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Memorial Day, formerly Decoration Day, in the United States, holiday (last Monday in May) honouring those who have died in the nation’s wars. It originated during the American Civil War when citizens placed flowers on the graves of those who had been killed in battle. More than a half dozen places have claimed to be the birthplace of the holiday. In October 1864, for instance, three women in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, are said to have decorated the graves of loved ones who died during the Civil War they then returned in July 1865 accompanied by many of their fellow citizens for a more general commemoration. A large observance, primarily involving African Americans, took place in May 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Columbus, Mississippi, held a formal observance for both Union and Confederate dead in 1866. By congressional proclamation in 1966, Waterloo, New York, was cited as the birthplace, also in 1866, of the observance. In 1868 John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, promoted a national holiday on May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Memorial Day is celebrated on Monday, May 31, 2021.
When is Memorial Day?
Memorial Day is celebrated in the United States on the last Monday in May. In 2021 Memorial Day is on May 31.
What is the history of Memorial Day?
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, began during the American Civil War when citizens placed flowers on the graves of those who had been killed in battle. After World War I, it came to be observed in honour of those who had died in all U.S. wars, and its name changed to Memorial Day.
What are some Memorial Day traditions?
Memorial Day traditions include the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery religious services, parades, and speeches across the United States and the placement of flags, insignia, and flowers on the graves of veterans.
On March 8, the building committee began developing plans for a new building. The Board of Lady Managers contributed $700 to start a building fund. In September, a two-story wing was added to the hospital. The addition boasted seven deluxe patient rooms with bathtubs.
The medical teaching staff, comprised of six consulting and eight visiting doctors, was formed.
On January 1, the School of Nursing opened with four students. The first graduation ceremony was April 29, 1904.
The Real History of Memorial Day
Memorial Day occupies a traditional place in American history. A nyone who grew up in this country understands it to be a celebration of wartime sacrifice and patriotic valor. It’s a holiday with its origins in the Civil War, a time of untold division, death, and disease—but also the ostensible triumph of e quality (in theory if not remotely in practice) over slavery.
Most people likely don’t ruminate on the origins of Memorial Day as they plan their long weekend getaways and family cookouts, but the general story goes something like this: A year after the war ended, in 1866, a group of women began commemorating the 620,000 soldiers and civilians slain in the conflict or fell ed by disease while fighting it by laying wreaths on the graves in the hospital town of Columbus, Mississippi . In 1868, the annual day of commemoration was born, and has been celebrated ever since on the last Monday of May. General John A. Logan, a Union veteran leader, made it so, declaring “Decoration Day” a national holiday.
While all of that is true, it’s technically a piece of revisionism ( as evidenced by the multitude of towns who lay claim to the first Memorial Day tributes ), and one that places whites at the forefront of a cherished American pastime . The official story erases what the Yale historian David W. Blight has long argued are the original roots of Memorial Day—a tribute orchestrated by Black members of the Union Infantry that’s been drained of color, so to speak, by time and the whitewashing of history.
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1. It Was Originally Called Decoration Day: Remembering veterans who died while in military service in late May dates back to 1868, when Gen. John A. Logan called for a day of remembrance to honor the Northern lives lost amid battle during the Civil War that had ended just a few years earlier, according to History.com. Logan called it "Decoration Day," which it was known as for several years. As time passed, more and more people called it Memorial Day, History.com reported, and it became a federal holiday in 1971.
2. Local Events: The Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center is hosting a Grab and Go Fish Fry to benefit the Land Project. Plates of fish and chicken, baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, homemade cake and homemade fried pies go for a donation of $10. Call ahead to place orders at 770-382-3392. Donations can be made on the Noble Hill-Wheeler Website.
Generous acts bore fruit
During 1866, the first year of this annual observance in the South, a feature of the holiday emerged that made awareness, admiration and eventually imitation of it spread quickly to the North.
During the inaugural Memorial Day observances which were conceived in Columbus, Georgia, many Southern participants – especially women – decorated graves of Confederate soldiers as well as, unexpectedly, those of their former enemies who fought for the Union.
Shortly after those first Memorial Day observances all across the South, newspaper coverage in the North was highly favorable to the ex-Confederates.
“The action of the ladies on this occasion, in burying whatever animosities or ill-feeling may have been engendered in the late war towards those who fought against them, is worthy of all praise and commendation,” wrote one paper.
On May 9, 1866, the Cleveland Daily Leader lauded the Southern women during their first Memorial Day.
“The act was as beautiful as it was unselfish, and will be appreciated in the North.”
The New York Commercial Advertiser, recognizing the magnanimous deeds of the women of Columbus, Georgia, echoed the sentiment. “Let this incident, touching and beautiful as it is, impart to our Washington authorities a lesson in conciliation.”
Scruggs was raised in a rural Maryland town between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. His mother was a waitress his father a milkman. “We’re all the result of our upbringing. My background was relatively modest,” he said. “But I was always impressed with the example my parents set.”
When the 18-year-old Scruggs volunteered to enlist in the Army in 1968, debate surrounding Vietnam was escalating. The war’s length and the growing number of casualties were fueling tensions. Within months after he recovered from his wounds and returned to his unit, the American public was learning the details of the events at My Lai. By the time he returned home, three months after the explosion, the country was even further divided.
Over the next few years, as the war came to a close and more and more troops returned home, the media began to paint a picture of the stereotypical Vietnam veteran: drug addicted, bitter, discontented, and unable to adjust to life back home. Like all stereotypes, this one was unfair.
The truth was, veterans were no more likely to be addicted to drugs than those who did not serve. And if they were bitter, who could blame them? When they returned home from serving their country, there was no national show of gratitude. They were either ignored or shouted at and called vicious names. Veterans frequently found themselves denying their time in Vietnam, never mentioning their service to new friends and acquaintances for fear of the reactions it might elicit.
By June 1977, Scruggs was attending graduate school at American University in Washington, D.C. and had embarked on a research study exploring the social and psychological consequences of Vietnam military duties. He found that returning veterans were finding it hard to trust people. They were feeling alienated from the nation’s leaders, and they had low self-esteem. He also found that those veterans whose units experienced high casualty rates were experiencing higher divorce rates and a greater frequency of combat-related dreams. Using his findings, he testified at the Senate hearing on the Veteran’s Health Care Amendments Act of 1977, with the hope that he could help veterans gain access to the services and support they needed.
He also wanted to find a way to help them heal and suggested that the country build a national memorial as a symbol that the country cared about them.
WHEN IS MEMORIAL DAY?
In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and established that Memorial Day was to be commemorated on the last Monday of May. Several southern states, however, officially commemorate an additional, separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead, sometimes referred to as a Confederate Memorial Day: January 19 in Texas third Monday in Jan. in Arkansas fourth Monday in Apr. in Alabama and Mississippi April 26 in Florida and Georgia May 10 in North and South Carolina last Monday in May in Virginia and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Memorial Day is commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery each year with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. Traditionally, the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. About 5,000 people attend the ceremony annually.
The Overlooked Black History of Memorial Day
N owadays, Memorial Day honors veterans of all wars, but its roots are in America’s deadliest conflict, the Civil War. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died, about two-thirds from disease.
The work of honoring the dead began right away all over the country, and several American towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Researchers have traced the earliest annual commemoration to women who laid flowers on soldiers’ graves in the Civil War hospital town of Columbus, Miss., in April 1866. But historians like the Pulitzer Prize winner David Blight have tried to raise awareness of freed slaves who decorated soldiers’ graves a year earlier, to make sure their story gets told too.
According to Blight’s 2001 book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, a commemoration organized by freed slaves and some white missionaries took place on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C., at a former planters’ racetrack where Confederates held captured Union soldiers during the last year of the war. At least 257 prisoners died, many of disease, and were buried in unmarked graves, so black residents of Charleston decided to give them a proper burial.
In the approximately 10 days leading up to the event, roughly two dozen African American Charlestonians reorganized the graves into rows and built a 10-foot-tall white fence around them. An archway overhead spelled out “Martyrs of the Race Course” in black letters.
About 10,000 people, mostly black residents, participated in the May 1 tribute, according to coverage back then in the Charleston Daily Courier and the New York Tribune. Starting at 9 a.m., about 3,000 black schoolchildren paraded around the race track holding roses and singing the Union song “John Brown’s Body,” and were followed by adults representing aid societies for freed black men and women. Black pastors delivered sermons and led attendees in prayer and in the singing of spirituals, and there were picnics. James Redpath, the white director of freedman’s education in the region, organized about 30 speeches by Union officers, missionaries and black ministers. Participants sang patriotic songs like “America” and “We’ll Rally around the Flag” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In the afternoon, three white and black Union regiments marched around the graves and staged a drill.
The New York Tribune described the tribute as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” The gravesites looked like a “one mass of flowers” and “the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them” and “tears of joy” were shed.
This tribute, “gave birth to an American tradition,” Blight wrote in Race and Reunion: “The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.”
In 1996, Blight stumbled upon a New York Herald Tribune article detailing the tribute in a Harvard University archive &mdash but the origin story it told was not the Memorial Day history that many white people had wanted to tell, he argues.
About 50 years after the Civil War ended, someone at the United Daughters of the Confederacy asked the Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston to confirm that the May 1, 1865, tribute occurred, and received a reply from one S.C. Beckwith: “I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this.” Whether Beckwith actually knew about the tribute or not, Blight argues, the exchange illustrates “how white Charlestonians suppressed from memory this founding.” A 1937 book also incorrectly stated that James Redpath singlehandedly organized the tribute &mdash when in reality it was a group effort &mdash and that it took place on May 30, when it actually took place on May 1. That book also diminished the role of the African Americans involved by referring to them as “black hands which only knew that the dead they were honoring had raised them from a condition of servitude.”
The origin story that did stick involves an 1868 call from General John A. Logan, president of a Union Army veterans group, urging Americans to decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers on May 30 of that year. The ceremony that took place in Arlington National Cemetery that day has been considered the first official Memorial Day celebration. Memorial Day became a national holiday two decades later, in 1889, and it took a century before it was moved in 1968 to the last Monday of May, where it remains today. According to Blight, Hampton Park, named after Confederate General Wade Hampton, replaced the gravesite at the Martyrs of the Race Course, and the graves were reinterred in the 1880s at a national cemetery in Beaufort, S.C.
The fact that the freed slaves’ Memorial Day tribute is not as well remembered is emblematic of the struggle that would follow, as African Americans’ fight to be fully recognized for their contributions to American society continues to this day.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all we dedicate ourselves and our posterity, with you and yours, to finish the work which he so nobly began, to make America an example for all the world of equal justice and equal opportunity for all.”
Robert Russo Moton,
Address at the Lincoln Memorial dedication, May 30, 1922
A National Stage for Civil Rights
The Lincoln Memorial was built in 1922 to heal national divisions caused by the Civil War. Yet for many, Lincoln’s promise of freedom remained incomplete. Over the next half century, the looming figure of Abraham Lincoln witnessed a number of events and demonstrations that reinforced the memorial’s importance as a symbolic space for civil rights movements.
Dedication of the Lincoln Memorial
On May 30, 1922, a large crowd gathered for the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. The seating, like much of Washington, was segregated by race, yet the organizers chose Dr. Robert Russo Moton, President of Tuskegee Institute, as the keynote speaker. Addressing the mostly white crowd, Moton delivered the first of what would be many civil rights speeches at the memorial. He challenged the audience to consider Lincoln’s call for a “new birth of freedom.” From that day forward, the Lincoln Memorial became a national gathering place for groups demanding racial and social justice.
Dedication Ceremony Programs
National Museum of American History
Marian Anderson Concert
In a direct challenge to segregation, Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. The Daughters of the American Revolution had barred her from singing in Washington’s Constitution Hall. In response, a broad coalition of civil rights advocates, with support from Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, organized a concert on the steps of the memorial. More than 75,000 people attended the performance, and millions more listened to the live radio broadcast. Anderson opened by pointedly singing “My Country Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty.” The concert lasted less than an hour, but it honored Anderson’s talents as a black artist and forever fixed the Lincoln Memorial as a symbolic shrine to civil rights.
Marian Anderson Concert at the Lincoln Memorial
National Museum of American History, photographs by Robert Scurlock
"Nobody expects ten thousand Negroes to get together and march anywhere for anything at any time. In common parlance, they are supposed ot be just scared and unorganizable. Is this true? I contend it is not."
A. Philip Randolph
February 6, 1941
1941 March on Washington
As the nation prepared for World War II, A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, called for a mass protest on July 1, 1941, to end discrimination in government defense industries. Randolph worked with local organizers to mobilize African American communities and estimated that as many as 100,000 participants had committed themselves to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial.
Just six days before the demonstration, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, establishing the Fair Employment Practice Committee and prohibiting discrimination in defense industries. Randolph canceled the protest, and Roosevelt’s concessions established the precedent that the federal government had a responsibility to address racial discrimination among government contractors.
Button for the 1941 March
National Museum of American History, gift of Rita Jaros
1957 Prayer Pilgrimage
In 1957, civil rights leaders called for a demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial to coincide with the third anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education. Organizers were determined to protest the lack of progress in desegregating schools, draw attention to the deteriorating economic conditions of blacks in the South, and push for new civil rights legislation. More than 25,000 people attended the rally on May 17, making it the largest civil rights demonstration in the nation’s capital. It also served as a training ground for the organizers of the 1963 march, including A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Roy Wilkins.