Decoration Day (Memorial Day). 1865. Thousands of Black Charlestonians, most former slaves, conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. 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 twenty-eight 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.
Continue reading “The First Decoration Day” by David W. Blight.