Former slaves began the observance now known as Memorial Day immediately after the end of the Civil War.

"Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May the first of 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, to honor 257 dead Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave at a Confederate prison camp,"  the Rev. William Pierce told the hundreds gathered at the Wyoming State Veterans Cemetery on Monday.

"They dug up the bodies, and worked for two weeks to give them a proper burial as (guarantees) for fighters for their freedom," said Pierce, pastor of Imitate the Image Ministries.

"They then held a parade of 10,000 people lead by 2,800 black children when they marched and sang and celebrated," he said.

Pierce recounted the sacrifices of black people who shaped America's freedom, starting with Crispus Attucks, who was among the five killed by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre of Mach 5, 1770.

Other military legends, he said, included the 186,000 black troops who fought in the Civil War, the Buffalo Soldiers who patrolled the western territories for wagon trains in the latter half of the 19th century, the Harlem Hellfighters of the U.S. Army in World War I, and the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

"As we celebrate America, we're all Americans, and too often we segregate ourselves off from who we really are," Pierce said. "That's not an indictment on the white community, it's an indictment on the black community as well because we're just as guilty."

Pierce, who was awarded a Purple Heart during his combat experience in Vietnam War, said, "I shed blood for America."

Before his history lesson, Pierce honored those who paid a high price for service to America, even if they never joined the armed forces, wore a uniform or fired a gun.

The husbands, wives, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, children, cousins, aunts, uncles other relatives and close friends of those who died have suffered in their own ways, he said.

"Your pain and your loss is just as dear and precious to us," Pierce said. "And I pray you will never let them be diminished, because you are who help us make America what it is."