May 232014
 
White residents fled Charleston, South Carolina in droves as the Union army approached in mid-February, 1865.  In short order, the city population became overwhelmingly black, due to the white flight, and in the months following, the free black population began determining what their post-war life would be like. They sought out displaced kinfolk, hoping first to restore their families, which had been divided by slavery.  Like other southerners, they also struggled to find means to obtain food and shelter in a devastated economy.  And, too, they celebrated their freedom and the death of the Confederacy with tears and gladness.
 
Amidst this battle for survival and their eruptions of celebration and joy, black residents also honored those who died in the cause of bringing them freedom.  During the war, the plantation class’ old playground — the Washington Race Course, a track operated by the South Carolina Jockey Club in Charleston — was transcripted to serve as a prison for Union POW’s.  The dying Confederacy had neither the means nor the drive to provide decent detention conditions at the end.  In the cold winter months of December, January, and early February, a great many of the prisoners died from exposure and poor care; others died from disease.  All told, 257 of the more than 2,000 kept there did not survive.  Their bodies were unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave behind the fine Grandstand — abandoned by the fleeing Confederate army as Union forces neared.  But, local black citizens did not forget them.  Even as they struggled to feed their families and build new lives, they stopped to dig up the remains and rebury them properly on the grounds.  The graves were marked, and over the new cemetery, an arch was erected with “Martyrs of the Race Course” emblazoned on it to signify the sacredness of the site.
 
On May 1st, black Charlestonians gathered — with white sympathizers — in the thousands to pay tribute to these fallen soldiers. Three thousand children led the procession singing tribute to another white martyr of the cause:
 
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.
 
The parade continued with the singing of spirituals and the Star-Spangled Banner.  Women followed the children in — their arms full with wreaths and crosses to place on the graves.  Behind them rows of free black men marched in time, followed by Union troops and various other local residents — white and black — who brought up the rear.  After the grand entrance, local ministers conducted a dedication service, and then the celebrants ate picnics while soldiers drilled for their entertainment.  Some 10,000 people — mourners and friends, the paper called them — participated in the day’s events.
 
A year later, white ladies in the South appropriated this remembrance.  In April and May of 1866, they held “Decoration Day” ceremonies — this time to honor Confederate soldiers lost to the Lost Cause.  White South Carolinians then also laid wreaths on graves and held solemn services to remember the dead — not the Union soldiers their black peers celebrated the year before, but the white men who died to preserve the old slave system.  These remembrance activities, in turn, inspired northerners to emulate the practice a couple of years later.  Northern celebrations, however, were more likely to include singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe’s appropriation of John Brown’s Body, than the original that was sung by the black children of Charleston in 1865.  In the south, the anniversary of General Johnston’s surrender to General Sherman and Jefferson Davis’ birthday were common Decoration Day dates — but in South Carolina, it was marked on May 10th, Stonewall Jackson’s birthday.  In 1971, Congress legislated a national Memorial Day celebration on the last Monday in May, but Confederate Memorial Days persist in states around the south on traditional days of remembrance.
 
Later in the nineteenth century, the cemetery of the martyrs in Charleston was similarly appropriated.  The bodies were ultimately moved to a federal site in Beaufort, South Carolina, and the old race track repurposed into a city park.  It was renamed for Wade Hampton — a Confederate general and post-war governor of South Carolina who helped “redeem” the state for white Democrats.  Hampton’s own redemption led to political prominence; later in the century, he even served as Railroad Commissioner for the US government, appointed by Grover Cleveland.  Now named for one who helped free the state from northern control, the racetrack-turned-burial-site was “redeemed,” too, and remade into a public space that again offered recreation for generations of white Charlestonians under segregation and the Hampton banner.
 
When the race track was dissembled in 1903, scions of Charleston society gifted the old gates from its entrance to industrialist August Belmont.  Belmont, of course, built the race track in New York that bears his name.  His was a new private recreational site where the great monied set could indulge in sport and fashion, and the membership was unparalleled in its wealth and power.  Those gates that once welcomed the old slave-owning aristocracy of Charleston then greeted the new industrial aristocrats: the Vanderbilts, DuPonts, et al.  The gates, and with them the legacy of antebellum leisure made possible by slavery, were thus appropriated as well then.  New money and a new system of legal segregation built on the remnants of antebellum wealth and privilege created a modern social structure also based on race and class.
 
Very soon, thousands of attendees will stream past those very race course gates to attend the Belmont Stakes.  They will be eager for the possibility of another historic Triple Crown win.  Just a week after South Carolina observed its most recent Confederate Memorial Day, a Derby winner also took the Preakness — another product of the new money aristocracy’s supplanting of the slave-owning class, giving form to Crown hopes at Belmont.  Before then, however, we will mark our annual remembrance of those lost in war — with appeals to patriotism and celebrations of militarism throughout our country.  We do this because we remember the martyrs to the causes (and especially the more recent causes),  but we want to forget The Cause and those grateful people who benefited from its success — but then lost much of the freedom for which the martyrs had given their lives.  It has all been appropriated into sport and recreational spaces and white privilege and biased history now.  This is the course of race in America: past privilege seeds new privilege and the legacies go marching on.
 
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 Posted by at 11:23 am