Kid Lit Review of “A Day for Rememberin’: Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day” by Leah Henderson

This book is set in 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, and tells the story of the first Memorial Day celebration. Ten-year-old Eli longs to go with his father to work, but his father insists Eli go to school, now that Blacks are allowed to be educated.

Before the war, the boy tells us, he was always scared that Mama or Papa would get sold away, never to come back home. Now, even though Papa looks more tired than ever, they don’t have that particular fear as a constant presence in their lives.

When Papa finally takes Eli to see what he has been working on, it turns out to be a memorial to Union soldiers who died in the notorious Confederate prison erected on Charleston’s Washington Race Course. The course was part of the grounds of Hampton Park, named for Confederate General Wade Hampton III who, at the time of the Civil War, owned one of the largest collections of slaves in the South. By the time the prison closed in 1865, 257 Union soldiers had died on the grounds from exposure, disease, and starvation, as the author apprises us in a note at the conclusion of the book. In April 1865 a group of Black volunteers offered to make a better resting place for these fallen soldiers who had helped secure their freedom. The dead had been dumped into a mass grave, but the volunteers dug them up and reburied them in individual plots.

Union soldier’s graves by the Washington Race Course, via Library of Congress

They gave the makeshift cemetery an archway over the entrance gate that read “Martyrs of the Race Course.” On May 1, ten thousand people, both Black and white, gathered to pay respect. In the front were nearly three thousand Black children from newly formed freedmen’s schools. There were songs and speeches at this “First Decoration Day,” which later became known as Memorial Day.

The author also includes a timeline, a list of other cities claiming to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, footnotes and a selected bibliography.

Multiple award-winning illustrator Floyd Cooper was the perfect choice for the artwork in this book. His oil erasure images and muted color palette on double-page spreads add softness, warmth, and texture. In addition, the expression on the faces of the people he paints convey more than the words of the text could do alone.

Evaluation: This book for readers aged 6 and up has an underlying and unstated message of grace and forgiveness, as well as determination and “the audacity of hope,” to paraphrase the first African American President some 140 years later.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021

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1 Response to Kid Lit Review of “A Day for Rememberin’: Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day” by Leah Henderson

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