Upon the impending celebration of Memorial Day, it seems entirely appropriate to shed light onto the history of this holiday—one that is known and understood by far too few.
The origins of Memorial Day date back to a time in American History when the hard-fought end of the Civil War did not immediately bring much absolution to the exhausted American people. With a president shot dead, racial tensions high, eleven states bitter and largely impoverished, and over 620,000 men killed over the four years of battle, the nation remained unsteady and full of fear. The need for a uniting force, or a variety of commemoration practices to assuage the wounds of war, was evident. “Decoration Day” arose from this very time period as a form of peaceful remembrance of the fallen. The details and focus of the holiday that would eventually come to be known as Memorial Day are a bit clouded, however, as the game of attribution and memory after the Civil War often left the truth glossed over.
Some scholars say the very first Decoration Day was celebrated in May of 1865—just weeks after the war’s official end. African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina were, in fact, arguably the first to celebrate a Decoration Day in a large and proper capacity. On May 1,1865 thousands of African Americans decorated the graves of “the Martyrs of the Race Course,” a burial ground that lay upon a Prisoner of War camp where over two hundred Union Soldiers perished. As the concept of Decoration Day took root in the country, it seemed there were many voices that wanted to claim the holiday for their own, and use it as a generalized event of reconciliation and reverence to fallen soldiers, conveniently omitting involvement of African Americans in the history of its inception.
Memorial Day developed not only into a day of flowers rested atop graves, but also a day of parades, picnics, dedications, and speeches. (Still to this day, the Boy Scouts of America flag every grave in national cemeteries such as the Presidio in SF.) While the tensions of race and politics never truly disappeared, Memorial Day came to be a staple of the reconciliation of loss. It has arguably not, however, equated reconciliation of race. While at its inception, the holiday served as an admirable catalyst for white reconciliation, the majority of Memorial Day celebrations did little in the aim of actual atonement for the country’s greatest sin—namely, generations of slavery. Perhaps, however, that was never the point.
Today, many of us believe we have arrived at a contentious and pivotal time in society where it seems a reckoning has at long last arrived for the wrong-doers, abusers, and power drunk, the true story of Memorial Day is relevant in a multitude of ways. We are the country that appropriates the work of those we do not want to emulate, because to give credit would be to give power. From music to fashion to dance and a smattering of other intrinsically influential aspects of culture, the country has imbibed itself on the work of African Americans. Listening to what they listen to, dancing the way they dance, speaking the way they speak, and in the case of Memorial Day, mourning the way they mourned. In ways it may look like we are so far from the tangled roots of our own nation’s Civil War, but the disparity of equality amongst races is a plague America bides every day.
At Bob Cut, we’re not accustomed to dropping socio-political knowledge on you as frequently as some of our other content. As functioning members of society—and in a city as historically liberal and radical as San Francisco—we would be remiss to wholly remove narratives such as these from our conscience. We’ve got an attribution problem, America. So in addition to commemorating fallen heroes on this day, we all may also want to work through our own understanding of America’s social structure—and rethink the racial misgivings and violence that precipitated this holiday in the first place.
// Feature photo courtesy of The Library of Congress; have something to add to this essay? Why not drop us a line.
Isabella Welch is a graduate of UCLA with a degree in history. Her writing has been featured in history journals, travel blogs, arts & culture magazines, and more. Director of Editorial & Creative Development at Bob Cut Mag, lover of stories and tinto de verano, she’s usually found wandering the Headlands.