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Black history uncovered: Martyrs of the Race Course

ROBYN H. JIMENEZ | 6/3/2016, 12:04 p.m.
Earlier this week, America honored military men and women that have sacrificed their lives for our country during war at ...
“Martyrs of the Race Course,” a Union soldiers’ gravesite at Washington Race Course, Charleston, South Carolina, 1865. Library of Congress

The Dallas Examiner

Earlier this week, America honored military men and women that have sacrificed their lives for our country during war at home and abroad. Each grave tells a vital part of the story of American history. However, there are many unmarked graves throughout the country that leave gaps in the storyline.

In 1865, a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, were determined to honor the part in history that a group of unknown soldiers played during the Civil War.

After the war, as the Confederate soldiers left the town in ruins, most of its White residents soon abandoned the city as well, leaving behind thousands of recently freed slaves.

In April 1865, as the remaining residents worked to rebuild the city, a group of Black men began cleaning the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, where prisoners of war were once confined in an outdoor prison. Due to the unsanitary conditions and being exposed to the harsh weather, the soldiers had died of diseases and had been buried in a mass grave by the Confederate soldiers.

The Black workers uncovered the grave and buried each soldier in 257 individual graves with markers. Since there was no way to know the names of the soldiers, the tombstones had no names on them. The workers built a fence around the cemetery with an archway over the entrance with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course,” then whitewashed it.

As the memorial site was completed, a commemoration ceremony was planned at the site.

The ceremony was held on May 1 at 9 a.m. It began with a parade of almost 3,000 Black children from the Freeman’s Bureau Schools carrying roses as they sang patriotic songs, marching toward the memorial. Hundreds of Black women from women’s organizations carrying baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses followed behind them. Next were a group of Black men marching in cadence, followed by Union troops, then Black and White ministers and missionaries.

As the ceremony concluded, the famous 54th Massachusetts, along with the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, executed a special double-column march around the graves. Afterward, there were speeches, families held picnics, and soldiers performed drills.

News of the ceremony had spread rapidly and approximately 10,000 people from near and far, along with newspaper reporters and photographers, were in attendance that day.

The day was later known as the “First Decoration Day.”

The soldiers were later identified and buried in Beaufort and Florence National Cemeteries, or cemeteries in their own hometowns.

In the early 1900s, the city purchased the land and paved a road over it.

The event was later forgotten and overshadowed by Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaiming May 5 as Decoration Day in 1868; followed by many other events that memorialized soldiers, including President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the official Memorial Day in May 1966.

That is, until 2010 when the city held a dedication ceremony and placed a marker on the land to commemorate the 1865 event.

The historical marker noted, “The event in what is now Hampton Park is acknowledged by most historians to be the first Memorial Day in the United States of America.”

David W. Blight, professor of American History at Yale University with a special interest in Civil War and African American history who did his own extensive research on the 1865 events in Charleston, has been on a mission to educate Americans on the very first Memorial Day as a tradition started by newly freed slaves.

As a result of his research, his articles have been widely published in newspapers and websites throughout the country. Last year, he posted a full account of his research on his website.

“Some stories endure, some disappear, some are rediscovered in dusty archives, the pages of old newspapers, and in oral history,” he wrote in conclusion. “All such stories as the First Decoration Day are but prelude to future reckonings.”

Sources: African American Registry, Library of Congress, The First Decoration Day by David W. Blight and Martyrs of the Race Course city plaque