USCT soldiers at an abandoned farmhouse in Dutch Gap, Virginia, 1864 (Courtesy of
USCT soldiers at an abandoned farmhouse in Dutch Gap, Virginia, 1864 (Courtesy of

When our country pauses on Monday, May 28 to observe Memorial Day, an annual day during which we decorate the graves of fallen members of the armed forces, paying homage to Americans who died while in the military service, we should also remember how Blacks contributed to the establishment of this yearly observance.

While President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a presidential proclamation in 1966 making Memorial Day an official holiday in the U.S., it should be noted that it was freed slaves who on May 1, 1865, came together in Charleston to pay tribute to 257 Black Union soldiers killed in the line of duty who the freed slaves put into a common burial.

Children’s choirs sang special selections, Black ministers offered words from the Bible as men, women and children, Black and White, along with a group of the Union infantry collectively totaling more than 10,000 strong according to several accounts, processed through the streets of Charleston bearing baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.

The event symbolized the blood, sweat and tears that each of the 257 Union soldiers shed during the war. None of those soldiers had ever been treated with honor — as men equal to their White counterparts — not during the course of their lives or after dying for their country.

That’s why we hope that Blacks across the U.S., while enjoying the chance to travel to the beach or hold cookouts in the backyard or local parks with family and friends, will remember the sacrifices that African Americans have made on behalf of this country — despite the fact that we’ve more often been treated as second-class citizens.

Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer and yes, it also represents the return of white shoes, pants and dresses.

But our freedom, the freedom of every American citizen, did not come easy. It came with a price. For some, that price was life itself. We must never forget their willingness to step forward and to risk life and limb for a country that sometimes fails to live up to its lofty creeds.

We salute our fallen soldiers and thank them for the sacrifice they made.

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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