According to professor David Blight of Yale University’s History Department, the very first Memorial Day was observed by former black slaves at the Washington Race Course in Charleston, S.C., at the end of the Civil War.
The race course had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp in 1865 as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, the former slaves exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them properly with individual graves.
They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. The work was completed in only 10 days.
On May 1, 1865, a crowd estimated at 10,000, including many black residents and 2,800 children, proceeded to the location for sermons, singing, and a picnic on the grounds. It was proclaimed the first Decoration Day (and later Memorial Day).
Memorial Day is now a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. men and women who died while in the military service.
It was first enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War, but was expanded after World War I.
Following the end of the Civil War, many communities (beginning at Charleston) set aside a day to mark the end of hostilities or as a memorial to those who died during the conflict ... many tales of brother fighting brothers, and sons against fathers.
The first national observance was in Waterloo, N.Y., on May 5, 1866.
Decoration Day was first proclaimed for May 30 because this was not the date of a significant battle during the war. Many states in the South refused to celebrate Decoration Day, due to lingering hostility towards the Union Army and also because there were relatively few veterans of the Union Army who were buried in the South.
A notable exception was Columbus, Miss., where Union and Confederate casualties were buried in the same cemetery.
The alternative name of "Memorial Day" was first used in 1882, but it did not become a common title until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967.
On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend.
These three holidays included Washington's Birthday, now celebrated as Presidents' Day; Veterans Day and Memorial Day. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. This became federal law in 1971.
After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted the measure within a few years.
Many people observe this holiday by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day. Another tradition is to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff from dawn until noon local time. Volunteers often place American flags on each grave site at National Cemeteries.
Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, including the VFW Auxiliary in Cleveland, take donations for poppies in the days leading up to Memorial Day. The poppy's significance to Memorial Day is the result of the John McCrae poem “In Flanders Fields.”
In addition to remembrance, Memorial Day is also used as a time for picnics, barbecues, family gatherings, and sporting events. One of the longest-standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, an auto race which has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since 1911. NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 has been held later the same day since 1961.
Some Americans view Memorial Day as the unofficial beginning of summer and Labor Day as the unofficial end of the season.