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Birth of Memorial Day begins with benevolent gesture by former slaves

How our ancestors honored America

Merdies Hayes | 5/26/2016, midnight
Before we fire up the grill, flock to the beach or flag down those holiday bargains, it’s important to remember ...

After the dedication of the cemetery, the crowds retired to hear speeches, have a picnic lunch, sing hymns and watch a parade of Union soldiers—much like a modern Memorial Day celebration. Hampton Park (named after former South Carolina Governor Wade Hampton) occupies the old racetrack-turned-cemetery. There is no marker to identify what transpired 151 years ago, nor is there mention of the historic cemetery on the park’s website. However, the site sits adjacent to the Citadel, the famous military academy whose cadets can often be seen jogging around the old track. There is an ongoing effort among some Charleston residents to declare Hampton Park a National Historic Landmark.

Celebrating a ‘homecoming’

By the mid-19th century, it was not unusual for Whites to witness Black persons care for the dead. However, it was once against the law for Blacks to give their loved ones a decent funeral and proper burial. In early 17th-century America, Blacks were prohibited from gathering together in any form. Slaves could not assemble or meet in a group for fear that they would plot a revolt against their master. When a slave died he/she was usually buried without ceremony on “non-crop” producing land in an unmarked grave, sometimes dug by slave children too young to work the fields. Therefore, the first African Americans were denied the opportunity to mourn their loved ones together and were not given an opportunity to publicly celebrate a life lived.

Slaves did play a major role in White funerals, particularly when a member of the master’s family died. House slaves were given the responsibility of washing, preparing and dressing the dead, as well as planning and servicing the repast. Africans, of course, had performed burial rites for centuries but with the introduction of Christianity, slave owners began to allow slaves to meet more often for religious services and funerals. Prior to that, slaves who worshiped Christ had to meet in so-called “hush harbors” for fear of being caught and punished. Whites were reportedly shocked to witness the behavior of slaves at funerals because they were happy, jubilant and celebrated the “homecoming” of their loved ones. Slaves had no hope of returning to their ancestral home(s), so death was often seen as “going to be with Jesus” and symbolized going home. As well, death was seen as a relief from the agony and humiliation of slavery and many slaves looked forward to leaving their squalid shacks for their “mansion in the sky.”

Once called Decoration Day

Between 1865 and 1868 up to 25 cities claimed to be the progenitor of Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day. About one year after the Charleston parade, the Ladies Memorial Association in Columbus, Ga. set aside April 26 as a day to “wreath the graves of our martyred dead” with flowers and encouraged other southern women to do likewise. In many southern states, April 26 is still celebrated as Confederate Memorial Day. On May 5, 1866, residents of the small town of Waterloo, N.Y. closed their businesses and flew flags at half-staff in commemoration of the Civil War dead; it was 100 years later that President Lyndon Johnson and Congress officially declared Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day, mostly because historians had long forgotten the old Charleston story.