Decorating the burial sites of fallen soldiers goes back many hundreds of years. But the first established "Decoration Day" as a memorial for soldiers that died was established by former slaves in 1865.
African Americans founded Decoration Day at the graveyard of 257 Union soldiers labeled “Martyrs of the Race Course,” May 1, 1865, Charleston, South Carolina.
The “First Decoration Day,” as this event came to be recognized in some circles in the North, involved an estimated ten thousand people, most of them black former slaves. During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable enclosure for the burial ground at the Race Course. In some ten days, they constructed a fence ten feet high, enclosing the burial ground, and landscaped the graves into neat rows. The wooden fence was whitewashed and an archway was built over the gate to the enclosure. On the arch, painted in black letters, the workmen inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
At nine o’clock in the morning on May 1, the procession to this special cemetery began as three thousand black schoolchildren (newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools) marched around the Race Course, each with an armload of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by three hundred black women representing the Patriotic Association, a group organized to distribute clothing and other goods among the freed people. The women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses to the burial ground. The Mutual Aid Society, a benevolent association of black men, next marched in cadence around the track and into the cemetery, followed by large crowds of white and black citizens.
All dropped their spring blossoms on the graves in a scene recorded by a newspaper correspondent: “when all had left, the holy mounds — the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them — were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond … there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.” While the adults marched around the graves, the children were gathered in a nearby grove, where they sang “America,” “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The official dedication ceremony was conducted by the ministers of all the black churches in Charleston. With prayer, the reading of biblical passages, and the singing of spirituals, black Charlestonians gave birth to an American tradition. In so doing, they declared the meaning of the war in the most public way possible — by their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses, lilacs, and marching feet on the old planters’ Race Course.
After the dedication, the crowds gathered at the Race Course grandstand to hear some thirty speeches by Union officers, local black ministers, and abolitionist missionaries. Picnics ensued around the grounds, and in the afternoon, a full brigade of Union infantry, including Colored Troops, marched in double column around the martyrs’ graves and held a drill on the infield of the Race Course. The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.
Some white people may contend that Memorial Day was established three years after this first celebration on U.S. soil because only white people had the official and political power to declare a holiday.
But that doesn't change the fact that the Memorial Day Celebration put together by ex-slaves in North Carolina first, in 1865
Southern White women created a "Memorial Day" a year later for confederate(?) soldiers in 1866 in Georgia
Then in 1968, according to white history books, a white man named General Logan may have "co-opted" the women's Memorial Day idea for a federal holiday.
It seems just as likely to me, within what is now the United States, that the establishing of Memorial Day is just as likely a three-step cultural appropriation event -- if we are to believe General Logan "co-opted" the white women's event, then it's just as likely the women "co-opted" the former slaves' event without giving black folks credit.
Yet, it sounds to me like the former slaves Memorial Celebrations looked remarkably like today's Memorial Day celebrations.
We should also remember our grade school years. When white folks write white history books for school children, it is usual that white person or white persons that did X first got credit for creating X.
So I say, Memorial Day was created by former slaves in 1865. Period. The end.
That's why I've made re-reading Historian David Blight's 2011 "FORGETTING WHY WE REMEMBER in the New York Times an annual tradition.
Black History will only be remembered if we dig it out and remember it.