It began as Decoration Day by Freedmen (freed slaves) and other Black American families as a celebration of both black and white Union soldiers who fought for liberation and justice during the Civil War.
Together with teachers and missionaries, Blacks inCharlestonorganized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by theNew Yorknewspaper, the New York Tribune, and other national papers.
The freedmen had cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the dead.
The commemoration also included some 3,000 schoolchildren newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, various mutual aid societies, Union troops, and black ministers and white northern missionaries.
Most participants brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.
The historian David W. Blight described the day:
“This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day inCharleston,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.”
The first known observance of a Memorial Day-type observance was inCharleston,South Carolinaon May 1, 1865. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course. At least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves.
The sheer number of dead soldiers, bothUnionand Confederate, who perished in the Civil War, meant that burial and memorializing would take on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women, during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had already taken shape.
In 1865, the federal government began a program of creating national military cemeteries for the Union dead. Decoration Day was soon expanded (and de-politicized) from its origins in Black America to the broader Memorial Day tradition more well-known today.
The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day”, which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967.
On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.
Memorial Day is now an occasion for a more general expression of memory. Individuals and families now visit the graves of their deceased relatives in church cemeteries, whether or nor they had served in the military. It also became a long weekend increasingly devoted to shopping, family gatherings, fireworks, trips to the beach, and national media events.