Excerpted from Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery (Urim Publications) by Kenneth Chelst, 267–275. Used by permission.
Celebrating Gradual Emancipation
The 1820 census recorded 10,088 slaves in New York State. The official end of slavery for this large slave population came on July 4, 1827, leading to another round of celebrations, not just in New York but in neighboring states as well. These celebrations, although also linked to churches, were more secular than the January 1 celebrations. They involved extensive outdoor activities, gun salutes, picnics, and parades. Choir music was less significant than the martial music of the marching band. It was the public dimension of these activities that was part of a process of developing a national community for blacks. It enabled them to enjoy life and freedom as a people in ways that were otherwise impossible in the racist atmosphere still prevalent at the time. Unlike church services, celebrations in public spaces asserted the rights of blacks in the face of the white majority, even if whites were not present. These public celebrations made a statement that not only did African Americans share a skin color for which they had been segregated and subjected to petty and gross oppression, but they also shared a common bond, a sense of community, that itself could be celebrated. They thus shared a communal responsibility to fight both racism in the North and slavery in the South.
Interestingly, the New York-inspired celebrations were held on July 5 rather than July 4. By setting themselves apart from the rest of the nation that celebrated on the day before, blacks were making the point that neither they nor their brother slaves in the South had fully experienced the freedoms that had been promised with the creation of the United States. One of the rituals of the day was a speech that offered a brief account of the horrors of slavery, often by a fugitive slave. Equally important were remarks that described the ideals expressed in the founding documents of the United States, including readings from the Declaration of Independence. As a result, “these celebrations highlighted the tensions between the is and the ought.” The speeches, representative of a culture of the spoken word, eventually found their way into written form. They were not only addresses to the blacks in the audience but to broader contemporary audiences, black and white. The speeches were also designed to build racial pride and often included an evaluation of the contribution of black people to building the nation as well as their progress as a race. This theme would be complemented by exhortation to seek moral improvement in order to be worthy of full citizenship.
Austin Steward, a runaway slave, spoke in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1827, interweaving remembrance, thanksgiving, and unfulfilled American ideals while also drawing on the exodus image.
Like the people of God in Egypt, you have been afflicted; but like them too, you have been redeemed. You are henceforth free as the mountain winds. Why should we, on this day of congratulation and joy, turn our view upon the origin of slavery? Why should we harrow up our minds by dwelling on the deceit, the forcible fraud and treachery that have been so longed practiced on your hospitable and unsuspecting countrymen?… Why should we remember, in joy and exuberance, the thousands of our countrymen who are today, in this boasted land of civil and religious liberty, writhing under the lash and groaning beneath the grinding weight of slavery’s chain?… But away with such thoughts as these; we will rejoice, though sobs interrupt the songs of our rejoicing, and tears mingle in the cup we pledge to Freedom.
There was one additional pre-Civil War event that touched the hearts and souls of all American blacks and raised the expectation that the end of slavery was in sight. On August 1, 1834, the British emancipated 670,000 slaves in the British West Indies. As a result, August 1 became the most widely celebrated holiday for northern blacks.
August 1 celebrations continued in the face of numerous political setbacks for blacks, including not only losses in Congress (the Fugitive Slave Act, 1850) and the Supreme Court (Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857) but also several attempts to restrict the freedom of blacks in the North. These took the form of segregated education and disfranchisement, most egregiously in legislative actions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Oregon that prohibited further entry of blacks into these states. Yet in 1859, August 1 celebrations were held in thirteen states and in fifty-seven different places.
Varied celebrations were well advertised and planned months in advance. Among the celebrations’ goals was a desire to impress whites with ideas and images especially of blacks demonstrating their abilities and achievements. Spirited, well-organized, and disciplined parades were a key element in building this image. Also important were the clothing worn by blacks in these events, which was often formal and even ostentatious, without concern that this might attract ridicule from whites. For blacks, the right to don the finest clothing was a personal right denied to slaves; therefore, their manner of dress was simply an expression of freedom.
The emancipation ball became part of celebrations after 1846, notwithstanding opposition from leaders such as Frederick Douglass, who thought that a ball was inconsistent with the solemnity of the day. Nevertheless, emancipation balls and related activities caught on and continued in the post-Civil War era.
Today celebrations have continued on more than a dozen different dates, many established on significant anniversaries and others based on local or personal experiences of emancipation. One of the oldest annual celebrations is held in Gallia County, Ohio. Since 1863, this southeastern Ohio county has held celebrations on or around September 22, the date Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This weekend celebration is representative of what Wiggins has termed the “sacred-secular model” of celebration. Saturday activities are similar to those of a county fair and Sunday is reserved for a mixture of church services and speeches. Today, the most widely publicized celebration is known as Juneteenth, which began in Texas commemorating the date, June 19, 1865, that General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and belatedly read a government order freeing the slaves of east Texas. Juneteenth celebrations tend to be secular in nature. Wiggins found that Columbus, Georgia, celebrated January 1, the date of the final Emancipation Proclamation, with special church services. The program began with “Lift Every Voice,” which was later adopted by the NAACP as its anthem. The celebration included a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and scripture interspersed with the performance of various choral works.
In 1941 Richard R. Wright Sr., acting out of concern for the lack of a unified celebration, formed a committee to establish one day to be celebrated as National Freedom Day. He chose February 1, since it was on this date in 1865 that President Lincoln signed the Thirteenth Amendment, officially ending slavery throughout the United States. Wright initiated an annual February 1 celebration in Philadelphia and lobbied for congressional action to recognize the date as a holiday. In 1948 President Truman finally signed legislation declaring February 1 to be National Freedom Day. Although it is still celebrated in Philadelphia, the date has never captured broad popular support.
Despite the attempts to establish a day of celebration related to the end of slavery, it is unlikely that even one percent of the contemporary black population in the United States has participated in such events. The various celebrations have generally been community affairs with no parallel private-familial focus, unlike Passover or America’s Thanksgiving Day. There have been, however, suggestions for private rituals that parallel the Jewish law of eating matzah. In 1979, Benjamin Hooks, executive secretary of the NAACP, mused, “I think that on the first day of January, we ought to call our children in, we ought to eat some bread and water symbolizing the diet of our slave forefathers in the slave ships.” No such ritual has been widely adopted, nor is there currently any text similar to that used by Jews at the seder to initiate a discussion of the history of slavery and freedom. The lack of formal ritual remembrance of slavery and emancipation among African Americans may simply reflect a generation that has no living first-hand witnesses to tell their story. Such was not always the case, of course. Noted The Atlanta Daily World in 1941, “During early celebrations, slavery was rehearsed, kept fresh in the mind and emphasis laid indelibly in the minds of youth that the Negro was once a slave.” Interestingly, the focus on instilling the youth with a sense of their history – as suggested by Benjamin Hooks – is a key aspect of the Passover seder.
The failure to develop a common African-American tradition of celebrating emancipation, even in the immediate post-Civil War era, may be attributed to several factors: the lack of a common experience of emancipation, the continued oppression and terror in the South, and shame over the slave experience. The first former slaves who congregated and celebrated freedom lived in the North. They had fled the South to freedom over various routes and reached their destinations at different times. Others experienced legislated emancipation on different dates in their respective states, while others purchased their freedom. There were also second-generation freedmen whose parents had won freedom for themselves and their descendants, and those who had fought in the American Revolution and were rewarded for their service. More than two hundred thousand freedmen who had walked diverse paths to freedom lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line bfore the Civil War.
Thus the millions of slaves in areas covered by the Emancipation Proclamation did not actually experience freedom at the same time. Often, they knew nothing about the proclamation until the Union army overran their cities, towns, and plantations, as evidenced by the Juneteenth celebration in Texas. In addition, there were more than two hundred thousand slaves in Kentucky, which had not seceded, and were therefore not officially freed until Lincoln signed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution into law. All this contributed to the difficulty in deciding upon a common celebration date.
This variability from individual to individual and community to community stands in sharp contrast with the mass daylight exodus of the Israelites from Egypt: “It was on that very day that all of the legions of the Lord left the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:41). This image of legions marching out is a recurring theme of the departure (e.g., “God took the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, in their legions” [Exodus 12:51]).
It was this shared experience that the Israelites would commemorate with matzah: “You shall safeguard the matzot, for on this very day I will have taken your legions out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day for your generations as an eternal decree” (Exodus 12:17). It is this simple piece of unleavened bread, baked year after year in every part of the globe and eaten in the privacy of the home, that links the Jew of today with the children of Israel who were slaves in Egypt.
In spite of open racism and public abuse, African Americans have focused on large public celebrations rather than private family rituals. However, at the end of the Civil War, only about five percent of the black population lived north of the Mason-Dixon line. In the South, where blacks lived in broadly dispersed rural communities, it would have been far more unlikely for such a gathering to be held in the environs of a city such as Montgomery. Nor could the blacks of Natchez or Vicksburg expect safe passage to a city commons to celebrate. Even if public celebrations were possible under martial law that was in force after the war, that right would have disappeared in the South once federal troops were withdrawn after the presidential election of 1876. Juneteenth celebrations in Texas were the exception, however, in that they were typically held on property purchased by blacks for use as fairgrounds, such as Emancipation Parks in Houston and East Austin. Another exception was an Emancipation Day Parade held on April 3, 1905, in Richmond that commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of Richmond. The local Times-Dispatch reported that “nearly every man, woman, and child in Richmond, and the surrounding territory took part in or viewed the big emancipation parade yesterday.”