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    An illustration of the Union prisoners’ cemetery in Charleston, published in Harper’s Weekly two years after the May 1865 celebration.
    © Alfred R. Waud/New York Public Library


    Black people may have started Memorial Day. Whites erased it from history.
    Story by Donald Beaulieu • Yesterday 6:00 AM

    On May 1, 1865, thousands of newly freed Black people gathered in Charleston, S.C., for what may have been the nation’s first Memorial Day celebration. Attendees held a parade and put flowers on the graves of Union soldiers who had helped liberate them from slavery.

    The event took place three weeks after the Civil War surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and two weeks after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It was a remarkable moment in U.S. history — at the nexus of war and peace, destruction and reconstruction, servitude and emancipation.

    But the day would not be remembered as the first Memorial Day. In fact, White Southerners made sure that for more than a century, the day wasn’t remembered at all.

    It was “a kind of erasure from public memory,” said David Blight, a history professor at Yale University.

    The contested Confederate roots of Memorial Day
    In February 1865, Confederate soldiers withdrew from Charleston after the Union had bombarded it with offshore cannon fire for more than a year and began to cut off supply lines. The city surrendered to the Union army, leaving a massive population of freed formerly enslaved people.

    Also left in the wake of the Confederate evacuation were the graves of more than 250 Union soldiers, buried without coffins behind the judge’s stand of the Washington Race Course, a Charleston horse track that had been converted into an outdoor prison for captured Northerners. The conditions were brutal, and most of those who had died succumbed to exposure or disease.

    In April, about two dozen of Charleston’s freed men volunteered to disinter the bodies and rebury them in rows of marked graves, surrounded by a wooden, freshly whitewashed fence, according to newspaper accounts from the time.

    Then, on May 1, about 10,000 people — mostly formerly enslaved people — turned out for a memorial service that the freed people had organized, along with abolitionist and journalist James Redpath and some White missionaries and teachers from the North. Redpath described the day in the New-York Tribune as “such a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina or the United States never saw before.”

    The day’s events began around 9 a.m. with a parade led by about 2,800 Black schoolchildren, who had just been enrolled in new schools, bearing armfuls of flowers. They marched around the horse track and entered the cemetery gate under an arch with black-painted letters that read “Martyrs of the Race Course.” The schoolchildren proceeded through the cemetery and distributed the flowers on the gravesites.

    Other attendees entered the cemetery with even more flowers, as the schoolchildren sang songs including “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “John Brown’s Body.”

    “When all had left,” Redpath wrote, “the holy mounds — the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them — were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfume from them, outside and beyond, to the sympathetic multitude, there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.”

    In 1865, thousands of Black South Carolinians signed a 54-foot-long freedom petition < look after the first image below >

    The dedication ended with prayers and Bible verses from local Black ministers, followed by speeches from Union officers and Northern missionaries, a picnic on the racecourse and drills by Union infantrymen, including some African American regiments. The observance didn’t end until sundown.

    And then, Blight said, the event was forgotten. Not right away — but within a few decades, any recollection persisted merely as rumor, in verbal anecdotes.

    The reason, he said, is that “by the middle and end of Reconstruction, the Black folks of Charleston were not creating the public memory of that city.”

    The Southern generals who stuck with the Union in the Civil War
    The portrayal of the Civil War and its aftermath was controlled in the South by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ladies’ Memorial Association, as well as Confederate veterans, Blight said.

    “The Daughters of the Confederacy were the guardians of that narrative,” said Damon Fordham, an adjunct professor of history at The Citadel, a military college in Charleston. “And much of that was skewed toward the Confederate point of view.”

    Blight chronicled the 1865 Charleston ritual in his 2001 book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” based on evidence that Fordham helped him uncover. Blight had been researching the book in 1999, in an archive of the Houghton Library at Harvard University, when he found a collection of papers written by Union veterans that contained a description of the May 1, 1865, events in Charleston.

    If the description was accurate, Blight said, he knew that “that event in Charleston deserves its own full commemoration, just because of the poignancy of it, the sheer scale of it.”

    But first he had to corroborate it. One of the first places he contacted was the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. “I called up the curator there,” Blight recalled, “and I said, ‘I just found this in a collection of veterans materials. Have you ever heard of this story?’ And the guy said, ‘No. That never happened.’”

    The “guy” was Fordham, who at the time was a graduate student at the college and a research assistant at Avery. Despite his doubts, Fordham knew the center had microfilm of the Charleston Courier, a daily newspaper from that time, so he checked it.

    “About two hours later, he called me back, and he said, ‘Oh my God, here it is,’” Blight said. It was a Courier article from May 2, 1865, “describing this extraordinary parade on the old planters’ racecourse.”

    Blight went on to find more proof, including an illustration of the fenced cemetery that was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1867. “Pretty soon I had all these sources that no one had ever bumped into, so one thing kept leading to another,” he said. “But even people in Charleston said, ‘No, never heard of it.’ That shows the power of the erasure of public memory over time.”

    In the book, Blight describes a 1916 letter written by the president of the Ladies’ Memorial Association in Charleston, replying to an inquiry about the May 1, 1865, parade. “A United Daughters of the Confederacy official wanted to know if it was true that blacks and their white abolitionist friends had engaged in such a burial rite,” he wrote. “Mrs. S.C. Beckwith responded tersely: ‘I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this.’”

    In the 1880s, the bodies of the Union soldiers, the “Martyrs of the Race Course,” were exhumed and moved to Beaufort National Cemetery. The horse track closed shortly after that, and the 60 acres of land became Hampton Park, named for Wade Hampton III, a Confederate general and Charleston native who became governor of South Carolina in 1876. Hampton enslaved nearly 1,000 people before the war, and his governorship was supported by the Red Shirts, a White paramilitary group that violently suppressed the Black vote.

    After slavery, Black people desperately searched for family through newspaper ads <look after second image below>
    By the end of the century, no vestige of the racecourse, the cemetery or the 1865 parade remained.

    More spring graveside memorials followed the one in Charleston. Several occurred in towns across the country in the spring of 1866, and many of these places — such as Columbus, Miss., whose commemoration became annual — claim to have held the original Memorial Day observance. Officially, the nation recognizes Memorial Day as having started in Waterloo, N.Y.

    In Charleston, the freed people didn’t have the power to develop an annual tradition after 1865. But the city now recognizes itself, regardless, as the holiday’s birthplace.

    “On May 1, 1865, a parade to honor the Union war dead took place here,” reads a state historical marker erected in Hampton Park in 2017. “The event marked the earliest celebration of what became known as ‘Memorial Day.’”







    This 54-foot-long petition bears the signatures of hundreds of men who participated in the State Convention of Colored People of South Carolina in 1865. (Gwenanne Edwards/Library of Congress, Conservation Division)


    In 1865, thousands of Black South Carolinians signed a 54-foot-long freedom petition
    It goes on display Friday for the first time at the African American history museum in Washington.

    By Michael E. Ruane
    September 23, 2021 at 7:43 p.m. EDT


    In November 1865, eight months after the end of the Civil War, a group of African Americans formed a convention in Charleston, S.C., drew up a petition demanding their civil rights and sent it to Congress in Washington.

    “We the undersigned colored citizens of South Carolina, do respectfully ask … in consideration of our unquestioned loyalty [that in the] re-establishment of civil government in South Carolina, our equal rights before the law may be respected,” the handwritten document begins.

    What followed were 3,740 signatures, then-Sen. Jacob M. Howard (R-Mich.) told his Senate colleagues after receiving the petition — on a document that was 54 feet long.

    It was a striking appeal from the newly freed, and previously free, African Americans, asking that they not be forgotten in the country’s postwar reconstruction. Never displayed publicly before, it goes on exhibit Friday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

    “The petition is a real touchstone for the expectations and the will of … African Americans …[who saw] this moment in the county’s history as a new beginning,” said Katy Kendrick, exhibitions curator at the museum. It’s a “very powerful and very direct claiming of full rights of citizenship.”

    The petition is part of a new exhibit of 175 objects at the museum entitled “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies.”

    The exhibit covers the turbulent postwar era of Reconstruction as the vanquished Southern states sought to recreate prewar racial oppression, and African Americans fought, ultimately in vain, to prevent it.

    And it examines the legacy of that struggle today.

    It includes a frightening Ku Klux Klan head mask with horns, made of cloth and animal fur, owned by a Confederate army officer in North Carolina and used to terrorize Black residents.

    It includes a document from the Freedmen’s Bureau, the federal agency set up to help the 4 million people newly freed, that tells of a mother’s attempt get her two children back from their former enslaver.

    Caroline Atkinson went to the bureau’s office in Vicksburg, Miss., in September 1867, two years after slavery had been abolished in 1865.

    But her daughters Elizabeth, 10, and Mary Jane, 11, were still in the hands of one William Atkinson, who had refused to return them unless he was paid $100 — roughly $1,600 today.

    She signed the document with an X. The bureau investigated and ordered the children returned to their mother, according to the museum.

    There’s an old pew from a former Black church, as well as the stained glass windows picturing Confederate generals that was removed from Washington National Cathedral in 2017.

    The Cathedral announced Thursday that the windows would be replaced with racial justice-themed windows created by Black artist Kerry James Marshall.

    The exhibit also includes a Bible and nine-page Bible study guide loaned by a survivor of the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where nine African Americans were murdered on June 17, 2015.

    That church is across the street from the site of the old Zion Presbyterian Church, where the freedom petition was drawn up 150 years before. (Zion Presbyterian was demolished in 1960, according to a study by the College of Charleston.)

    “Reconstruction was a pivotal moment … when the nation had an opportunity to make amends for the injustices of slavery and rebuild itself on a new foundation of racial equality,” Kevin Young, the museum director, said in a statement.

    “While some gains were made, this was also a period of voter suppression … violence and unlawful incarceration,” he said. “Because of the work left unfinished … and the decades of discrimination that followed, the struggle … continues in society today.”

    The signers of the petition to Congress met at the “State Convention of the Colored People of South Carolina” over six days in late November 1865 at Zion Presbyterian, according to an account of the proceedings printed by a local newspaper. At the time, Zion Presbyterian was the biggest church in Charleston and a center for the Black community.

    In addition to the petition, the convention issued a number of resolutions, including:

    “That in the death of the late President of the United States, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, this nation has sustained an irreparable loss and we, as a race, deprived of a noble friend. We sympathize with his afflicted family and will ever hold his name in grateful remembrance.”

    Lincoln had been assassinated the previous April.

    The convention resolved: “That we hereby object to a ‘negro code’ [of law]. … In our humble opinion a code of laws for the government of all, regardless of color, is all that is necessary for the advancement of the interests and prosperity of the state.”

    Oppressive state laws restricting the lives of African Americans, called “Black Codes,” soon became a grim hallmark of Reconstruction.

    The convention issued an address to the people of South Carolina:

    “Heretofore we have had no avenues opened to us or our children — We have had no firesides that we could call our own. … The laws that have made white men great have degraded us because we are colored. …

    “But now that we are free, now that we have been lifted up by the providence of God … we have resolved to come forward, and … speak and act for ourselves.”

    And it resolved:

    “As the old institution of slavery has passed away … we cherish in our hearts no hatred or malice toward those who have held our brethren as slaves, but we extend the right hand of fellowship to all and make it our special aim to establish unity, peace and love amongst all men.”






    Mary Bailey searches for her children. Her ad ran Nov. 24, 1866, in the Daily Dispatch newspaper in Richmond.


    ‘My mother was sold from me’: After slavery, the desperate search for loved ones in ‘last seen ads’

    By DeNeen L. Brown
    September 7, 2017 at 7:30 a.m. EDT


    Ten months after the Civil War ended, an enslaved woman who had been ripped away from her children started looking for them.

    Elizabeth Williams, who had been sold twice since she last saw her children, placed a heart-wrenching ad in a newspaper:

    “INFORMATION WANTED by a mother concerning her children,” Williams wrote March 17, 1866, in the Christian Recorder newspaper in Philadelphia. Her ad was one of thousands taken out by formerly enslaved people looking for lost relatives after the Civil War.

    Those ads are now being digitized in a project called “Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery,” < https://informationwanted.org/ >which is run by Villanova University’s graduate history program in collaboration with Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church.

    In four column inches, the mother summed up her life, hoping the rich details would help her find the children. She listed their names — Lydia, William, Allen, and Parker — and explained in a few words that she last saw them when they were “formerly owned together” by a man named John Petty who lived about six miles from Woodbury, Tenn.

    She explained how her family was split apart when she was sold again and taken farther south into captivity.

    “She has never seen the above-named children since,” the ad said. “Any information given concerning them, however, will be gratefully received by one whose love for her children survives the bitterness and hardships of many long years spent in slavery.”

    The “Last Seen” ads started appearing around 1863. By 1865, when the Civil War ended, they were coming out in streams. Black people torn away from family members by slavery placed thousands of “Information Wanted” notices in black-owned newspapers across the country, seeking any help to find loved ones.

    In the ads, mothers looked for their children; children looked for their mothers; fathers placed ads for lost sons; sisters looked for sisters; husbands sought their wives; wives tried to find their husbands. The ads showed in real time the destruction slavery wrought on black families, tearing people apart and scattering generations like leaves in the wind.

    The ads often gave detailed physical descriptions of the missing, names of former slave owners, locations subscribers “last saw” family members and sometimes maps, tracing how many times they were sold from one owner to the next until they so far from family members all they had to cling to was sketchy memories.

    Many of the Last Seen ads, dating from 1863 to 1902, were placed in the Christian Recorder, the official newspaper of the African Methodist Church. Others ads were placed in the Black Republican in New Orleans, the South Carolina Leader in Charleston, the Colored Citizen in Cincinnati, the Free Men’s Press in Galveston, Texas, and the Colored Tennessean in Nashville.

    Judy Giesberg, the graduate program director at Villanova’s History Department, began noticing the newspaper ads while researching the story of Emilie Davis, a free black woman who lived in Philadelphia during the Civil War and kept a diary while there.

    “Emilie Davis would write about a lecture she would see or some event in Philadelphia,” Giesberg said. “If she said she went to see Frederick Douglass, we would look in the newspaper to see where he was. It was hard to overlook these ads.”

    Sometimes the ads took up columns and columns that would make up whole pages, which captured the weight of the missing and the desperation of subscribers to find them.

    Giesberg started collecting the ads with the intention of one day making them available to people online. “I started with the AME Church newspaper,” Giesberg said. “It was the first place I noticed the ads. When I started looking in other black newspapers, I found this was a common phenomenon to include ads taken by people who were one step out of slavery.”

    Last August, Giesberg created the “LAST SEEN: FINDING FAMILY AFTER SLAVERY” website, where genealogists and other researchers can search for specific names and locations. Two graduate students — Margaret Strolle and James Byrd — read microfilm to find the material. The site uses volunteers to help transcribe the ads. There are now more than 2,000 ads on the site, of which 1,500 have been transcribed. Since January, the site has been visited by more than 1 million unique visitors.

    “There are comparable projects that have collected runaway slave ads,” Giesberg said. What is unique about Last Seen ads, she added, “is they were taken out from the other perspective. They were taken out by the enslaved people.”

    The Last Seen ads break down what genealogists and researchers call the “1870 Census Wall.” Before the 1870 Census, there were very few official records of black people.  Enslaved black people were often listed as property, by a check mark, a number or by a gender. They were often listed on bills of sale, like chattel. When researchers try to get information on enslaved black people, they often hit a brick wall when searching for information before 1870.

    “What the ads do is reach from the other side of the 1870 Census Wall,” Giesberg said. “The ads place people together in a time before 1870.”

    The ads tell real stories of real people with real names, humanizing enslaved people, something slave owners often tried to prevent.

    “Slave owners often painted a portrait of enslaved people as part of a happy family in which white men were patriarchs,” Giesberg said. The ads go “beyond that myth, the myth of the benign slaveholder who believes he was a good slaveholder and all the slaves belonged to him. These ads are where real truth lies.”

    Enslaved people lived with the constant fear that they or a family member would be sold.

    “Slave owners’ wealth lay largely in the people they owned, therefore, they frequently sold and or purchased people as finances warranted,” according to a report by the National Humanities Center, a nonprofit that collects primary historical resources. “An enslaved person could be sold as part of an estate when his owner died, or because the owner needed to liquidate assets to pay off debts or because the owner thought the enslaved person was a troublemaker.”

    An exhibit entitled “The Weeping Time” at the Smithsonian’s African American Museum of History and Culture explains the circumstances that often split families apart.

    “Night and day, you could hear men and women screaming … ma, pa, sister or brother … taken without any warning,” according to a witness account in the exhibit. “People was always dying from a broken heart.”

    Another witness described an emotional scene at a slave auction. A mother clings to her baby while being whipped with a lash because she refused to put her baby down and climb an auction block.

    The woman pleaded for God’s mercy, Henry Bibb recounted.

    “But the child was torn from the arms of its mother amid the most heart rending-shrieks from the mother and child on the one hand, and the bitter oaths and cruel lashes from the tyrants on the other,” Bibb recalled. “Finally, the poor child was torn from the mother while she sacrificed to the highest bidder.”

    In a “Last Seen” ad placed on April 17, 1902, in the Christian Recorder newspaper in Philadelphia, a woman seeks information about “my people.”
    “My mother was sold from me when I could but crawl,” the woman writes.

    Since the sale, “I never saw any of my people. I was about 39 years old last March and am married and living at Panama, Vernon Co., Mo. My name is Mary Delaney; it used to be Mary Long. Address me at Post office: Panama, Vernon county, Mo.”

    In a “Last Seen” ad placed on April 17, 1902, in the Christian Recorder newspaper in Philadelphia, a woman seeks information about “my people.”
    “My mother was sold from me when I could but crawl,” the woman writes.

    Since the sale, “I never saw any of my people. I was about 39 years old last March and am married and living at Panama, Vernon Co., Mo. My name is Mary Delaney; it used to be Mary Long. Address me at Post office: Panama, Vernon county, Mo.”

    Some of the ads were intentionally vague, masking details, and  mysteriously leaving out specific names and locations. These ads showed mental calculations of a people one step out of slavery. Even after Lincoln declared enslaved people in Confederate states to be freed, they were suspicious about the terms of that Emancipation, fearing that at any time they could be pulled back into slavery.

    In a June 7, 1883, ad placed in the Southwestern Christian Advocate in New Orleans, an unnamed man searched for his son. The ad is brief: “Mr. EDITOR,” the man wrote, “I desire to hear from my son. His name was Tony Jones. I have not seen him since the war. He lived with Thomas Jones. His mother was Julia Jones.”

    If anyone should know Tony Jones — the enslaved man with the same name as his “master”— he asks them to write to him care of P.P. Brooks in Shelbyville, Tex.
    The ad is unsigned.

    Other ads gave insight into how people lived, their aspirations and successes.

    In an ad placed June 28, 1883, in the Southwestern Christian Advocate newspaper in New Orleans, Betty Davis inquires “for my people.” Davis explained that she was separated from her mother when she was three years old.

    “I am now 55 years of age,” she wrote. “I learned how to read when I was 50. I take and read the SOUTHWESTERN, it is food for my soul. I am anxious and would be glad to hear something of my mother or my brother Henry. Someone help me.”

    Sometimes, the ads led to happy endings.

    In an Aug. 26, 1886, ad that ran in the Southwestern Christian Advocate newspaper, which did not charge for publishing letters from subscribers, Alcy Boone wrote a letter to the editor saying she found who she was looking for:

    “I have found my mother through the dear SOUTHWESTERN. God bless you and your paper; it resurrects the forgotten, the lost can be found.”



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