Charleston claims first Memorial Day celebration with African Americans playing significant role

VIDEO: Charleston claims first Memorial Day celebration with African Americans playing significant role

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The last Monday in May is always observed as Memorial Day, a day to remember those who lost their lives serving as members of the United States military.

But Hampton Park in Charleston, once home to the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, claims its place in history for the first public celebration of Memorial Day.

During the Civil War in 1864, the Hampton Park site became an outdoor prison for Union soldiers. More than 250 soldiers died there and were buried in mass graves.

At the end of the Civil War, black ministers and northern missionaries led an effort to give the soldiers who had fought for the freedom of slaves a proper burial.

They built a fence around the new cemetery and inscribed the words “Matyrs of the Racecourse” over the entryway.

On May 1, 1865, they organized a parade to honor them. The crowd numbered in the thousands with African American school children from the newly formed Freedmen’s Schools leading the procession.

The National Park service records it as the first observance of what is now recognized as Memorial Day.

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