The African-American history of Memorial Day: Former slaves honoring and mourning the dead
The 21st Colored Infantry along with the 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops held a celebration on May 1, 1865, the first “Decoration Day,” which later became Memorial Day.
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 emancipation and commemorate those who died for that cause. 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 Twenty-First Colored Infantry.
Their celebration on May 1, 1865, the first “Decoration Day,” later became Memorial Day. 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.