You won’t find the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina on a map. The site of the once prestigious race track and gathering place for the more to-do now is nothing more than a city street that leads to a quiet city park. Every day kids play, people bike, and dogs sniff over the grounds of perhaps the most historically significant race track you never heard of.
The track opened in 1792. Race days saw people fill the stands with a variety of races to entertain them and perhaps offer a chance to win some money on the ponies. But the one-mile track offered more than just racing excitement. Some of the finest wines and beverages known to society were brought in to cater to the affluent mingling in the grandstands, while carnival-type side shows, gambling games, and even auctions entertained the drunkards, farmers, slaves, and carpet baggers who roamed the grounds below. The entire place was an entertainment mecca and fun could be had by all.
The fun was silenced when the race course grounds were seized by the Confederate Army to be used as a prisoner of war camp in the early stages of the Civil War. Conditions were brutal for those held in captivity. Disease, starvation, beatings, and death were common. Officially, 257 Union Army soldiers died there at the hands of their unforgiving enemy, all buried on the same grounds in a mass grave that just years earlier hosted some of the most famous racing events in the world.
By 1865, Charleston fell to the Union Army and the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club was in the hands of the North. The shallow unmarked graves of their fallen soldiers was too much for the Union Army leaders to face. Attempts were made to exhume, identify, and offer a respectful burial of the graves that could be located. That proved to be too difficult, so a temporary burial ground was established at the infield of the race track. Above the erected fence surrounding the graves read the words, “The Martyrs of the Race Course.”
The once proud Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, was now relegated to a makeshift burial ground to commemorate the horrors of what men can do to each other. The center of the oval that once saw some of the finest horses and jockeys parade their winning spirit to their cheering crowd was now a mud covered final resting place for those tortured and wasted away to their death. Martyrs they were, but appreciation for their sacrifice was destined to be lost.
That was until May 1, 1865 when a large group of people gathered to offer a ceremony to commemorate the 257 souls. A large funeral parade procession transpired around the track. They sang songs of remembrance, decorated the graves in patriotic colors, and read Bible verses to honor the dead. The 10,000 people included none of Charleston’s famed, wealthy, elite, or influential. There was no speech by the mayor, no blessing from the local priest, and only a single journalist was there to witness the event. The vast majority of Charleston’s citizens wanted nothing to do with the painful knowledge of what their crown jewel had become.
Thankfully, there was a special group of citizens who refused to let these men’s deaths go unnoticed and unappreciated as they lay buried under the combination of dirt, clay, rock, and horse excrement. These citizens offered respect and mourning to these dead soldiers when nobody else would.
These citizens organized this event, they wrote letters of invites to their families and friends in neighboring states, they coordinated 3,000 students to make bouquets to lay on the graves, they summoned the famed 54th Massachusetts’s Regiment to perform a celebratory military march, they coordinated Bible readings and moments of prayer and silence from churches in their region. These were citizens who knew a thing or two about hardship, death, and slavery.
Your history books might tell you that the first origin of Memorial Day was started at the conclusion of the Civil War, when “Decoration Day” was celebrated by members of the armed forces that decorated graves of those who died in war. Or that the first large recognition of honoring our fallen soldiers was held at Arlington National Cemetery. Yet the first Memorial Day was on May 1, 1865, when over 10,000 newly freed slaves organized and gathered to honor the 257 POW’s who died during enslavement, fighting slavery.
The “Martyrs of the Race Course” were ceremoniously honored by those who knew the tragedies of forced bondage the most. When others looked to forget and move on, those who had the most to gain from the sacrifice of the 257 chose to remember. We can all learn a lot about the story of May 1, 1865. For it’s a story not only about the accuracy of the origination of Memorial Day, but also a story about patriotism, unity, respect, and appreciation.
The 10,000 strong were not just newly freed slaves, they were newly recognized citizens of the United States and their first act of citizenry was to honor those who died in the name of their freedom. Wouldn’t it be nice if more people today exhibited those same values as those 10,000 former slaves did 156 years ago? What they did that day showed us all how to mourn and celebrate the lives lost in the fight for freedom. What will you do this Memorial Day to keep their tradition alive?
Brian Landers, a former Wisconsin Dells mayor, writes a weekly column for Capital Newspapers. Reach him at email@example.com.