If honest, some black people find it difficult to fully embrace all the national holidays the country holds so dear. Memorial Day, however, stands as a shining exception. It is an example of how the darkest of human sentiments and bitter realities can be redeemed by the souls of black folk.
I was taught in school to love the Civil War and the benevolent North who came to free the slaves in the South. As an adult, my love of history led me to the ugly truth and suddenly, the Civil War and its heroes were not so lovely. The great Union General (and eventual President) Ulysses Grant was a slave owner, while Confederate General Robert Lee was not. Indeed, Grant is believed to have told the Chicago Tribune in 1862 that if he “thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission, and offer my sword to the other side.”
There’s also President Lincoln, a man I was taught to worship as the great liberator of slaves. However, while debating a rival Senate candidate he said, “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races, and I have never said anything on the contrary.” As for Lincoln’s plans in the event of emancipation, he told Congress (as President) in 1862, “I cannot make it any better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization (that is, establishing a separate colony for slaves outside of the U.S).” Perhaps this is why the U.S, for the first time, recognized Haiti as an independent country in 1862 and sent Frederick Douglass as its Consular Minister.
So I often have mixed feelings about the Civil War. But I have none at all about what happened May 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC. On that day recently freed slaves, school children newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools and others, gathered for a solemn occasion. They met at a burial ground they had landscaped and cleaned up. They came with flowers to honor those who fought for their liberation and justice. This occasion, created by freedmen, was known as “Decoration Day.” It soon spread, extended to veterans of all wars and came to be known as Memorial Day.
I would argue the celebration among blacks in Charleston was much more than an occasion to honor the dead. Historian David W. Blight says it best: “This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
He is exactly right. The first martyr of the American Revolution was a black man, yet we could not celebrate because liberation from Britain didn’t equal black liberation. To the freedmen, this war was different. This was their Independence Day, not the Fourth of July. Although it is true slavery was re-instituted after Reconstruction, I still reach back to the hope those freed slaves had after the Civil War. I connect with their view that this day- Decoration Day- is our Independence Day.