Beginning in the eighteenth century, free and enslaved African Americans used public spaces for celebrations, such as Negro Election Day, Militia Training Day, and Pinkster festivals throughout the New England and Mid-Atlantic states. In 1808, African Americans began to celebrate the United States' abolition of the Atlantic slave trade on January 1, 1808. These early examples of black holidays helped lay the foundation for future commemorative traditions important to African American culture.
Following emancipation African Americans expanded their commemorative traditions in a way that had been impossible during slavery. Such observances were important in part because they represented a form of cultural resistance and autonomy. Because black holidays took place in very public spaces, like main streets and thoroughfares, white Americans could not ignore their lively festivities. In some cases, the mayors and governors delivered speeches at black parades and attractions. By the end of the nineteenth century, the African American calendar was filled with holidays and other events that celebrated prominent and renowned African Americans of their time.
Even though blacks practiced commemorative traditions decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, Emancipation Day celebrations are one of the most important African American holidays. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation stated that all enslaved Americans living in the Confederate states would be free beginning on January 1, 1863, which represented the first of several incremental steps toward total abolition of slavery in the United States. Blacks held celebrations all over the North and in portions of the South the first few days after January 1. This extraordinarily important event inspired African Americans to celebrate and rejoice through local festive gatherings such at watch night services, musical concerts, and national conventions and expositions after the Civil War. Local festive gatherings included mainly religious services, speeches, and the reciting of the Emancipation Proclamation. Larger events, like national conventions and expositions, lasted several days and included plantation melodies, jubilee songs, parades, games, and large-scale attractions.
There is no one, official day African Americans celebrated Emancipation Day. In fact, as an article about the National Thanksgiving Day for Freedom celebration that ran in the Richmond Planet outlined, there was a great deal of disagreement over the proper date for the observance. Many felt that January 1 was the appropriate date, while other African Americans in the community thought that April 3, the date that Richmond fell, or April 9, the date of Lee's surrender, were more appropriate. In Purcellville and Hamilton, Virginia, the Loudoun County Emancipation Association organized in 1890 an annual Freedom Day celebration on September 22, the day President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation to the country. Other localities throughout the South continue to celebrate emancipation at different times in the calendar year, often related to the date when Union troops brought news of the Emancipation Proclamation to the area. In San Antonio, Texas, blacks celebrated emancipation on June 19, also known as Juneteenth.
From October 15 to 17, 1890, Richmond, Virginia, hosted emancipation festivities advertised on this broadside, or poster, publicizing a National Thanksgiving Day for Freedom. Events included speeches by then–Virginia governor Philip Watkins McKinney and the mayor of Richmond, James Taylor Ellyson, on the first day. Among the other notable participants were Branch K. Bruce of Mississippi, the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate; U.S. representative John Mercer Langston, the only African American to represent Virginia in the U.S. Congress (then serving in his short, six month tenure in that position); Joseph Charles Price, the president of the National Afro-American League, and founder and president of the Zion Wesley Institute, now Livingstone College, in Salisbury, North Carolina; William Washington Browne, founder of the United Order of True Reformers and the True Reformers Bank in Richmond Virginia, the first African American–operated bank in the nation. The second day featured a grand parade through parts of Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, and religious praise and orations on the last day. In these and many other instances, African Americans used racially contested public spaces to expand and strengthen the influence of their own rituals throughout the United States.
1. Why did Richmond's Freedom Day organizers include important white politicians and business leaders?
2. What can this broadside tell us about Richmond's black population?
3. What role would you play in the Emancipation Day festivities?
The Juneteenth tradition is thought to have begun on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and read the governmental decree freeing all slaves east of Texas. By the late twentieth century, Juneteenth celebrations had gained recognition throughout the United States because of popular media and intellectual attention. Today, Juneteenth is celebrated throughout the United States to honor the freedom of African Americans.
Berrett, Joshua. “The Golden Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.” Black Perspective in Music 16, no. 1 (1988): 63–80.
Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belkap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.
Kachun, Mitch. Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808–1915. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.
Wiggins, William H. O Freedom! Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.