Controversy Over the “First Memorial Day” Misses the Point

Martyrs of the race course, charleston sc, first memorial day, african-american, hampton park

Yesterday was Memorial Day, a day on which Americans take time to remember and honor the lives of Americans who gave their lives in military service to the country. 

Here in Charleston, Memorial Day holds additional significance because Charleston is one of the sites that lays claim to holding the first Memorial Day celebration. 

I wrote briefly about this event when I covered some of the history of Hampton Park.

Unnecessary Controversy

Charleston is not the only city in America that has a claim on being the site of the first Memorial Day. In fact, the city of Waterloo, New York was recognized by the Federal Government as the site of the first  Memorial Day.
As a result, when Charlestonians and others try to share the story of the newly freed African-Americans who honored the dead Union soldiers at Washington Race Course shortly after the end of the Civil War, there tends to arrive a bit of controversy. 
People often begin to dispute which city is the “real” First Memorial Day. Everyone lays out their evidence, and shares their links. Usually, no one changes their mind, and a year later, the controversy arises again.
All of this misses the point.

The Need to be the “First” Memorial Day

 Americans revel in distinction. We like to be set apart as examples. There is, after all, an idea of “American Exceptionalism.” We often refer to America as a “Beacon of Liberty.” And our country has a long history of viewing itself as fulfilling a special role in the history of the world, for better or worse.
And so it is with Memorial Day “firsts.” People want their city to be recognized as the First Memorial Day. People want to make that special claim that will set their city apart from all of the other cities that are celebrating and memorializing on such a hallowed day.
The problem is that while people are focusing on being first, they are forgetting the very traditions that they claim to value.

Memorial Day Isn’t About Us

The African-American Charlestonians who wanted to honor the Union dead at the Washington Race Course in May of 1865 weren’t doing so for themselves.
They weren’t thinking about how they would be remembered in history.
They weren’t thinking about being the “first” to celebrate and memorialize the sacrifice of Union soldiers.
No, those newly-free African-Americans were thinking only of honoring the sacrifice of those soldiers that helped to secure the freedom that they were now able to enjoy. They used that new freedom to return appreciation to the soldiers who helped to make it possible. 
That is the very foundation of Memorial Day– using our freedom to honor the lives and sacrifices of those who made it possible. It is those Freedmen and Freedwomen of Charleston who laid that foundation for us, not out of a desire to be recognized, but out of a desire to recognize others. 
That is why, on this and every Memorial Day, we miss the point if we participate in the controversy over the “First” Memorial Day; because the point of Memorial Day is not for us to call attention to ourselves and seek recognition for our celebrations, but to call attention to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and ensure that they are forever recognized for it.
Whether or not the 1865 celebration of the Martyrs of the Race Course in Charleston was the first Memorial Day isn’t what matters. What matters is that the African-Americans who organized it and honored those fallen soldiers laid a foundation for the purpose of Memorial Day that will endure forever. 
From Waterloo to Charleston, that is something on which we should all be able to agree.
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