Sometimes things don’t go as planned, and this was one of those days. I started breakfast, glanced at facebook, and noticed on a post that there was a Memorial Day celebration and picnic at a cemetary a short distance from my home-that would start in about 30 minutes. One of the speakers mentioned was a person that I’d been wanting to meet for a while. Being both curious about the celebration and seeing the opportunity to meet this person, I ditched breakfast, got dressed, and headed out the door.
I arrived just a few minutes after the start time, and was able to hear the majority of the presentation that was given by Robert C. Watson, Assistant Professor of History & Assistant to the Dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Hampton University, which is located in Hampton VA. It’s also where I attended college. As you may know, one of the goals of Don’t Duck History is to give a voice to people in American history (and stories in general) who are often overlooked in traditional history textbooks, though it’s open to anyone who understands that sharing history is important. I was so pleased to hear that included in the speakers presentation was “The Importance of Remembering the Forgotten”. Specifically, the story was shared about what some believe to be the beginning of Memorial Day celebrations, a day called “Decoration Day”.
According to historian David Blight*:
During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters’ horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some 28 black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freed people. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”
At 9 a.m. on May 1, the procession stepped off led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.
Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathered in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens’ choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. (“The First Decoration Day,” Newark Star Ledger)
I was very pleased to see that several Boy Scout Troops from the area participated in the celebration by placing flags at the markers of each veteran as the veterans names were read; a Boy Scout tradition that was carried out across our country on this Memorial Day weekend. Even more pleasing was that the scouts (who I believe outnumbered other attendees) were introduced to a part of American history that they may likely not see in a school textbook. My guess would be some adults attending may have learned something new as well.
No, my day didn’t go as planned. Breakfast was late, and as it turned out the speaker that I had intended to try to meet wasn’t actually there. Lucky for me, I was able to share a bit about the Don’t Duck History project with Assistant Professor Watson after his presentation, and he expressed an interest in speaking about it further. How cool is that?
And finally, the icing on the cake. Yes, today was a good day!
*The quote from David Blight was found in an article that can be read here: http://www.liberationnews.org/revolutionary-origins-memorial-day-political-hijacking/