Happy Memorial Day! You hear this sentiment from co-workers, store tenders, people you pass on the streets, and all-over social media; this phrase proves to be a conundrum for those who understand the true meaning of Memorial Day, a day of reflection, respect, and remembrance for those who gave their life for their country; a day that should not be trivialized with the standard greeting of celebratory frivolity. Often confused with Veterans Day, which is observed on November 11 annually and pays respect to and celebrates the service of all U.S. military Veterans, Memorial Day had its start immediately following the Civil War, as a way to honor and remember all those who died while fighting for our country, Union or Confederate, one and all.
First dubbed as Decoration Day in reference to the act of leaving flowers and flags on soldiers’ graves, this day has always been thought to have its first official commemoration on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. Here more than 5,000 participants gathered to honor the fallen and took part in decorating more than 20,000 graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. A recent discovery, in 1990, produced a box of First Decoration Day artifacts and manuscripts found in the depths of the Houghton Library at Harvard University; this find shed a new light on the earliest known celebration of Memorial Day which actually occurred on May 1, 1965, in Charleston, South Carolina by newly freed African Americans.
Transformed into a prison for Union soldiers, the Washington Racecourse and Jockey Club of Charleston had a mass grave behind the complex for the bodies of the deceased prisoners who lost their lives due to the horrific conditions of the camp. Once the Confederate army abandoned the city, it left a population of newly freed slaves who immediately took on the job of ensuring these fallen heroes were commemorated through an honorable burial. A cemetery was built, and the bodies were interred in proper burial plots with an inscription on the surrounding fence “Martyrs of the Race Course.” On that first day in May 1965, thousands of freed slaves along with white missionaries gathered together to honor the fallen soldiers. The ceremony included a parade, singing, formation marches and prayers; all to pay homage to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Today, to honor our fallen soldiers from all U.S. violent conflicts and wars, who have given their lives for their country, please give of yourself; volunteer for a military organization, place flowers or flags on military graves, slow down your everyday enough to remember, reflect, and respect the memory of these heroes, these warriors who gave everything so we are able to live in a country where we are safe and free. This Memorial Day, pause for these warriors, share the story of the history of this day so that others may also take a pause to remember why we are able to call our home, the United States of America; it is not without the greatest sacrifice of all – of so many. Good Memorial Day to everyone, may we never forget-