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Photo of Senator Doug McCrory.

STATE SENATOR

Doug McCrory

Lifting as We Climb

Remembering on Memorial Day

I’d like to take a moment to share with you a subject that is not about Democrats or Republicans, and which doesn’t have to do with the state budget. It’s about Memorial Day, and being an American.

Memorial Day is this Monday, May 29. Originally called “Decoration Day,” Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service to America.

Memorial Day was borne out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, that “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.

On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

The first state to officially recognize Decoration Day was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring all Americans who died fighting in any war.) Memorial Day is now observed in almost every state on the last Monday in May following Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971.

But let me note that three years before that national declaration, on May 1, 1865, former Black slaves started their own Memorial Day in America, the first Memorial Day in America.

The event occurred in Charleston, South Carolina to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. These former slaves dug up those bodies and worked for two weeks to give those 257 veterans a proper burial as a symbol of gratitude for the men who had fought and died for their freedom.

Together with teachers and missionaries, Black residents of Charleston organized a ‘May Day’ ceremony that year 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 10,000 people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead: involved were about 3,000 Black school children newly enrolled in Freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, Black ministers, and White northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to be placed on the burial field. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.

Meanwhile, you might wonder what Red Poppies have to do with Memorial Day – sometimes you will see veterans or young children selling artificial red poppies outside of supermarkets on Memorial Day weekend.

Well, those poppies were inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, which begins “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row.” Another poet, Moina Michael, wrote a poem in 1918 called “We Shall Keep the Faith” which reads in part, “We cherish, too, the poppy red That grows on fields where valor led; It seems to signal to the skies That blood of heroes never dies, But lends a lustre to the red Of the flower that blooms above the dead In Flanders Fields.”

Another poet, Moina Michael, wrote a poem in 1918 called "We Shall Keep the Faith" which reads in part, "We cherish, too, the poppy red that grows on fields where valor led; It seems to signal to the skies that blood of heroes never dies, but lends a lustre to the red of the flower that blooms above the dead in Flanders Fields." Michael made a personal pledge to “keep the faith” to remember our war dead, and she vowed to wear the red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922, the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies.