History …does not refer merely to the past…history is literally present in all we do.
James Baldwin, “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes, ” 1965
“The Civil War is our felt history — history lived in the national imagination,” wrote Robert Penn Warren in his Legacy of the Civil War (1961). He continues, “when one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.” This is how the book Race and Reunion, begins (Harvard University Press, 2001) by Yale University History Professor, David Blight.
This holiday I am reminded a Race Track, one in Charleston, South Carolina – one that hosted wealthy planters’ horse races in as early as 1790. It was called the Charleston Race Course, the Planters’ Racecourse and Washington Racecourse, and it later became known as Hampton Park. But the story then took an illuminating turn. It was about what was became known as Decoration Day, May Day, the first day of May, 1865, in Charleston. Professor Blight argues that this was the very first Memorial Day in the United States. His book asks questions about why we remember history the way we do.
According to Professor David Blight, the first memorial day was observed on May 1, 1865 by over 9,000 liberated slaves, abolitionists and school children, who paraded with armloads of fresh roses and lilies, and who decorated the graves of the newly reinterred Union dead, at the Washington Race Course (today the location of Hampton Park) in Charleston, South Carolina. This certainly was one of the first public events which set into motion the rituals that we today have come to know as Memorial Day.
The site had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp. Conditions were less than optimal and 257 Union soldiers died there and were buried in a mass grave. The African American Freedmen, along with black church leaders in Charleston, organized and dug up the bodies of the dead Union soldiers from the mass grave and reburied each body in an individual grave with a cross; they built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch, declaring these “The Martyrs of the Race Course”. In conjunction with James Redpath and the missionaries and teachers among the freedmen relief associations at work in Charleston, blacks planned a May Day ceremony that a New York Tribune correspondent called ” a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” 10,000 people, including the all black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, paraded from the area, followed by much preachin’, singin’ and picnicin’.
But over the years, in the South, “many of the states of the U.S. South refused to celebrate ‘Decoration Day’, due to lingering hostility towards the Union Army and also because there were relatively few veterans of the Union Army who were buried in the South.” It was too closely linked to the Union cause.
Hopefully, we are far enough from this history to heal the long and troubled memory of the Civil War. I vote for more singing and picnicking together.