The Unofficial History Of Memorial Day

The official history of Memorial Day goes like this: In 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, a group of Union veterans established a Decoration Day for the nation to adorn the graves of the war dead with flowers. A retired Union major general, John A. Logan, set the date of the holiday for May 30, and the holiday’s first observance was at Arlington National Cemetery.

David W. Blight, a historian at Yale, has a different account. He traces the holiday to a series of commemorations that freed black Americans held in the spring of 1865, after Union soldiers, including members of the 21st United States Colored Infantry, liberated the port city of Charleston, S.C.

Digging through an archive at Harvard, Dr. Blight found that the largest of these commemorations took place on May 1, 1865, at an old racecourse and jockey club where hundreds of captive Union prisoners had died of disease and been buried in a mass grave. The black residents exhumed the bodies and gave them proper burials, erected a fence around the cemetery, and built an archway over it with the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Some 10,000 black people then staged a procession of mourning, led by thousands of schoolchildren carrying roses and singing the Union anthem “John Brown’s Body.” Hundreds of black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses. Black men, including Union infantrymen, also marched. A children’s choir sang spirituals and patriotic songs, including “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration,” Dr. Blight wrote in a 2011 essay for The New York Times. “The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.”

The African-American origins of the holiday were later suppressed, Dr. Blight found, by white Southerners who reclaimed power after the end of Reconstruction and interpreted Memorial Day as a holiday of reconciliation, marking sacrifices — by white Americans — on both sides. Black Americans were largely marginalized in this narrative.

“In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream recognition,” Dr. Blight wrote.

His claim is not universally accepted; the fact-checking website Snopes says of the 1865 remembrance: “Whether it was truly the first such ceremony, and what influence (if any) it might have had on later observances, are still matters of contention.”

What is clear is that the holiday is about freedom. Speaking at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1871, Frederick Douglass laid to rest what today we would call a false equivalency — the notion that both sides were engaged in the righteous struggle.

“We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic,” Douglass said. “We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers.”

Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion, was given a posthumous pardon on Thursday by President Trump.CreditAssociated Press
Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion, was given a posthumous pardon on Thursday by President Trump.CreditAssociated Press

By John Eligon and Brandon K. Thorp

“The big black” and “the big negro” are just two of the phrases that The New York Times used to describe Jack Johnson.

“Johnson Weds White Girl” was the headline when he married Lucille Cameron in 1912. He has been called a “negro pugilist and convicted white slaver,” who left a stain “on boxing and on his race” and abused “the fame and fortune that came to him.” Yet, condescendingly, he also was described as being “far above the average negro both mentally and physically.”

For The Times, Johnson, who in 1908 became the first black boxer to win the world heavyweight title, was inseparable from his race. It permeated how the newspaper covered every detail of his life, from his boxing to his legal troubles to his demeanor and success.

The Times’s coverage illuminates the challenges for broad acceptance faced by Johnson, who inspired the 1967 play and 1970 movie “The Great White Hope,” an account of his life and career and the resolve of white society to dethrone him, both in the ring and outside it.

Johnson resurfaced in the news last month when President Trump tweeted that he would consider pardoning Johnson, who was convicted on federal charges of transporting a woman across state lines “for immoral purposes.” Johnson, who served a year in prison, had been a lover of that woman, Belle Schreiber, who was white and had worked as a prostitute.

President Trump announced the pardon on Thursday.

The campaign for it had been complicated in part by allegations that Johnson had a history of domestic violence, as historians have chronicled. It was one reason the Obama administration cited for not granting a pardon.

In preparing articles on the president’s intentions, we examined our coverage of Johnson from his era, and were struck by how The Times, like many newspapers then, seemed to wrestle with his fame and race.

As Johnson’s chaotic life unfolded, The Times often covered it extensively, but time and distance now allow for a recognition, seemingly oblivious to the writers at the time, of the racial overtones around many of the troubles he faced.

Often, official police accounts of his run-ins with the law were simply parroted without any probing or deeper analysis of what truly had happened. This sort of blind faith in the police version, typical of the day, was particularly damaging to people like Johnson. He was a well-known black athlete who, at a time when racial animosity and lynchings were widespread, was brash, taunted his opponents, dated white women and openly enjoyed the luxuries of his wealth.

Today, people still seem to struggle with black athletes who are outspoken. So while the harsh and sometimes racist tone of the coverage came as no surprise, it was jarring still.

Johnson, a native of Galveston, Tex., began his professional boxing career in 1897, but The Times did not start covering him until about a decade later as he grew to become a leading contender for a world title. The Times’s articles showed that the public could not necessarily stomach a black man achieving that accomplishment. The articles about his boxing were highly critical of him, even when he found success.

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