They were living in war-ravaged Charleston -- no access to e-mail or even telephones -- but on May 1, 1865, some 10,000 people managed to gather in Hampton Park for the nation's first Memorial Day.
Church leaders, women's organizations, Unionists and emancipated slaves came together to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War.
On Monday, the city of Charleston, scholars, historians and members of the community commemorated that first memorial celebration.
David W. Blight, a well-known historian from Yale University, offered the historical context:
Twelve African-Americans had a small ceremony in March 1865, when Charleston was in ruins from Calhoun Street to The Battery. Then in early April, a parade with 4,000 people was held.
In mid-April, 26 African-American carpenters disinterred about 260 Union soldiers who had died while trying to flee from the prison in Andersonville, Ga., all of whom were buried in a pile. The carpenters gave them a proper burial site and enclosed them in a picket fence, which they titled "Martyrs of the Race Course." Hampton Park area was known as Washington Race Course at the time.
Based on historical records, Blight said, approximately 10,000 people participated in a parade on May 1, 1865, to honor the soldiers that died. Up to 3,000 children led the parade while carrying flowers and singing songs, such as "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "America the Great." The children were followed by former slaves and community leaders. Preachers read scriptures while picnics and races were held.
"They did what a lot of us would do today on Memorial Day," Blight said.
Bernard E. Powers, director of African-American studies at the College of Charleston, said the history of the event should be nationally recognized.
"I think it's a very important part of Charleston history that not many people know about," he said. Powers said the success of organizing that first celebration helped lead to the rise of black churches' influence in the South.
"It was the greatest marvel of organization then," said Judy Hines, a board member of the Charleston Horticultural Society.
Other people at the ceremony were impressed by the efforts.
"I think the whole concept is amazing and we should make students learn this in the schools," said Roberta Fraiser, who is a descendant of an African-American soldier who served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.
During Monday's ceremony, which began with music from the Civil War era, Mayor Joe Riley honored soldiers "who fought and died for our freedom." He thanked event participants, especially the historians. "They were important in exposing this vital land in history."
The Color Guard, which was a Civil War re-enactment unit representing the famous 54th Massachusetts troops, led the public to the unveiling of the commemorative plaque, which Blight said was meant to commemorate the nation's first Memorial Day.
"Waterloo (N.Y.) and other places have claimed to have the first one, but they were first in 1866, Charleston was earlier," he said. He also said that this event, which almost fell out of Civil War history, was only made official by the city of Charleston.
"I hope that eventually it gets established as a national historical landmark," Blight said. "For the African-Americans who did this were celebrating, in a way, a second 'Independence Day,' in which they would gain independence in a new country that may have a place for them."