A new picture book tells the story of Charleston’s May Day vigil in 1865, one of the earliest known observances of what would become Memorial Day in the U.S. It’s a little-known historical milestone that even many in Charleston are unaware of, but it’s more relevant than ever, said author Leah Henderson.
Henderson’s A Day for Rememberin’ follows young Eli, in Charleston, as his formerly enslaved mother and father prepare for what was initially called May Day. Illustrations by Floyd Cooper help tell the tale.
“For me, looking back and understanding what came before is essential to truly comprehending where we are, and where we might possibly go,” Henderson told the City Paper. “While this particular event has been written about for adult audiences, I wanted to find a way to share the moment with young readers. Stories like this need, and must be, highlighted and remembered by all.”
Thousands of formerly enslaved people crowded onto the former grounds of Charleston’s Washington Race Course on May 1, 1965. That vigil to honor fallen Union Army soldiers more than 150 years ago in what is now Hampton Park, was one of the events that would contribute to the eventual creation of America’s Memorial Day holiday.
Henderson, who lives in Washington, D.C., is the author of a number of children’s and young adult books and said she hopes young readers, particularly Black children, are able to see potential for themselves in her stories.
“I write books for the world I want to see — where children who look like me can be the lead in their own adventures and discoveries — where they are able to see and experience an abundance of possibilities,” she said.
Teaching children about historical events like Charleston’s early May Day can help shift their limited perspectives and see a richer picture of the narrative of American history. That shift can help parents and other adults too, she said.
“Children need to see outside the frame of the stories that are usually told or remembered,” she said. “Charleston’s May Day celebration speaks not only of a need to gather and remember, but of a community’s awareness and appreciation of the significance of the service and ultimate sacrifice made by the fallen union soldiers in Charleston, and beyond. Young readers need to know this. Honestly, adults need to know this too.”