The practice of decorating soldiers' graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers' graves were even decorated in the U.S. before the Civil War. There are various claims as to where today's holiday originated. A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier's grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia on June 3, 1861, implying the first Memorial Day occurred there. There is authentic documentation that women in Savannah, Georgia decorated soldiers' graves in 1862. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. There is another claim that ladies in Boalsburg, PA decorated soldiers' graves on July 4, 1864. As a result, Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
However, the first well-known observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. The Afrikan American residents which included teachers and missionaries, organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, "Martyrs of the Race Course." Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 school children newly enrolled in freedmen's schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, black ministers, and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site is used as Hampton Park. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the "First Decoration Day" in the North.
David W. Blight described the day:
"This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
But given the racist history of the U.S., one that continues to deny the contributions of Afrikan people, might this be the origin of Memorial Day?