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An Immense Cavalcade of Black Horsemen – The Rise and Fall of Emancipation Day After the Civil War

In the previous post about Emancipation Day, we looked at the various dates and reasons why the black communities of the Americas celebrated their freedom prior to and during the Civil War. Rather than simplifying matters, the war gave participants a slew of other dates to choose from. By the time Lee surrendered to Grant, there were at least seven different dates being heralded as Emancipation Day – including April 9th – the day of the surrender itself. These variances were mostly regional; as there was no national organization for people of color, there was no agreement on when emancipation was to be celebrated.


The most common thread running through each of the local celebration dates was the event itself. Around the Appomattox area, for example, the date of Lee’s surrender was observed as Emancipation Day. Likewise, in Richmond, April 3rd, the date the city was occupied by Union troops, became Emancipation Day. 1Peter J. Rachleff, Black Labor in Richmond, 1865-1890, (Temple University Press, 1989) 38.

The year following the war, 1866, saw many first celebrations of this annual holiday. Though it was probably not the first post-war observance, Hampton Roads erupted into various parades and festivities. This was, after all, where the first slaves were brought to the new world in 1619, where the first slaves emancipated themselves into Union lines in 1861. In 1863, the white missionaries celebrated January 1st as Emancipation Day, throwing some sort of event to observe the Proclamation. The freed black people, however, were understandably skeptical. The war was not yet over, and if the United States were to lose, they would more than likely become slaves once again. 2Robert Francis Engs, Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861-1890, (Fordham University Press, 2004) 26.

Three years later, they were more jubilant, taking up January 1st as their de facto Emancipation Day. “The streets were crowded by the sons and daughters of Ham at an early hour,” wrote the Norfolk Post of the event. The celebrations gathered the area’s black population for a procession: “The marshals were gaily mounted, and bedizened off in grand array with their tri-colored scarfs, and fancy ornamented batons.” Though the parade was without incident, later in the day, a white man stabbed one of the black celebrants. 3“Local Intelligence” in The Norfolk Post, January 2, 1866.

No doubt that some from Hampton were in Norfolk for the nearby procession. But Hampton, being so important to the history of slavery, as well as emancipation, wanted their own Emancipation Day. After the war was decided, the black people of Hampton cast off not only the bonds of slavery, but also the date when they would celebrate their freedom. On April 9th, to tie their freedom to Lee’s surrender, former black troops again put on their blue uniforms, shouldered their arms, and paraded through the streets. This was seen by many white Southerners as a slap in the face, commandeering, as it did, the date so heavy on their hearts. 4William Alan Blair, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) 23-24.

The parade of black veterans was attacked during the day, and at night, whites rioted, even firing upon the white Union army commander who gave authorization to the celebration. “Are we to be forbidden to hold national celebrations in our own country, lest we offend the enemy,” spat one indignant newspaper. Seeing this as a threat, the town’s whites blamed the armed black soldiers, saying that this “armed detachment meant” that there was to be “mischief” from the whites. As was almost always the case, no whites were arrested, and only the black celebrants were taken into custody until the military took control of the situation. This tradition was short-lived, as it seems that Emancipation Day was sequestered in the Norfolk and Hampton areas to January 1st from then on. 5“Position to a Lawful Celebration”, Norfolk True Southerner, April 19, 1866. Accessible here as a PDF.

In Texas, Juneteenth celebrations were held in 1869. This celebrated the day – June 19th – when the slaves first heard that they were emancipated. The first commemorations were much like any other, even gaining a state-sanctioned date. But with the capitulation of Reconstruction, that was done away with and what festivities remained were mostly church or private events. 6Everett Jenkins, Jr. Pan-African Chronology II: A Comprehensive Reference to the Black Quest for Freedom… (McFarland & Company, 1998) 8.

Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Virginia in 1905
Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Virginia in 1905

The black people of Richmond, likewise, wished to celebrate upon their own date – that of April 3rd, the day Richmond was liberated. According to a Richmond paper, “an immense cavalcade of black horsemen led the van, preceded by a dusky son of Ham tooting on a worn-out bugle, and sounding original calls ever and anon.” The entire report is replete with racism and, at best, paternalism, as if the conquered white people were observing children playing pretend. But this was hardly play. The whites who burned down the Second African Baptist Church in the days leading up to the celebration certainly understood that. Those who marched had planned the event well, and gathered 2,000 participants before stepping off for Capitol Square. There, fifteen thousand former slaves listened to speeches on racial equality and hope. The mocking reports in the white press served as an attempt to demoralize the black population.

Not content to keep simply January 1st and April 3rd as celebrations of their emancipation, Richmond’s black community took up their banners once again on July 4th “with an enthusiasm never realized before; what was once a mockery to them, has now become a reality.” This, like the celebrations at Hampton Roads, had a military aire, with black soldiers bedecked in their blue uniforms. Richmond’s white population, apparently deciding that Independence Day now meant even less to them, remained in doors.


A year later, April 3rd was again celebrated as Richmond’s Emancipation Day, and was instrumental in leading up to the Republican National Convention, held in the city two weeks later. The next year, the celebrations took a more political bend, and by 1868, the speakers were talking of desegregated schools and labor rights. But the next saw no celebration at all. In 1870, the date swung to January 1st, but it was a day hardly observed with the same gusto as in years previous. The year after that, with the signing of the Fifteenth Amendment, many decided upon April 20th as the new Emancipation Day. And there it would remain all through Reconstruction and well beyond. 7Peter J. Rachleff, Black Labor in Richmond, 1865-1890, (Temple University Press, 1989) 51-52, 127. The Amendment was ratified on February 3rd, and adopted on March 30th, so the date of April 20th seems fairly arbitrary. Virginia ratified it on October 8, 1869.

Though Richmond’s April 20th date was in celebration of the Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, the actual date of March 30th was taken up by many communities as Ratification Day, an observance that more or less took the place of Emancipation Day for some. This too was short-lived, and by 1879, Baltimore held the last of such celebrations. In some locations, such as Detroit, Ratification Day celebrations were folded into other celebrations, such as Canada’s observance of August 1st as Emancipation Day. 8Richard W. Thomas, Life for Us Is What We Make It: Building Black Community in Detroit, 1915–1945, (Indiana University Press, 1992) 10.


As the 1870s wore on, the black community saw most of their rights whittled away. When most lost the right to vote and Reconstruction was sacrificed, the people at large lost heart. By 1883, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was illegal, the message was clear – their emancipation was all but in name only. 9Benjamin Quarles, “Historic Afro-American Holidays,” Negro Digest, February 1967, 17-18.

To be sure, local commemorations continued, but these were more ceremonial than celebratory. On January 1st of 1887, Danville, Virginia held its first Emanciaption Day observance. This amounted to little more than a white preacher at a pulpit blaming the blacks for their own hardships, telling them “their freedom was worth nothing to them unless they improved every opportunity to make themselves good and useful citizens.” 10“Danville Notes” in Richmond Dispatch, January 2, 1887.

This loss of liberty made celebrations of freedom seem hollow. Combined with the lack of established date or national council, Emancipation Day as a whole nearly died out. There was debate within the African American community as well. Some believed that the festivities were a waste of money, while others saw them as too political. Through the late 1800s, these feelings ebbed and flowed across the North and South.

Annual Emancipation Day Parade - Lincolnville, Florida - Between 1922 and 1927.
Annual Emancipation Day Parade – Lincolnville, Florida – Between 1922 and 1927.

By the dawn of the Twentieth Century, January 1st was the date most people observed the occasion. Most of the former slaves were long dead, and their children and grandchildren saw for themselves no connection to that jubilant day. What they saw was inequality and injustice, lynchings and Jim Crow. These were hardly reasons to celebrate, and the attendance and frequency dwindled to almost nothing. 11Mitch Kachun, Festivals of Freedom: Memory And Meaning in African American Emancipation (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003) 255-257.

In more recent decades, the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday eclipsed much of what was left of Emancipation Day. The struggle to have that date made official, instead of a day celebrating emancipation, is testimony to the idea that the black population recognized the failings of Reconstruction and saw their greatest strides toward freedom in the 1960s rather than 1860s. But even that met with backlash by white supremacists in Arizona and South Carolina. Some states, such as Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, celebrate King’s birthday on the same day as Robert E. Lee’s, while other states, like Idaho, Arizona and New Hampshire, celebrate it as part of a broader Civil Rights Day.

There is no national holiday for Emancipation Day. It’s hardly even celebrated unofficially any more. Florida’s is more or less official, and Washington DC’s is actually a public holiday. 12April 16th – the date of the slaves in the nation’s capital received their freedom As to the future of such a date, Texas’ Juneteenth seems to be the forerunner. It has no competing dates, such as New Years Day or Independence Day (or any number of conflicting Confederate holidays), and a pretty catchy name. Most states even recognize it as existing, though none but Texas give it any real status – and even that isn’t as a paid holiday. 13Stacy M. Brown, “Juneteenth Officially Recognized in Maryland” Baltimore Times, May 30, 2014.

What’s more, Juneteenth received the status of a National Day of Observance in 2014, when the United States Senate approved it unanimously. Leading the march is the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. In February of 2015, its founder, Rev. Ronald V. Myers, requested President Barack Obama officially recognize the date. “America needs healing from the scars of enslavement,” he wrote. “The annual observance of Juneteenth in America affords the country a tremendous opportunity to constructively reflect on our legacy of enslavement and move forward as a unified nation. As the leader of our country, your public participation in Juneteenth will be instrumental in bringing all Americans together in a spirit of unity and reconciliation.” 14Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr. M.D., Letter to President Barack Obama, February 22, 2015, accessed here.

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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.