CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Each year, the final Monday in May marks an American holiday intended to honor fallen United States Service members.

While the first national celebration of the holiday took place in 1868, some cities and towns held their own celebrations in the years prior.

However, there can only be one ‘First Memorial Day’ and that honor belongs to Charleston, South Carolina.

Formerly known as Decoration Day, the holiday began taking shape in the years following the Civil War. The war ended in 1865 and by that time, nearly 620,000 men had lost their lives.

By the late 1860s, many cities and towns across the country began holding tributes to the fallen soldiers.

It wasn’t until 1971 that Memorial Day became a federal holiday by an act of Congress.

May 1st, 1865 is the earliest recorded observance of Memorial Day, but the story was lost to history until 1996.

Professor David Blight, a Sterling Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Studies at Yale University was conducting research in a Harvard University library in 1996 when he came across a collection labeled ‘First Decoration Day.’

A newspaper clipping inside the collection detailed a massive parade held at a former country club and racecourse turned war prison in Charleston.

The track was the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club. It was set up by the Confederate Army to hold Union captives towards the end of the Civil War.

“About 260 Union soldiers had died there and they’d been thrown into a mass grave behind the grandstand,” said Blight.

Just after the end of the war when the city was largely empty due to it being in ruins, the slaves that were left behind after evacuations used their newly found freedom to bury the dead properly at the site of the racecourse.

“They built a fence around the compound, and an archway over an entrance in which they painted the inscription ‘Martyrs of the Race Course.’ Then they held this huge parade led by black children with armloads of flowers then by black women and men, then by Union soldiers all around the track,” said Blight.

The parade was said to have taken place less than a month after the end of the war. That makes it the earliest recorded observance of what we now know as Memorial Day.

The location of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club is now Hampton Park in Downtown Charleston.

As for why this story isn’t in the textbooks, Professor Blight says some South Carolinians intentionally forgot about it.

“In the wake of the Civil War, the story not only got lost, it got suppressed,” said Blight. “Principally it happened because of the lost cause tradition. The lost cause ideology. The south’s version of what the war had been about took over in South Carolina into the 1870s and the 1880s.”

He says once while giving a lecture in Washington D.C. about his discovery, an African-American woman approached him and said her grandfather talked about the parade, but she never knew if it was true.

“I shows us in vivid relief that what gets remembered in history is often a matter of political dominance and also simply who gets to control the story.”

Now, thanks to Blight, the story has been brought home and a sign stands tall in Hampton Park titled ‘First Memorial Day’ outlining the general details of the celebration.