SocraticGadfly: African-Americans invented Memorial Day? Not so fast, and definitely not on Southerners

May 30, 2023

African-Americans invented Memorial Day? Not so fast, and definitely not on Southerners

It's a stretch, at least, and perhaps wrongful wokeness at worst, to claim a May 1, 1865 memorial to fallen black Union troopers by black Charleston, South Carolina, residents the first Memorial Day. And, yes, David Blight offers good scholarship in resurrecting this event, but not so good in his extrapolation.

First, looking forward past that date? Blight does note that John A. Logan's call in 1868, which included the specific date of May 30 for commemoration, is what stuck.

Second, looking at the event? White missionaries were involved, too. Per the story, it's not clear whether they or the black residents first came up with the idea, or whether it was jointly evolved. It's also not clear if they had some specific inspiration or not.

Southern Whites may have had some role, but this piece overstates that, IMO, and doesn't look at the question of whether or not Southern Whites decorated Black Union soldiers' graves, and I think you know the answer to that. Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware have co-authored a full book about that, and appear to have ignored the March 1, 1865 event entirely, even though it's in Wikipedia's article on Memorial Day. I call shenanigans. That said, contra Blight, Logan never cited the Charleston event, from what I can see, so maybe it's not shenanigans; it just didn't "take."

But, the pair ignore pre-1866 Northern events.

And so, versus Gardiner and Bellware perhaps having a small bit of Lost Cause, or a bigger bit of Steven Spielberg gauze in them, the larger ideas in Blight's book Race and Reunion should take precedence. I have not read this book, but I have read his fantastic Frederick Douglass bio, so I think he knows in general what he's talking about.

Third and looking further back? There was this special battlefield dedication on Nov. 19, 1863, where a guy named A. Lincoln spoke a few words that time has certainly NOT forgotten.

Fourth? Looking further back, I do NOT think Logan was influenced by pre-Civil War Appalachian Decoration Days.

Summary? I hadn't heard of this event before, unless Eric Foner mentioned it and I forgot. It's good to recall it. But, it shouldn't be put on this level of pedestal, either.

Bigger summary? Blight is definitely more right on Gardiner and Bellware on the issue of gauzy heroic memories, especially if they have a hat tip toward the incipient Lost Cause, vs. African-Americans being quickly shoved aside from the remembrance of events. (Blacks fought at Gettysburg, but by the time of the 50th anniversary event in 1913, this was totally, and deliberately ignored.) What the Columbus State duo also ignore is that Logan spoke about "traitors" and other such in his call for Memorial Day, per the Veterans Administration. I quote:

General Logan was aware of these memorial efforts and their origin. In a speech given at an 1866 Independence Day celebration in Salem, IL, he spoke of the practice of floral tributes in the context of post-war Black civil rights, and compares "traitors in the south [that] have their gatherings day after day to strew garlands of flowers upon the graves of the Rebel soldiers" to a Black man "who has gained his liberty by the march and prowess of American arms, [who] shall come along with a basket of flowers to strew upon the grave of some poor loyal soldier that he shall have the right to do it."

So, while he may have been influenced by Southern practice, he was NOT influenced by any ideas behind said practice. So, IMO, it's a stretch to claim Columbus, Georgia, "conveniently" the home of Columbus State University, as the originator of Memorial Day. The "convenience" may also be an attempt to drum up tourism, as are other such claims.

And, if we're to honor Logan's spirit, even if he didn't know about it, we will give a hat tip to Charleston. Sadly, and why it's not on my blogroll anymore, Snopes is semi-dismissive of Blight's framing, and buys the Gardiner-Bellware claims whole and unskeptically. (Yet another reason Snopes shall remain deblogrolled.)

And thus, since Charleston, per Blight, did have the spirit of Logan, I stand by my piece on Memorial Day itself, wishing Happy Memorial Day to the traitors.

Final summary? Gardiner's piece has appeared in numerous places like the "Nebraska Examiner," rated by Media Bias Fact Check as "liberal." (Having looked at the Kansas version, I totally concur.) That was a surprise to me, as I expected wingnut sites to be his biggest touters.

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