The forgotten true story behind Memorial Day—and why it matters now more than ever

It was described at the time as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

On May 1, 1865, a crowd of 10,000 formerly enslaved people and some white missionaries staged a solemn procession around the track at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina. The once high-tone club had been turned into a prison for Union soldiers during the waning days of the Civil War, and due to disease and injury, it had also become a mass gravesite. Upon “emancipation,” the formerly enslaved exhumed the bodies and provided them a proper burial, behind a new fence holding these words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

According to contemporary news reports from the New York Tribune and the Charleston Courier, Black ministers presided over the parade, while three thousand Black children sang “John Brown’s Body.” Members of Black regiments performed double-time marches. There were speeches. It was grand.

David Blight, a professor of American History at Yale University who was researching a book on the Civil War at the time, found a file titled the “First Decoration Day,” the original name of Memorial Day, in a box of unsorted records from Union soldiers held by Harvard’s Houghton Library. “And inside on a piece of cardboard was a narrative handwritten by an old veteran, plus a date referencing an article in the New York Tribune. That narrative told the essence of the story that I ended up telling in my book, of this march on the racetrack in 1865.”

Blight recounts this story in his 2001 book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. It was also an analysis of the naked attempt to disappear the poignant episode from the post-War narrative. “The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration,” he writes. That said, “white Charlestonians suppressed from memory this founding.”

Other cities have claimed the first-ever Memorial Day event, but if the news reports are correct, then the Black community of Charleston wins not only for being first, but also for being the most dedicated to the virtues of gratitude, faith, and reconciliation.

It would have been a lovely story to share at summer barbeques and family picnics on Monday. But, no.

“Americans faced an overwhelming task after the Civil War and emancipation,” writes Blight. “[H]ow to understand the tangled relationship between two profound ideas — healing and justice.” Absent a national truth and reconciliation effort, the country was adrift to wrangle the “warring notions of healing,” that emerged in the aftermath of war.

So, a different story became necessary.

“The sectional reunion after so horrible a civil war was a political triumph by the late nineteenth century,” writes Blight, “but it could not have been achieved without the resubjugation of many of those people whom the war had freed from centuries of bondage.”

It seems that the notion that won the healing war was a violent return to a white supremacist power status quo, which was intentionally embedded without much question into the foundational infrastructure of the re-unionized nation. In the one hundred fifty-plus years since, that version of “healing” has led to unequal and self-reinforcing racist outcomes in banking and wealth, teaching and education, health care and wellbeing, popular culture, digital tools, and of course leadership opportunity.

The transformation of Memorial Day was gradual. Congress recognized Decoration Day as a federal holiday in 1938. People began to refer to the holiday as Memorial Day following World War II, and the federal government adopted the Memorial Day name in 1967—to include other veterans from other wars.

But the real history of Memorial Day had to go.

And so many years later, shoppers in Buffalo grocery story faced a mass shooter who was animated by fears of being replaced by inferior beings, and dominant culture executives go through their daily lives not so secretly worried that “inclusion” is a corporatized version of the same thing.

I think reframing history, like the story of the dedicated individuals who consecrated the Martyrs of the Race Course, is an essential skill in painting a more complete picture of society, justice, and the healing that hasn’t happened since the Civil War.

This brings me back to you. While the world is uniquely exhausting these days, I find some odd comfort in knowing that the war—preferably of words, policy, leadership, and accountability—is not yet won.

Counterintuitive, I know.

I see new power in people who continue to press for equity when good people inside of good companies resist inclusion efforts. Or respond to the predictable backlash against a new movement for Black justice with renewed clarity of purpose. Or who continue to argue for a better way to reframe the narrative we were all born into when a community becomes unnecessarily roiled in a curriculum dispute.

These are all signs that reverting to the comfortable, segregationist mean is not happening without a fight. So, today I’m choosing new power, and all the stories that go with it—and hope you can, too.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point

Black women are still denied executive jobs despite post-George Floyd inclusion goals Jessica Guynn, this time paired with Jayme Fraser, has done it again with this USA Today analysis of hundreds of top employers. White men are eight times as likely to hold a leadership position than a Black woman; white women are 4.5 times more likely, and Black men, who are barely represented at all, are twice as likely to be found in executive ranks than their Black female counterparts. Where are Black women found? Customer service, administrative support, and labor. “People only recently really started paying attention to the underlying reasons why Black women are not able to break into executive teams and boardrooms,” Evelyn Carter, president of diversity firm Paradigm, told the pair. Please read and share.
USA Today

The enduring whiteness of the C-Suite White men held 96.4% of the Fortune 500 CEO positions in 2000; as of early 2021, that number still hovered around 90%, as shown by research from Richard L Zweigenhaft, Dana professor of psychology at Guilford College in North Carolina. The progress was due to the ascent of white women, however. Nary were African-Americans, 3.4% were Hispanic, and 2.4% were East or South Asian. View the chart that tells the story: Latinx/Hispanics are the least represented among Fortune 500 CEOs, relative to their share of the U.S. population, but Black CEOs hold the role for the least amount of time—the average tenure for all Fortune 500 CEOs is 6.9 years, but for Black chiefs, it is 4.8.
Investment Monitor

The “pipeline issue” is a myth There are four foundational fallacies that underscore the persistently racist organizational practices that inspire executives to publicly say things like, “While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from.” According to Autumn McDonald, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, progress can’t be made unless they’re addressed. The four are objectivity, meritocracy, equal goalposts, and bad apples. “Hiring and promotion practices are often executed at the individual level, which can lead to the misconception that problematic behaviors are one-off occurrences,” writes McDonald. “It can be difficult to see the systemic nature of this sort of workplace racism.” It’s not the apple, it’s the whole tree.

One hundred and one years ago today, an organized white mob started what would become a two-day assault on the lives and property of prosperous Black families living in a 35-block section of North Tulsa, Oklahoma. Some 300 people were murdered. The Tulsa Race Massacre, nearly lost to history, wiped out what was then called Black Wall Street, but as this in-depth reporting from my colleagues and me for the centennial, it didn’t fully destroy the entrepreneurial impulse in the region. That said, it’s complicated. There’s also one important update. The last known survivors of the massacre—yes, there are survivors—can proceed with a reparations lawsuit.

The American Psychological Association apologizes to people of color I covered this last fall, but it’s worth re-sharing in light of our current conversation. Also, it’s a good apology. “The American Psychological Association failed in its role leading the discipline of psychology, was complicit in contributing to systemic inequities, and hurt many through racism, racial discrimination, and denigration of people of color, thereby falling short on its mission to benefit society and improve lives. APA is profoundly sorry, accepts responsibility for, and owns the actions and inactions of APA itself, the discipline of psychology, and individual psychologists who stood as leaders for the organization and field.” What would an apology from other industries look like?

Parting Words

“Education is so important to creating change and fighting racism. But there’s so little [taught] in schools about AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] history and the contributions of Asian Americans.”

— 14-year-old Mina Fedor, founder of AAPI Youth Rising in Oakland, Calif.

This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

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