Memorial Day & Decoration Day: Finally crediting courageous former slaves—plus tips on recipes & music, too

MONDAY, MAY 27: This year, we are two years away from the 150th anniversary of Memorial Day, which began in May 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Here’s a convenient Index to other stories about 150th anniversaries of Civil War and Lincoln-related events.)

That means: In time for the Memorial Day sesquicentennial in 2015, newer American history books now include the real history—thanks largely to historian David Blight’s tireless campaign to correct the record. You might recognize Blight’s name from a number of PBS Civil War documentaries in which he appears as an expert on the era. (Blight most recently spoke in PBS’s epic miniseries The Abolitionists.)

For Memorial Day 2013, watch your driving—and your seat belts! Nationwide, law enforcement officers are warning that Click It or Ticket policies will be in full force. Also, look for historic deals: Look around your region at history-themed parks and museums. Some will be opening for the summer season around this three-day weekend. Some have special Memorial weekend deals for visitors, including special offers for veterans. And, observe the Moment of Silence. The official national Moment of Silence, established by federal action, is actually a rolling minute of silence, set for 3 p.m. in your respective time zone.


Don’t miss this! It’s on the evening before Memorial Day—Sunday May 26—carried via the PBS network nationwide from Washington D.C.

Click the photo, at right, to visit the official PBS Concert website for details about the event. According to PBS’s pre-broadcast plan for the live event: The program will be co-hosted for the eighth year by Joe Mantegna (a film and Broadway actor who is best known on TV for Criminal Minds) and Gary Sinise (CSI: New York). Both actors dedicate time throughout the year to supporting veterans and troops in active service. They will be joined by a line-up including: Gen. Colin L. Powell USA (Ret.) and the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jack Everly—plus a number of pop and classical singers. The concert is broadcast live on PBS and via American Forces Network to the nearly one million American service men and women stationed at bases in 175 countries and 140 U.S. Navy ships at sea, as well as Department of Defense civilians and their families overseas.


All American history books haven’t been revised—and some websites produced by various agencies of the federal government still have the “old” versions of the “first” Memorial or Decoration Day. One U.S. veterans website still credits Waterloo, New York, as well as some Confederate women’s groups in 1866 as the “firsts.” So, ReadTheSpirit celebrates the growing awareness of the role of courageous former slaves in 1865. Now, Wikipedia, the PBS network itself and a growing number of history textbooks credit the courageous former slaves in 1865 with the “first.”

As of Memorial Day 2013, Wikipedia now reports:

The first well-known observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. … Blacks in Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen had cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly 10,000 people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the dead. Involved were 3,000 schoolchildren newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, and black ministers and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site is used as Hampton Park. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.

David W. Blight described the day:  “This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

ReadTheSpirit online magazine has been covering this progressive correction of our American historical record for a number of years. For more on David Blight’s work and the Charleston event in 1865—including the text of a contemporary newspaper story—see this earlier Memorial Day story we published.


Newspapers, magazines and TV programs will be packed with Memorial Day tips and recipes this week, but our federal government also does an impressive job of collecting information you’ll want to share.

SAFETY TIPS: Federal agencies are great sources of tips to keep you safe and happy on this weekend when millions of Americans love to organize picnics and launch into outdoor sports for the first time, each year. The Food and Drug Administration provides some very helpful barbecue and food tips. And, the U.S. Coast Guard weighs in on boating and water safety.

FAMOUS RECIPES: In this one web page, you’ll find links to sought-after recipes for a rich White House Beer (made with honey from a White House bee hive), the famous U.S. Senate Bean Soup, Mamie Eisenhower’s Million Dollar Fudge that kept Ike happy for years, Bess Truman’s mac and cheese and Senator Mikulski’s Favorite Crab Cakes, direct from the Maryland shore.

GREAT OLD SONGS: The Libary of Congress has one of the best online indexes for Memorial-themed reflection—featuring links to patriotic American songs. The Library of Congress index provides stories about the origin of these classics, plus many of these links lead to high-resolution images of early sheet music you can print. The list of nearly 30 venerable tunes includes: America the Beautiful, Anchors Aweigh, Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, Fanfare for the Common Man, Marines’ Hymn, This Land is Your Land and You’re a Grand Old Flag.

(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)

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