Decoration Day, or How Memorial Day Began as a Black Holiday

May 25, 2009 · Print This Article · Email This Post

A Decoration Day Vintage Postcard, c. 1907If we had lived a century ago, we would be celebrating Decoration Day today, instead of Memorial Day. While the patriotic sentiment of honoring the fallen remains the same, the holiday, originally celebrated to honor Union troops who perished in the Civil War, has changed in scope; we now honor all war dead on Memorial Day.

As seen in this c. 1907 embossed patriotic postcard, the term “Decoration Day” is used to describe the holiday. Great care has been taken in detailing the post card, which shows an elderly veteran with a cane saluting his fallen comrades, with a large wreath of forget-me-nots placed in the foreground and the whole enveloped in a patriotic red, white and blue surround.

The holiday fittingly began as a black history celebration, with the first impromptu Decoration Day observed in 1865 by liberated slaves in Charleston, SC at Washington Race Course (now Hampton Park). The race course had been both a Confederate prison camp and a mass grave for Union soldiers who died in captivity. In a process which took only 10 days, freed slaves exhumed bodies from the mass grave, reinterring each Union solder in an individual grave. When finished, the former slaves built a fence around the graveyard, added an entry arch, and declared the site a Union cemetery. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of up to 10,000 mainly black residents, including 2,800 children, went to the graveyard and celebrated with a picnic, sermons and singing. And thus Decoration Day was born. However, Waterloo, NY gets the credit as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, because the village first formally observed the holiday on 5 May 1866.

Honoring the G.A.R., the Grand Army of the Republic and Its Union Civil War Soldiers, on Decoration Day, c. 1907 PostcardMajor General John A. Logan, a Murphysboro, Illinois native, helped popularize Decoration Day. On May 5, 1868, while commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (a veterans’ organization), he issued a proclamation calling for nationwide observance of Decoration Day; it took place on 30 May, a date chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle.

Noted postcard publishers such as Raphael Tuck created Decoration Day postcards, while famed postcard artists such as Ellen Clapsaddle created dramatic patriotic compositions. The London-based Tuck publishing company also created a series of much scarcer Confederate Memorial Day postcards; the South, unwilling for years to participate in a holiday honoring Union dead, didn’t adopt Memorial Day celebrations for the most part until after World War I, as Memorial Day began to take on a larger meaning commemorating all war dead. The alternative Memorial Day name, first used in 1882, didn’t become more common until after World War II. It wasn’t until 1967 that it was declared the holiday’s official name by Federal law.

Read about Juneteenth, a lesser-known (to white folks) holiday celebrating post-Civil War emancipation which is still observed today.

Copyright © 2009


2 Responses to “Decoration Day, or How Memorial Day Began as a Black Holiday”

  1. Marie on May 25th, 2009 1:18 pm

    Very groovy! I posted a decoration day card today too:) I’m glad that you didn’t skimp on the fascinating holiday history!

  2. Claudia@DipityRoad on May 25th, 2009 11:22 pm

    I had no idea– very interesting!  Always fun to read you.

    Have a great week.

    TTFN — Claudia