A Message to Danny, a Black Man, on Memorial Day

Danny is upset today, Memorial Day. He is upset because something horrible happened to black people on May 31, 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He says this:

I get his point. If a country has anyone in their country do bad things, then we shouldn’t honor or celebrate the men and women of all races who gave their lives to protect the freedoms of that country. And NONE of us, especially anyone who has had someone in their victim group harmed by anyone else, should celebrate their sacrifice.

My question to Danny, who, by the way seems like a nice young man even if he has been indoctrinated and misled, “Did you ever or have you ever celebrated this holiday? Did you take the day off work on Monday? Did you have a barbecue, or spend time with friends on this day?” I’d like to know because if you are that upset about this and you still did these things, you are a straight up hypocrite.

If you didn’t, then I guess you didn’t honor the black men and women who died fighting for our country? Because as far as I can tell, this is not called “white” Memorial Day. It’s just called Memorial Day.

But, Danny, since we are going down this path, I would like to recommend to you that you not celebrate ANY American holidays from this point forward. ANY.

That includes July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Valentines Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, Easter, Passover, Ramadan, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day…any holiday that is celebrated in America because bad people in our country have done bad things.

Please, Danny, throw out all the holiday babies with your social justice bath water. If you don’t you are a hypocrite. And a liar.

You know Danny, I understand that you saw the show on History Channel about the Tulsa Tragedy and it made you angry. I get angry any time I see or read descriptions of these events. I really want the people who perpetrated them punished. But, I don’t want to punish the people who didn’t commit them just because they are the same race. And I don’t want to give up on my country because of these events. In fact, I am even more proud of my country for shining light on these horrible acts of violence. China wouldn’t do it. Or Russia. Or any other country.

But maybe you don’t understand that.

But what you should understand is that mankind is not perfect. It never has been nor will it ever be. But if we hold people responsible for events they are not responsible for and if we refuse to look for the good despite the bad, we might as well just all kill ourselves for our false legacy of guilt. Or maybe we should just all get on our knees and surrender to the foreign countries that wish to destroy us.

One more thing. Did you know the following about the origins of Memorial Day?


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.

54th Massachusetts Infantry
The Battle of Fort Wagner on Morris Island was the Union attack on July 18, 1863, led by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The infantry was one of the first major American military units made up of Black soldiers. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

If the news reports are accurate, the 1865 gathering at the Charleston race track would be the earliest Memorial Day commemoration on record. Blight excitedly called the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, looking for more information on the historic event.

“‘I’ve never heard of it,’ they told me,” says Blight. “‘This never happened.’”

But it was clear from the newspaper reports that a Memorial Day observance was organized by freed slaves in Charleston at least a year before other U.S. cities and three years before the first national observance. How had been lost to history for over a century?

“This was a story that had really been suppressed both in the local memory and certainly the national memory,” says Blight. “But nobody who had witnessed it could ever have forgotten it.”

Blight kept digging for more information, but the only other mention he found of the race track event was in a 1916 correspondence sent from a women’s Civil War historical society in New Orleans to its sister chapter in Charleston, asking about a big parade of freed slaves on a horse track at the end of the war.

“I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this,” wrote the Charleston society’s president.

“That’s such a telling statement,” says Blight. “The woman who wrote that letter may not have known about it, but the fact that she didn’t tells the story.”

A sketch of the Union Soldiers cemetery, reading the "Martyrs of the Race course," in Charleston, South Carolina.
A sketch of the Union Soldiers cemetery, reading the “Martyrs of the Race course,” in Charleston, South Carolina.Library of Congress

Once the war was over and Charleston was rebuilt in the 1880s, the city’s white residents likely had little interest in remembering an event held by former enslaved people to celebrate the Union dead. “That didn’t fit their version of what the war was all about,” says Blight.

In time, the old horse track and country club were torn down, and thanks to a gift from a wealthy Northern patron, the Union soldiers’ graves were moved from the humble white-fenced graveyard in Charleston to the Beaufort National Cemetery. By the time Blight was rummaging through the Harvard archives in 1996, the story of the first Memorial Day had been entirely forgotten.

Or perhaps not entirely.

After his book Race and Reunion was published in 2001, Blight gave a talk about Memorial Day at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and after it was finished, an older Black woman approached him.

“You mean that story is true?” the woman asked Blight. “I grew up in Charleston, and my granddaddy used to tell us this story of a parade at the old race track, and we never knew whether to believe him or not. You mean that’s true?”

For Blight, it’s less important whether the 1865 commemoration of the “Martyrs of the Race Course” is officially recognized as the first Memorial Day.

“It’s the fact that this occurred in Charleston at a cemetery site for the Union dead in a city where the Civil war had begun,” says Blight, “and that it was organized and done by African American former slaves is what gives it such poignancy.”


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It’s ironic, isn’t it Danny, that the people whose lives had been destroyed by white slave owners were the ones who wanted to honor the dead of the Civil War, white soldiers who fought for their freedom? Is it possible that they were able to forgive and move on while you, almost 200 years later, aren’t?

Hey, look, though, Danny. I can’t tell you what to do with your life. If you want to live in your anger and hate and never move forward. Go ahead.

Me? I think I will honor all our war heroes of all races.

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I am a 67 year old runner and conservative. I taught for 31 years and retired a few years back. In my life, I have coached and judged gymnastics, coached softball, and raised two amazing kids.

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