The cemetery had been built on the grounds of the Race Course by two dozen men, groups that identified themselves as the “Friends of the Martyrs” and the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men.”
According to The Charleston Post and Courier, on a Monday morning, May, 1865, nearly 10,000 former slaves marched onto the grounds of the old Washington Race Course, where wealthy Charleston planters and socialites had gathered in old times. During the final year of the war, the track had been turned into a prison camp. Hundreds of Union soldiers died there and were buried in mass graves…
For two weeks in April, former slaves worked to re-inter the Union soldiers in proper individual graves. On May 1, 1865, they sought to give them a proper funeral. The procession began at 9 a.m. as 2,800 black school children marched by their graves, softly singing “John Brown’s Body.” Former slave children strew flowers on the graves as they walked past. After “John Brown’s Body,” they sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America” and “Rally Round the Flag.” By the end, the graves looked like a massive mound of rose petals.
Soon, their voices would give way to the sermons of preachers, then prayer and — later — picnics. It was May 1, 1865 — they called it Decoration Day, but on that day, former Charleston slaves started a tradition that would come to be known as Memorial Day.
Jack Johnson’s podcasts are a wealth of information in the tradition of “the first grassroots media project of its kind on the internet”. APV thanks Jack, as always, and we hope you will continue to enjoy his series, Hidden Histories.