Memorial Day: Its Roots and Why They Matter

Constructed in 1792, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club was one of the finest race tracks in the South. During the Civil War, it became a prison for Union soldiers, and in 1865, thanks to 10,000 recently freed enslaved Black Charlestonians, it would become the sacred location of the first Memorial Day celebration.

During the war, Union soldiers were held in the open air of the race track’s infield. More than 260 Union soldiers died of exposure and disease due to these horrific conditions. Confederates buried the bodies of the dead in a mass grave behind the track’s club house as Charleston fell to Union forces in February of 1865.

By this time, the city had been mostly abandoned by White residents. As news spread of the mass burial, Black freedmen joined together to unearth those bodies in the mass grave and give them a proper burial. Working for two weeks, these men carefully identified the dead, dug graves for each serviceperson, and marked the graves properly. Then, they built a high fence surrounding the graves, whitewashed the fence, and built an entrance to the cemetery with “Martyrs of the Race Course” inscribed in the archway.

1865 view of Union graves at Washington
Race Course. Source: Library of Congress.

This act of justice and grace was also an act of independence, a celebration of freedom that came at a deep cost for millions of Americans, slave and free, who had been fighting for human rights since the year 1619 when Africans were first enslaved in the swamps of Jamestown, Virginia to grow tobacco.

In the weeks that followed the race course burial, Black Charlestonians organized a parade to consecrate the place and remember the fallen. 2,800 Black schoolchildren and their teachers carried hundreds of roses, sang the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body” and marched toward the Washington Racecourse in Charleston, South Carolina where the 267 Union soldiers had been given proper burial just two weeks before.

Charlestonian students and their teachers leading the first Memorial Day celebration. Source: African American Registry.

Behind the children came waves of recently freed Black women and men, members of the Union infantry, and some White citizens. As many as 10,000 people all told gathered within the enclosure of the newly erected cemetery to show gratitude for the sacrifice given for their freedom and celebrate a second Independence Day, only now this independence would flow out onto the lives of those previously denied independence by their own nation’s Constitution.

Children’s choirs sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” and several spirituals and ministers read Biblical scriptures. After the planned activities, those gathered spread out on the very infield where Union soldiers had been held as prisoners of war just months before and enjoyed what many Americans today associate with Memorial Day: a good picnic.

This act of solidarity on the grounds of what had once been a place for planters to display their wealth and privilege (and even hold auctions to sell enslaved people) became the foundation on which our national Memorial Day holiday has been built. But as often happens in the American retelling of historical human events, the story line of resilience and service and pride of Black Americans that should serve as the driving force behind so many of our national celebrations today has been erased and subsequently replaced with later actions and celebrations of White people.

Over time, those buried in the Martyrs of the Race Course cemetery were reinterred to a national cemetery. Today, the race track is part of a city park named for a White supremacist and former governor of South Carolina, Wade Hampton. Hampton came from a wealthy planter and was known before the war as one of the largest slaveholders in the southeast. The so-called “Savior of South Carolina,” Hampton was also a state legislator and led the Redeemers, a southern political group dedicated to restoring White rule in the South following Reconstruction.

The Washington race track at Hampton Park today. Source: Visit Historic Charleston.

Stories matter. Telling the truth about our nation’s history matters. Celebrating national holidays with a full measure of knowledge and not a whitewashed version of the truth matters. May we all walk arm-in-arm today towards wholeness and restoration as we embrace the histories and experiences of all Americans and remember those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.


Blight, D. (2011). The First Decoration Day. Retrieved May 24, 2020, from

Featured image: Memorial Day, illustration for The New York Times. Artist: Owen Freeman.

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