Since the years following the Civil War, the United States has celebrated Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day. Observed on the last Monday in May, Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971.
Many Americans mark the day by placing flowers, flags, and other mementos on the graves of veterans. Parades and family gatherings are also part of the recognition of the unofficial start of the summer season.
One of the earliest commemorations of Memorial Day was organized by a group of Black people freed from enslavement less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. The emancipated slaves coordinated this first celebration to honor Union soldiers who perished in a prison camp (a horse racing track and clubhouse converted into a prison) in Charleston, South Carolina. The deceased prisoners were buried in a mass grave at the site. The emancipated men and women exhumed the mass grave and gave the fallen soldiers a proper burial, and marked the newly formed cemetery with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Some 10,000 people, mostly former slaves, joined by children carrying flowers, staged an impromptu parade around the racetrack. Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments attended and performed double-time marches; Black pastors shared Bible verses.
Memorial Day is a combination of somber observation and hope as family and friends gather. When I hang the red, white, and blue wreath made by Designs by Alfreda, it serves as a reminder of a nation that paid a high price for freedom.