When Charleston fell and Confederate troops evacuated the badly damaged city, those freed from enslavement remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial. They exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
And then on May 1, 1865, something even more extraordinary happened. According to two reports that Blight found in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track. Three thousand Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body.” Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.
One of the Earliest Memorial Day Ceremonies Was Held by Freed African Americans
It’s time for America to truly grapple with its legacy of slavery.
“There are those in this society that still hold on to the idea that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights or Northern aggression against slavery,” says Karlos Hill, a professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory. “Juneteenth is a moment where we step back and try to understand the Civil War through the eyes of enslaved people.”
Why celebrating Juneteenth is more important now than ever
In many ways, Juneteenth represents how freedom and justice in the US has always been delayed for black people. The decades after the end of the war would see a wave of lynching, imprisonment, and Jim Crow laws take root. What followed was the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration, discriminatory housing policies, and a lack of economic investment. And now, as national attention remain focused on acts of police violence and various racial profiling incidents, it is clear that while progress has been made in black America’s 150 years out of bondage, considerable barriers continue to impede that progress.