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While many people will be off participating in festivities that mark the unofficial start of summer, according to a 2019 Harris poll survey, commissioned by the University of Phoenix 55% of Americans know the true purpose of the federal holiday and only one in five will participate in commemorative activities honoring fallen soldiers.  With a little more than half of Americans acknowledging the holiday as a day of remembrance, there’s less who know the celebration got its start thanks to the genius of newly freed Black citizens.

Often, history credits the first annual Memorial Day (also called “Decoration Day”) celebrations as happening in April 1866, when women adorned the graves of soldiers with flowers in the Civil War hospital town of Columbus, Mississippi. However, in the 2001 book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” Pulitzer Prize-winner David Blight notes the primary memorial celebration kicked off on May 1, 1865, when freshly freed African Americans and white missionaries took to a former planters’ racetrack where Confederate soldiers captured Union soldiers in the final year of the Civil War in Charleston, South Carolina.

According to Time, at least 257 prisoners died, many succumbing to disease, and were then buried in unmarked graves.  Acknowledging these fallen soldiers, Black citizens and some white missionaries organized to commemorate their lives with a celebration that included a parade and festivities with students, white and Black Union soldiers marching, people singing, preachers preaching, huge signs, decorations and more.

Publications at that time reported about 10,000 people, predominantly African American, showed up for the celebration.

Today, Memorial Day is an annual celebration commemorating the thousands of American lives lost during wars.  It’s recognized nationwide and several organizations will take the weekend to remember the fallen soldiers, and celebrate their bravery.

So this year, as you show up to your all-white parties, head to that cookout, travel out of town, catch that holiday sale, or take that much-deserved day off, remember the Black residents of Charleston who paved the way in commemorating American heroes.

Happy Memorial Day weekend to you all, and particularly acknowledging the service people and families who sacrificed their lives to protect the citizens of this country.

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