According to this article by Dave Roos, the earliest Memorial Day commemoration took place May 1, 1865. Formerly enslaved people and white missionaries staged a parade around the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina, which during the war had been pressed into service as a prisoner-of-war camp for Union soldiers. After the mayor of Charleston surrendered on February 18, 1865 and Confederate troops left the city, newly-freed people exhumed over 260 Union soldiers from a mass grave behind the racetrack’s grandstand and gave them proper burials in a new cemetery. Exhuming and properly burying so many bodies took two weeks.
Like too many stories of the African-American experience of this country, it could have remained in the realm of solely oral tradition (if not lost entirely). But a Union veteran’s written remembrance and the persistence searching of historian David Blight (among others) led to a news account of the event in The New York Tribune (founded by Horace Greeley) and another in the Charleston Courier, brought this origin story of Memorial Day into the light.
Memorial Day 2023, the remembrances of American military veterans who have died will include those killed in action as part of Ukraine’s foreign legion. Malcolm Nance, a U.S. Navy veteran intelligence officer and commentator for MSNBC is perhaps the highest-profile of these volunteers, having joined the legion after his contract with MSNBC expired. He (and others) have done this as private citizens, despite repeated warnings not to do so from the Biden administration. In explaining his reasons for volunteering, Nance referenced the story of Eugene Bullard, one of a small handful of black pilots during World War I, and the only one who fought on behalf of France.
I’m especially struck by the story of Cooper T. Andrews, a retired Marine Corps sergeant who reported died last month at age 26 in a mortar attack while helping to evacuate people from Bahkmut, Ukraine (which recently fell to the mercenaries of Wagner Group). Andrews grew up around Cleveland, Ohio and according to his mother his passion for social justice was fueled at least in part by Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of police in 2014. Also according to his mother, his experiences with his Ukrainian unit were better than those during his service in the Marine Corps, where he experienced racism from his fellow Marines. This in particular reminded me of what I’ve read in history about the Harlem Hellfighters, who fought under French command during World War I. As of this writing, Willow Andrews (the mother of Cooper) is still fighting to have her son’s remains returned to the U.S. for burial, having struggled to do so via the U.S. State Department.
It saddens me that even today it can still be the case sometimes that an African-American finds more kinship and common ground abroad with the fighting men of those countries than in the country of their birth and citizenship.