As many of us spend Memorial Day with our families and friends, we thought it would be appropriate for us to remember the service of African-Americans throughout the history of the USA, as well as clear up a few misconceptions.
Did African-Americans establish Memorial Day?
The idea that African-Americans created what we know today as Memorial Day does have it's merits but a closer look at the facts tells us a different story, albeit still full of historical significance.
In April 1865, the freed slaves of Charleston, South Carolina came together to initiate an extraordinary effort to honor 257 dead Union soldiers whose bodies had been dumped in a mass grave in a confederate prison camp.
The residents, aided by teachers and white missionaries from Charleston, spent 2 weeks digging up the bodies and reburying them in proper graves. The land where the new graves had been dug was cleaned, landscaped and made fit to honor the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers.
On May 1st, 1865, almost 10,000 people attended a service to commemorate the dead soldiers and lay flowers at their graves. The majority of the attendees were recently-freed black slaves and the day came to be known as an important marker of African-American agency.
While there are several places (mostly in the South) which claim to have been the birthplace of Memorial Day, the official establishment of Memorial Day via an order from Major General John. A. Logan to formalize what was previously known as 'Decoration Day', a tradition of laying flowers on the graves of war heroes.
Major Logan's order decreed that Memorial Day should be observed on the last Monday of May to increase the likelihood of flowers being in full bloom.
A Brief History Of African-American Military Service
Black people have a long and often checkered history of Military Service. From the early days of slaves and even freedmen being used as fodder, to more recent wars where thousands of young African-Americans have been lured into service by the opportunity to escape from the institutionalized poverty which restricts every aspect of their existence.
Take the 54th Massachusetts Infantry for example. During the civil war, they were one of the original black units to become part of the Union forces. The unit was given the task of leading a charge on a Confederate fort near Charleston, South Carolina but suffered heavy casualties despite the incredible bravery of many soldiers, most notably Sgt. William H. Carney who put his own life on the line to lead his unit when the original unit leader was killed in battle. Sgt. Carney later became the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal Of Honor in May of 1900.
Another prominent figure in African-American Military history was Major Martin Robison Delaney. Not only was he the first black Field Officer in the U.S. Army but he was also instrumental in recruiting other black men and winning over blacks in Confederate areas. He was a strong advocate for black rights and was even granted an audience with Abraham Lincoln, who was impressed enough to call him "a most extraordinary and intelligent man".
Major Delaney later won a place at Harvard Medical School but was removed a few weeks later after white students protested at his presence. This brief synopsis does very little justice to such an amazing individual and we would urge you all to research his life further.
There are countless other stories of the heroism of African-American soldiers, despite the obstacles they faced in being accepted as equal members of a society they were willing to give their lives for. Despite these obstacles, there can be no doubt regarding the bravery and dedication African-Americans have shown in fighting and making the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
On this day, we ask you to commemorate and give thanks for all those who gave their lives so we could live ours in freedom and prosperity.