Today it’s considered the unofficial start of summer, but the final Monday of May was originally known as Decoration Day. It originated in the years following the Civil War and became the official holiday of Memorial Day in 1971. The initial name was derived from the fact that decorating graves was, and remains, a central activity of an ancient folk custom established long before America’s Civil War. Join WRTI jazz as we celebrate this custom throughout the weekend with songs of freedom and patriotism.
Arlington National Cemetery was the site of the first national commemoration of Memorial Day on May 30th, 1968, where Union and Confederate soldiers were buried. While several towns and cities claim to be the first to mark the holiday, a remarkable discovery in a dusty Harvard University archive in the late 1990s changed what historians know about the earliest commemoration organized by freed Blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, just days after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.
David Blight, a professor of American History at Yale University, was researching a book on the Civil War and uncovered a lost chapter of history while going through two boxes of unsorted material from Union veterans.
“There was a file labeled "First Decoration Day,” Blight recalled to History.com. “And inside on a piece of cardboard was a narrative handwritten by an old veteran, plus a date referencing an article in the New York Tribune. The narrative told the essence of the story that I ended up telling in my book, of this march on the race track in 1865.”
During the late stages of the Civil War, the Confederate army transformed the formerly posh Charleston-based Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into a makeshift prison for Union captives. Disease and exposure contributed to the death of over 250 Union soldiers whose bodies were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstands.
Between the end of the war and May 1, mourners from several African-American churches and those recently freed from enslavement decided to give the fallen soldiers a proper burial. According to History.com, they exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Then Blight reported: “A procession stepped off, led by 3,000 Black school children carrying armloads of roses and singing. The children were followed by several hundred Black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.” Later, these soldiers were buried in cemeteries in Beaufort or Florence or buried in their home communities.
This historical development brings to light the prominent role that Black soldiers played throughout history, with Philadelphia at the forefront of their recognition. Charles Fuller, the Philadelphia playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize in drama for “A Soldier’s Play” noted that “African Americans have fought in every war that the United States has ever been involved in.” Philadelphia holds a piece of recognition for these soldiers, right in the center of everything. The “All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors” sculpture (a 1934 commission) by J. Otto Schweizer recognizes the contributions of minority troops.
There was a considerable dispute about placing the statue on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and, at the time, officials agreed on a location three miles from the original suggestion, in a remote area of Fairmount Park. In 1994, the All Wars Memorial was moved to Aviator Park, along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 20th Street across from the Franklin Institute.
While Memorial Day traditions have evolved over the years, the purpose of the observance is quite clear - to pay tribute to everyone who sacrificed their lives for this country. Now you have another monument to decorate.
Join us during regular jazz hours as we present songs of freedom of patriotism throughout the holiday weekend. These selections will feature jazz reditions of spirituals and traditionals attributed to the Civil War, as well as festive gems from patriotic favorites like Benny Goodman and the Airmen of Note.
On Sunday night starting at 9, we are happy to present live concerts from the Airmen of Note, the premier jazz ensemble of the United States Air Force, featuring special guests Karrin Allyson, Paquito D'Rivera and many others from The Best of the Jazz Heritage Series. Be sure to tune in!