The history of Memorial Day in the U.S. has some very dark past that should not be forgotten.
It was originally Decoration Day as people decorated the tombstone of dead soldiers in memory. While the act of remembering the dead was present for years in many forms, the first official proclamation calling for Decoration Day was issued on May 5, 1868, by General John A. Logan of the Grant Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois.
However, immediately southern leadership began adding the label “Confederate” to their commemorations, and the emphasis shifted from honoring specific soldiers to the public commemoration of the Confederate South. The Ladies Memorial Association played a key role in using Memorial Day rituals to preserve the “Confederate Culture” the most prolific was the “United Daughters of the Confederacy,” whose membership exceeded 100,000 and led putting up Confederate monuments across the South. The first official Confederate Memorial Day occurred in 1874, following a proclamation by the Georgia legislature. By 1916, ten states celebrated it on June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, many more on May 10, the date of his capture.
It was not until after WWII that Decoration Day became Memorial Day to remember soldiers who died in wars. It was not declared as a national holiday with its current name until 1968 when congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act setting the last Monday of May as the Memorial Day and a national holiday to create a three-day holiday. Since then, veterans’ groups have complained that people spent the weekend in revelry and enjoying themselves with a bbq, not in somber lament of lives lost in sacrifice for a nation.
However, two other important events happened on Memorial Day. One hundred years ago, on Memorial Day 1921, was one of the most horrific massacres in modern history, the Tulsa Massacre. The event began with an encounter between Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoe shiner employed at Main Street shine parlor, and Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator in the Drexel Building. Some believed that Rowland and Page were lovers, but at least they knew each other as Rowland had to take the elevator to get to the top floor of the Drexel building to use the only bathroom that was permitted to him. A clerk at the clothing store claim to have heard what sounded like a woman’s scream, saw a black man leaving the area in a hurry, and found Page in a distraught stage. Thinking that she must have been assaulted, he reported to the police that Rowland had raped Page, a claim that Page does not make herself.
The Tulsa Tribune, one of the two white-owned papers, reported the story in the afternoon edition with the headline; “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” The news spread quickly, and so did the news of potential lynching. Within the hour, a lynch mob of several hundred white residents assembled outside the courthouse, and when the word got out, about 50 armed black men came to help the sheriff protect Rowland. By the evening, there were more than 2000 armed whites and about 150 armed black men when gunshots rang out as armed white residents tried to get black men to surrender their guns. No one knows who shot first, or if it was an accident or intentional, but 10 white men and 2 black men were dead in the streets when the shooting ended.
The violence ensued, and by Wednesday, more than 300 African Americans were killed and hundreds more wounded. More than 1200 homes were burned, and another 300 looted, and more than 200 businesses were burned. The Red Cross reported that more than 10,000 people were left homeless. One of the areas targeted was Greenwood, which was also known as “The African American Wall Street” because of the wealth that was in the black community. It is clear that these businesses were targeted as eyewitnesses reported more than a dozen airplanes, many police planes, dropping firebombs on black businesses.
However, the truth was kept hidden from the Oklahoma and Tulsa residents as the Tulsa Massacre was first included in the Oklahoma curriculum in 2020. Ninety-nine years later, it was recently reported that some of the city council members of Tulsa are the direct descendants of the perpetrators of the Tulsa Massacre. The African American community continues to this day asking for an investigation into the mass graves that holds their ancestors, but no one claims to know where it is.
On Memorial Day 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police. Let us remember what has happened on that Memorial Day, lest we forget and allow such tragedies to happen again and again.