Memorial Day first celebrated at Charleston’s Hampton Park
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Charleston was home to the first celebration of Memorial Day, which took place in Hampton Park in 1865.
According to a historical marker in the park, Hampton Park was once home to the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club. In 1864, the site became an outdoor prison for Union soldiers. Before Charleston fell in 1865, more than 250 prisoners died and were buried in mass graves.
After Confederate evacuation, Black ministers and northern missionaries led an effort to reinter bodies and build a fence around a newly established cemetery. Over the entrance, workmen inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Racecourse.”
“On May 1, 1865, a group of newly freed Black people gathered at what is now Hampton Park to put decorations on the graves of the Union soldiers,” said Damon Fordham, an author and historian. “They sang songs and they made speeches, and this was covered not only in Charleston but New York newspapers and this is credited as being the first Memorial Day.”
Fordham said the people that know about the historical significance are usually historians or people who read it on social media. He said this piece of history could inspire people to come together today.
“People have to understand, that there were times when African Americans and whites cooperated together for positive purposes, and this was a fine example of such,” Fordham said. “So, if people understood that positive history, it could lead to inspiration of more positive relations in our own time.”
Mary Matney of Summerville said it was important to her to teach her kids about the history and the people who were willing to die for our freedom.
“We were researching this park last night, and we realized that it was the first site of the first Memorial Day, and so it just was special to us,” Matney said. “We just wanted to spend the day here. We thought it would be neat to commemorate this holiday.”
Gordon Cashwell, a pastor, planned a picnic at Hampton Park with church members. He said they were getting together to remember and pray and do what they did back in 1865.
“We’re just celebrating something that unfortunately is not as well-known as could be in Charleston,” Cashwell said.
Christine Madan of Charleston, whose husband is a veteran, said she came to the park to celebrate the first Memorial Day and all veterans with her church community.
“To find out that it was actually started here, makes me living here more special,” Madan said.
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