One of the earliest recorded Memorial Day events occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865.
Near the end of the American Civil War, Charleston was liberated by the famed 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, made up of all Black soldiers. Following liberation, freed slaves exhumed the bodies of Union soldiers that had been improperly buried in mass graves behind the grandstands at Charleston’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a makeshift prison responsible for the deaths of some 260 soldiers, mostly to exposure and disease. To ensure those lost in the great cause of freedom were laid to rest properly, the bodies were reverentially reburied in a new cemetery with a tall white fence inscribed with the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Following the reburial, a little known and remarkable event occurred. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of 10,000 mostly freed slaves, white missionaries, and Black schoolchildren carrying bouquets of flowers, held a parade around the Race Course to commemorate the Union soldiers lost there. This event is known as the earliest Memorial Day commemoration on record, preceding “Decoration Day” (1868), later renamed to the Memorial Day holiday we celebrate today.
For soldiers that have served and those that have lost a loved one in defense of this great nation, we remember. The price of freedom is high. It is our solemn responsibility to live in remembrance – to honor the lives and legacies of those that paid the ultimate sacrifice. Although it is not in our power to repay this great debt, we always remember, and they are never forgotten.