We Did It, They Hid It: How Memorial Day Was Stripped Of Its African American Roots

24 Posted by - September 24, 2022 - BLACKS IN THE MILITARY, We Did It And They Hid It

Written by: Ben Becker

What we now know as Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. It was a tradition initiated by former slaves to celebrate emancipationand commemorate those who died for that cause.

These days, Memorial Day is arranged as a day “without politics”—a general patriotic celebration of all soldiers and veterans, regardless of the nature of the wars in which they participated. This is the opposite of how the day emerged, with explicitly partisan motivations, to celebrate those who fought for justice and liberation.

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The concept that the population must “remember the sacrifice” of U.S. service members, without a critical reflection on the wars themselves, did not emerge by accident. It came about in the Jim Crow period as the Northern and Southern ruling classes sought to reunite the country around apolitical mourning, which required erasing the “divisive” issues of slavery and Black citizenship. These issues had been at the heart of the struggles of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

To truly honor Memorial Day means putting the politics back in. It means reviving the visions of emancipation and liberation that animated the first Decoration Days. It means celebrating those who have fought for justice, while exposing the cruel manipulation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members who have been sent to fight and die in wars for conquest and empire.

 As the U.S. Civil War came to a close in April 1865, Union troops entered the city of Charleston, S.C., where four years prior the war had begun. While white residents had largely fled the city, Black residents of Charleston remained to celebrate and welcome the troops, who included the TwentyFirst Colored Infantry. Their celebration on May 1, 1865, the first “Decoration Day,” later became Memorial Day.

Yale University historian David Blight retold the story:

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 , 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.

Blight’s award-winning Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) explained how three “overall visions of Civil War memory collided” in the decades after the war.

The first was the emancipationist vision, embodied in African Americans’ remembrances and the politics of Radical Reconstruction, in which the Civil War was understood principally as a war for the destruction of slavery and the liberation of African Americans to achieve full citizenship.

The second was the reconciliationist vision, ostensibly less political, which focused on honoring the dead on both sides, respecting their sacrifice, and the reunion of the country.

The third was the white supremacist vision, which was either openly pro-Confederate or at least despising of Reconstruction as “Black rule” in the South.

In 1877, the Northern capitalist establishment decisively turned their backs on Reconstruction, striking a deal with the old slavocracy to return the South to white supremacist rule in exchange for the South’s acceptance of capitalist expansion. This political and economic deal was reflected in how the war was commemorated. Just as the reunion of the Northern and Southern ruling classes was based on the elimination of Black political participation, the way the Civil War became officially remembered—through the invention of Memorial Day—was based on the elimination of the Black veteran and the liberated slave.

The spirit of the first Decoration Day—the struggle for Black liberation and the fight against racism—has unfortunately been whitewashed from the modern Memorial Day.

As Blight explains, “With time, in the North, the war’s two great results—black freedom and the preservation of the Union—were rarely accorded equal space. In the South, a uniquely Confederate version of the war’s meaning, rooted in resistance to Reconstruction, coalesced around Memorial Day practice.” (“Race and Reunion,” p. 65)

In the statues, anniversary parades and popular magazines, the Civil War was portrayed as an all-white affair, a tragic conflict between brothers. To the extent the role of slavery was allowed in these remembrances, Lincoln was typically portrayed as the beneficent liberator standing above the kneeling slave.

The mere image of the fighting Black soldier pierced through this particular “memory,” which in reality was a collective and forced “forgetting” of the real past. Portraying the rebellious slave or Black soldier would unmask the Civil War as a life-and-death struggle against slavery, a true social revolution, and a reminder of the political promises that had been betrayed.

While African Americans and white radicals continued to uphold the emancipationist remembrance of the Civil War during the following decades—as exemplified by W.E.B. DuBois’ landmark “Black Reconstruction”—this interpretation was effectively silenced in the “respectable” circles of academia, mainstream politics and popular culture. The white supremacist and reconciliationist retelling of the war and Reconstruction was only overthrown in official academic circles in the 1950s and 1960s as the Civil Rights movement shook the country to its core, and more African Americans fought their way into the country’s universities.

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While historians have gone a long way to expose the white supremacist history of the Civil War and uncover its revolutionary content, the spirit of the first Decoration Day—the struggle for Black liberation and the fight against racism—has unfortunately been whitewashed from the modern Memorial Day.

So let’s use Memorial Day weekend to honor the fallen fighters for justice worldwide, to speak plainly about this country’s historic crimes, and rededicate ourselves to take on those of the present.

This article originally appeared in LiberationNews.org. — http://www.liberationnews.org/revolutionary-origins-memorial-day-political-hijacking/


  • Erick Dean Tippett May 27, 2017 - 4:30 am

    The same thing occurred in post revolutionary France where after crowning himself ‘Emperor’ (as George
    Washington’s general staff had planned to do after he put down the second of two rebellions against the
    American government -Shay’s Rebellion of 1787 and the Whiskey Rebellions of 1791-94 and make him
    ‘Emperor of America’!) re-instituted the ‘black codes’ in France, retired every single high ranking black
    officer and general in the French military, sent a military detachment to seize control of France’s National
    Assembly (which was thirty percent black African and mulatto!) and the French Senate (whose president
    was black!) and sent an expeditionary naval and military force to reclaim Haiti as a colony for France
    exacting an impossible reparations payment when that failed! His correspondence to his chief foreign
    diplomat Tallyrand confirms the same fear of true black equality which was no doubt the underlying
    cause of this country’s abandonment of its reconstruction: “It is my intention to destroy the authority
    of the blacks in Saint Domingue not so much for commerce or money, but to block the forward march
    of the black race in the world FOREVER! And so it was.



    • AJ May 27, 2019 - 8:27 am

      30% black membership in the National Assembly in revolutionary France? You really need a fact checker.

      • BRAD LEE May 27, 2019 - 7:04 pm

        We Always Knew That The Celebration Of Memorial Day Was Traditionally An All Black Tribute To The Fallen Slaves Who Fought For Their Freedom But As Usual The Lies And Deceit Of White Folks Always Rear its Ugly Head To Oppress And Keep Blacks Subservient To The Rules Of WHITE SUPREMACY!

        Yet To The Extent Black People Celebrate Their Fight For independence Is Noble At Best!

        • Freddie E Click May 28, 2019 - 7:53 pm

          The Struggle Continues!
          Freddie E Click
          Retired SFC
          Vietnam Veteran hl

    • Wynona Ancrum May 27, 2019 - 10:48 am

      Wasn’t the first Statue Of Liberty created because of the black slaves who fought in the Civil War?

      • Jerry N. Wesner May 30, 2019 - 3:43 pm

        I had never in my life heard that until last week. And I taught U.S. history.

    • Bill Martin May 27, 2019 - 12:53 pm

      This article is Socialist propaganda. W.E.B. Dubois was a well known Communist. The article attacks capitalism and other matters that are basic to the U.S then and now. It speaks of “this country’s historic crimes”. The author desires a widening of the races.

      • Thomas M Farr May 27, 2019 - 3:47 pm

        And YOU are, so obviously, a white supremecist, and a right-wing ideologue, trying to reconstruct history to suit your foul idea of what “ought” to be! “Communist” is a label you on the right love to throw at anyone and everyone who fights against your hateful ideology! Even Martin Luther King, Jr. was labeled “communist” by J. Edgar Hoover, hinself a notorious cross-dresser! So take your ignorant bullshit, and crawl back in the hole you crawled out of!

  • Michael Brown May 28, 2017 - 4:17 pm

    This article and the hundreds of thousands facts need to be printed and required reading for the salvation of our youth. These facts are hidden from main stream education, and must be revived and distributed to libraries, inner city schools and black neighborhoods.

    • Reggie May 29, 2017 - 9:22 am

      Amen Michael. I’m spreading the word via Facebook to all my family, friends, colleagues and anyone else with access.

      • David Haley May 27, 2019 - 10:42 am

        Hundreds of thousands of facts? It’s not even correct on the first “fact” May 1st became Labor Day not Memorial Day. The War Between the States should be taught in all neighborhoods, but I don’t agree that Memorial Day should only celebrate emancipation and honor the Union dead

        • Thomas M Farr May 27, 2019 - 3:51 pm

          Actually, May 1st became “May Day”, a celebration of Communist Ideology “triumphing” over the Royalists in Russia. As to the other FACTS in this article, try fucking READING some damn history. You have been LIED to your entire life. Do some actual research about what you want to write about, instead of just spouting factually incorrect propositions.

  • Philo Tyrone Jones May 29, 2017 - 9:06 pm

    So what? We been free since 1865 and have the internet but N’s still more interested in blowing smoke, purple drank and St. Ides than learning anything. Learning last on the list for most of these kids here in South Dallas. It’s worse than it’s ever been for black folks as a whole although some doing real well.

    • Shirelle May 26, 2019 - 5:24 am

      We are not free?. Slavery and racism was repackaged. I pray you awake from your slumber

      • Douglas Neal May 26, 2019 - 10:04 am

        Thank you Shirelle for explaining this to those who are misinformed.

  • […] this discussion, I learned where Memorial Day got its original roots from. According to Ben Becker (Memorial Day and its roots), Memorial Day was originally a holiday celebrated by Black residents in South Carolina after the […]

    • Blkckgirl May 27, 2019 - 9:14 am

      I am so happy most of us really want to know who we are.Blk pol have always made a strong impression and history on this earth,but theres always white men trying to cover it up and claim that this was there ideal. All you did was changed the name of what they did and started. Reminds me of there were 7 blk president in the UNITED STATES before there was the so called official grorge washington white man . Again we did it…and you hide it. White and lie.

  • Carol Wallace June 3, 2017 - 2:58 pm

    I’ve observed that the suffering of the African-American people is almost always a the front of our experience. Black people were brought from their home countries and enslaved. They were not slaves; this is an experience that was imposed on them. Many black people had “rich” lives. Did innovative and creative things. Their participation in the wars under the US flag was under reported along with many other achievements. These experiences are buried in the archives of the deepest parts of the basements of our Library of Congress and our public libraries.

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  • Darrell Wilson May 25, 2019 - 12:49 am

    I of pain to my father’s that fought for no reason. Life so adore from the creator that our people fought for freedom and still fight now war and rumor of wars are here, we fight still why the enemy so afraid we’ll turn on them, a laugh we do not spare life mercy to their conflict an confusion. Memorial days are Civicl war, MLK Black Market, Our Rights, Marjuana which is a cure not imprisonment, and continue blood shed of our young and powerful. Memorial days.

  • Dawn McKenzie May 26, 2019 - 3:46 am

    If you are black in AmeriKKKa you run the risk of being stripped of everything. Stripped naked and brutally raped. Stripped of your history, stripped of your language, stripped of your religion, stripped of your ancestral ties, stripped of your name, stripped from your family, stripped from your employment/career/job, stripped of your health, stripped of your livelihood, stripped of your mind, stripped of your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness etc… and black people gleefully help wicked white people strip you!

    • Rebecca May 26, 2019 - 12:59 pm

      I was not aware of this information. Thank you.

  • […] These days, Memorial Day is arranged as a day “without politics”—a general patriotic celebration of all soldiers and veterans, regardless of the nature of the wars in which they participated. This is the opposite of how the day emerged, with explicitly partisan motivations, to celebrate those who fought for justice and liberation. READ IN FULL […]

  • Ivan Butcher II May 26, 2019 - 6:25 am

    Our History, From Our Perspective

    “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” ― Chinua Achebe (Author)

    Our history has to be written, rewritten and illustrated from our perspective. There is a big world market out there that needs access to a new truth. This will not happen if it is left up to the prejudiced, mind-controlling, self-interest for profit entities.


    • K. Klotz May 26, 2019 - 11:46 am

      There is no ‘new truth’ unless presented by the devil himself. And only he is the author of that. God’s truth has always been the same regardless of who you are or the color of your skin. It makes no difference to Him or his people.

    • Jeanne Adams May 30, 2019 - 9:51 am

      Thank you for this research. I teach 5th Grade. I had my students interview Veterans on Memorial Day to compare and contrast the holidays. This is so helpful to help the children make connections with our history

      • Angela Woods August 25, 2019 - 2:32 am

        Very interesting and informative piece.
        Thank you for sharing ?

  • Victor Salvo May 26, 2019 - 7:06 am

    I’m fascinated. We are kindred spirits. Victims of the same need to maintain everyone else’s delusions. Our struggles are different. But our enemies are one in the same. Good luck to you. Please add me to your mailing list.

  • Jessie Spriggs May 26, 2019 - 9:09 am

    This is so eye opening for me. Since I have gotten older I have been reading and researching my true history. It’s Beautiful and powerful. I plan to share the truth. Why are so many European races afraid of blacks is my major question. With people like you things are much clearer. God Bless You!

  • Gaye watkins May 26, 2019 - 12:54 pm

    Thank you. This helps me understand a lot of thing, broadens my concepts. I pray daily, having faith in the word. Pls add me to your mailings.

  • Devin Rogers May 26, 2019 - 1:11 pm

    This is b.s….. You can snopes this story and its only partially true. The majority of blacks complain way too much. The central African Bantu negro (the race of Africans who were easily conquered and enslaved) still lives in mud huts to this day and it’s 2019. Without the Western world they would have nothing. The Western world through humanitarian Aid, has been more than generous to this demographic of people, who have proven time and time again they are unable to take care of themselves without outside help.

    It’s time for people to be grateful instead of always whining.

    • Te Flack May 26, 2019 - 1:34 pm

      This is not about whining, it’s about history. Ever heard of Greenwood (Tulsa) Oklahoma?

    • Nat Turner May 26, 2019 - 7:40 pm

      The stench of this country and the evil it has committed particularly against black folk can NEVER be erased. A eternal SIN.
      NEWSFLASH: You don’t get to tell Black people how often they’re allowed to talk about race just because you’re uncomfortable hearing about the reality of white supremacy, slavery, white privilege, and the terrible history of violence, Jim Crow, colonialism, and imperialism by your racist ancestors. You’re TIRED of hearing Black people complain to DAMN bad. The system was not setup to promote, preserve, and progress Black peoples interest. The system was setup to preserve, to promote, and progress the white majority. We live in a world totally dominated by lies and liars…..

    • NedjDom May 27, 2019 - 7:48 am

      Yours is the most entitled and ignorant comment on this thread. It’s like the efforts & struggles of the poor and oppressed, the human suffering and the hate that has been dished out to blacks throughout the world historically is lost on you. You’re either too dense or ignorant to truly understand what is being discussed here or you’re unwilling… Both are extremely dangerous.

    • mark stolzoff May 29, 2019 - 5:43 pm

      ” The majority of blacks complain way too much.”

      Some reason I Doubt you know any black people

  • Cathy May 26, 2019 - 4:45 pm

    I did hear of Tulsa and was appalled. I was born in Chicago and racism was and is still rampant. It’s tragic the black Africans were sold into slavery by their own people. Still doesn’t make it right that the white folks jumped on the wagon. It’s always about the money. I now live in GA and racism is still alive and well. A true tragedy because we all need to move ahead. It’s so hard for so many because they can’t let it go. I pray we all can move forward and heal together.

    • Marion Martinez May 26, 2019 - 5:30 pm

      I think May should be Black History month

      • Vespera May 27, 2019 - 10:05 am

        It is in Panama.

  • Jerry Beingesser May 26, 2019 - 6:18 pm

    If all the black people were suddenly gone who would America fuck over?

    • TNflash May 26, 2019 - 10:01 pm

      Well lets see. The American Indian was fucked almost to death. Blacks, because of the color of their skin, were easy to separate out and dominate, The next group cold be Cagens in Louisiana, or maybe Muslims, or even the very rich and the very poor, but more profitably, the middle class tax payers.

  • Emmett Till May 26, 2019 - 7:49 pm

    This is an odd twist to “we wuz kangz ‘n’ shiet”.

  • james May 27, 2019 - 12:56 am

    How many interesting comments. Can you record history and then change it ? NO You may have your version of it but the world will judge. Tear down the statues and burn the books, alas life goes forward with the decisions made by people who made history !! I wish you all well

  • Noble Asaab May 27, 2019 - 8:00 am

    We konw our PAST and in order to have a FUTURE we must teach our children the truth NOW! NOBLE: ASAAB NO ONE WINS THE RACE IN RACISM!!! (A WISE MAN ONCE TOLD ME).

  • Gregory Burress May 27, 2019 - 8:53 am

    Decoration Day I will never forget this very important fact in our heritage.

  • JBRAD May 27, 2019 - 9:34 am

    WOW!!! While I’m reading this HIStory lesson, they are out there Grillin and HAPPY As HELL. Not even thinking of the importance of what this day is supposed to be about, but truth be told IF THEY KNEW WHAT HAPPENED FOR REAL FOR REAL, THEY WOULD STILL BE GRILLIN AND HAPPY AS HELL. WE got to get it back, not GO BACK.

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  • TaWayne Glover May 27, 2019 - 11:04 am

    If you takeaway the agenda of this article you can see the history of Memorial Day. Yes their was a parade of over 10000 in Charleston in 1865, but, the tradition dates back to the revolutionary war, families would gather in the spring to honor the fallen, this was prevalent in the South and in the mountains.
    Then in 1868 General John Logan declaimed a National day.
    So, yes, many have honored those that have served and died, but, the agenda needs to be left out, and a full story told

  • Austin Brewery Tours May 27, 2019 - 11:35 am

    Interesting article. May 1st was international workers day. Americans were in solidarity with this for years.

  • Natalya May 27, 2019 - 12:32 pm

    Great article! Thank you.
    This deserves to be a memo to share:
    “To truly honor Memorial Day means putting the politics back in. It means reviving the visions of emancipation and liberation that animated the first Decoration Days. It means celebrating those who have fought for justice, while exposing the cruel manipulation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members who have been sent to fight and die in wars for conquest and empire.”

  • robert hunter May 27, 2019 - 4:30 pm

    o get the picture where President Abraham Lincoln is viewed as the benevolent liberator of the African slave, Take a visit to the Washington National Cathedral. There is the stained glass window teaching this view.

  • robert hunter May 27, 2019 - 4:31 pm


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