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An Admirable Demonstration – Celebrating Emancipation Day Before the Civil War

Emancipation Day is one of our nation’s oldest and longest-celebrated holidays, predating Memorial Day, Mothers Day, even Thanksgiving. Despite this, there is not even a single unofficial date when we commemorate the manumission of our nation’s slaves.

The First Emancipation

Dialect satire protest against Emancipation Day. Printed in 1829 in New York City.
Dialect satire protest against Emancipation Day. Printed in 1829 in New York City.
Emancipation Day was first celebrated in the United States on July 4, 1827 as a local holiday in New York City. This was the date when the state of New York granted freedom to her slaves. Members of the African Society for Mutual Relief met in April of that year to ponder several important questions. This society was famous for its processions and parades – their own activism on behalf of their enslaved brethren. But on this night, many questions lay before them.

Would they see themselves as Africans or Americans in a country so new? Would they even be allowed to remain in America, or would they be sent back to Africa? If allowed to remain, would white society treat them as equals? These questions, of course, could hardly be answered that spring night. But the date of July 4th was set as the “Jubilee of Emancipation from Domestic Slavery.” 1Leslie M. Alexander, African Or American?: Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City (University of Illinois Press, 2008) 156-158.

The celebration would include addresses and prayers, but they decided not to hold a parade lest it be seen as a protest march. They wanted, they said, to show “gratitude” for abolition, warning their number to “do no act that may have the least tendency to disorder.”

Emancipation as Independence

This tendency to remain calm in the face of the most important day of their lives might have sat well with the stuffy members of the African Society, but to the majority of New York’s black community, July 4th of 1827 should be a day like no other – with parades, celebrations unimpeded, and general revelry. Somehow or another, both celebrations were scheduled. The African Society got their day of gentile reflection, and the rest of the community was given the next day for “a grand procession through the streets.”

Immediate emancipation in the West Indies, Aug. 1st, 1838. Stephen H. Gimber.
Immediate emancipation in the West Indies, Aug. 1st, 1838. Stephen H. Gimber.

In other parts of New York, July 5th was selected as well, though mostly to not step on the toes of the Independence Day celebrations. And so the tradition of having no idea when Emancipation Day should be celebrated was born even before the first celebration of Emancipation Day. 2Leslie M. Harris In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (University of Chicago Press, 2003) 123-125.

Regardless of which event one attended – the July 4th’s indoor commemoration or July 5’s celebratory parade – no harm came to or was caused by the participants. White New Yorkers mostly kept to themselves, electing not to disturb the events, even though there had been much grumbling and protestation leading up to the festivities.

But this does not mean that the parades and public displays endured for long years. In fact, by 1830, it was all but extinct. White society, it seems, was not ready for boisterous black people, delighting in their freedom, to actually express such sentiment. 3Leslie M. Alexander, African Or American?: Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City (University of Illinois Press, 2008) 64-65.

The Beginning of the End of Slavery

Just after the New York celebrations were faded out, a more exotic location’s festivities began. In 1832, British Parliament began debates over the future of slavery in its remaining colonies. Though the slave trade was banned in 1807, it remained a legal institution throughout most of the Empire. Having gained approval in Parliament, August 1, 1834 was established as the date the slaves would be freed. Though the emancipation was gradual, this date was remembered as the beginning of the end of slavery.

Due to this, the black residents of the islands burst into celebrations on August 1st, a Saturday. The next day, churches were filled, but the next found most of the revelers back at forced labor. It would take years for all of the West Indies’ 665,000 slaves to gain their freedom, but August 1st was from then on their celebrated Emancipation Day. 4Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie, Rites of August First: Emancipation Day in the Black Atlantic World (Louisiana State University Press, 2007) 14-15.

Though the Emancipation Day celebrations in New York were silenced, others around the North flourished across the decades after – many assuming the date of August 1st as their own. Black leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, were whole-heartily behind them. There would, he said, “doubtless be an admirable demonstration, well calculated to impress the public mind with ideas and principles which must save the nation, if it be ever saved, from the crime and cause of slavery.” These celebrations allowed black citizens of the North to gather together in fellowship, and for the bonds of friendship to replace the bonds of servitude. 5Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (University of North Carolina Press, 2002) 60-62.

Canada, the place to where many American slaves had escaped, also witnessed the rise of Emancipation Day celebrations. Also taking August 1st as their date, black Canadians began to celebrate as early as 1834, though it wasn’t until the 1840s and 1850s when the holiday became more solidified. Prior to the Civil War, it was tradition in Amherstburg, Ontario for the free black people to march in procession down to the docks, where they would receive the newly-escaped slaves from the American South into their arms, having just been ferried across the river from Detroit. Celebrations of one kind or another continued throughout Canada until the 1930s, when the older participants had passed away. From then on, it was received as a more traditional observation than anything else. In 2008, it was made an official holiday in Ontario. 6Natasha L. Henry, Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010).

"Emancipation Day in South Carolina" - the Color-Sergeant of the 1st South Carolina (Colored) addressing the regiment, after having been presented with the Stars and Stripes, at Smith's plantation, Port Royal, January 1, 1863. Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper.
“Emancipation Day in South Carolina” – the Color-Sergeant of the 1st South Carolina (Colored) addressing the regiment, after having been presented with the Stars and Stripes, at Smith’s plantation, Port Royal, January 1, 1863. Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper.

And Finally the United States

And so, as America entered into the Civil War, black people across the North had come to celebrate Emancipation Day on either July 4th or August 1st, depending upon their location. The war would give a few more dates to consider.

The first such date was specific to Washington, DC – April 16, 1862. This was when, by act of Congress, the city’s black population was set free. Though many communities around the country celebrated along with the newly-freed slaves, April 16th soon became a District of Columbia holiday, which it now remains. 7Benjamin Quarles, “Historic Afro-American Holidays,” Negro Digest, February 1967, 16.

Through the war, the most celebrated of days was January 1st, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s understandable that the date was selected by many to be the date for the American Emancipation Day. However, due to the slowness of news, especially to black communities in the south, often, the date when the slaves first learned of their freedom was more important to them. For instance, January 24th, 1863 became Florida’s Emancipation Day, with a “process, with music and banners flying.” More remote places in the state, such as Key West, celebrated two days later. 8Mitch Kachun, Festivals of Freedom: Memory And Meaning in African American Emancipation, (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003) 103-105, 108.

The ending of the war saw cause for celebration as well, and there were still new dates to commemorate. For instance, there was September 22nd, the day when Lincoln, after the battle of Antietam, issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Again in Florida, there was May 20, 1865, when the United States flag was raised over the state’s capital. Juneteenth, as it was quickly dubbed – June 19th – was the date in 1865 that the black people in Texas learned they were free. 9Benjamin Quarles, “Historic Afro-American Holidays,” Negro Digest, February 1967, 17.

As we’ll see, various other dates presented themselves, and along with those already mentioned, there was either a huge decision that needed to be made by an understandably unorganized black community, or a lot of celebrating to do. In a following piece, we’ll take a look at the post-war celebrations and deliberations over Emancipation Day.

Emancipation Day, Washington DC, 1866.
Emancipation Day, Washington DC, 1866.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.