downs’ HuffPost piece shows us that thousands upon thousands of black slaves liberated themselves from chattel slavery by escaping from those prison-plantations, prison-farms, and concentration camps before and throughout the war. But their escape was fraught with more than the expected risks and dangers of being caught and returned to bondage.

These already desperate people entered a “free world” that was plagued with cholera, smallpox, dysentery, and yellow fever. These were little understood, devastating diseases for which the barely-above-primitive 19th century medical establishment had no answer. And, setting a pattern which has endured right up until this morning, black people’s affliction and suffering from these illnesses was grossly disproportionate to their numbers vis-a-vis white people.

Indeed, according to Professor Downs, the almost unimaginable numbers of both black soldiers and black civilians who died during the war did so not from battle-related injuries, but from disease and sickness. As he puts it, “the war became the largest biological crisis of nineteenth-century America.”

For example, most ex-slaves did not have access to proper shelter, food, and clothing. Without these life-sustaining staples, they were defenseless when a smallpox epidemic hit Washington, D.C. in 1863. The pox spread like wild fire to and through the Lower South and Mississippi Valley in 1864 to 1865.

A military official in Kentucky called smallpox a “monster that needed to be checked,” while another federal agent described the “severity and almost malignancy of the epidemic,” and predicted that “before the coming summer is over it will decimate the colored population.”

He was right. In the end, this one epidemic killed over 60,000 former slaves in the space of five years.

At the same time, other, equally virulent diseases compounded the death toll among black people exponentially to well over one million people — that’s more than twenty-five percent of the newly freed population.

Playing Dead

have all seen the grisly daguerreotypes and grainy photographs prominent in Civil War history books of almost exclusively white officers and enlisted men. We see them, posed it seems, frozen in death on the battlefield, or piled like so much cord wood into mass graves. And white folks today never tire of reminding black folks that they fought to free us…and then wave these pictures in our faces as blood-drenched talismans and proof positive thereof.

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What we don’t see, what is rarely, almost never depicted are the newly freed dead black people. (Let alone the 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who fought in that war, as well — 40,000 of whom died of disease, not from combat injuries).

White soldiers’ deaths during the Civil War are rightly commemorated. Those deaths are also much more valued and meaningful to white America’s self-image, and those deaths allow white people today to pretend that they have always been on the side of “freedom.” Those haunting images feed the heroic mythology that is white America.

Indeed, white folks’ deaths during the war are actually “reenacted” annually by thousands as a useful, even fun, hobby on now Memorial Day weekend. White folks get to play dead.

But there is no reenactment of the deaths of one million former black slaves who died of disease and sickness during and immediately after the war. I suppose there could never be such a spectacle. It’s entertainment value is negligible — depicting people dying horrible, slow deaths in the frozen woods and backwaters of these United States.

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Besides, as the good professor says, “there was no chance of them coming back to life in a costume worn by an admirer a century later.”

This is the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

As you chomp down on some “baby back” ribs, hot dogs, and hamburgers; or as you visit your deceased loved ones at the cemetery, pause, please, for just a moment.

ry to remember that it was the most despised people of the day — and, some argue of this day — freed black slaves, who created Memorial Day.


Originally published at

Freelancer since the earth first began cooling. My beat, justice: racial, social, political, economic and cultural. I’m on FB, Twitter, Link,

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