Juneteenth and Beyond: African American Emancipations Celebrations Since 1808

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tags: slavery, Civil War, abolition, emancipation, Juneteenth

Wilma King is Arvarh E. Strickland Professor emerita, University of Missouri, Columbia, where she served as chair of the Department of Black Studies and taught courses in American, African American, and comparative black history. She is the author of Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (2011, 1995) and The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women during the Slave Era (2006). She is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

Freedom celebrations are essential to understanding the history, culture, and politics of African Americans. Emancipations from slavery varied over time and place in North America, beginning with the colonists’ quest for independence from England, the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, military orders during the Civil War, a presidential proclamation, and ending finally with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and a treaty negotiated by the United States with the Cherokee nation. Emancipations were often more so processes than events. Yet African American freedom celebrations have been used consistently for “defining, revising, and retelling” a people’s collective history, in the words of the historian Mitch Kachun.

On March 2, 1807, Congress passed a bill to halt the importation of “slaves” into the United States, effective January 1, 1808. Absalom Jones, a pastor at St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia who had purchased his freedom as well as his wife’s, was among the first persons of African descent to call for a special commemoration of the ban. “Let the first of January, the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country, be set apart every year, as a day of public thanksgiving for that mercy,” he declared. The 1808 ban fueled annual public observances, primarily religious gatherings in northern cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The observances dwindled in the 1820s with the overwhelming realization that the ban, which was not enforced vigorously, did not make serious inroads toward ending slavery.

In 1817 abolitionists and legislators in New York finally succeeded in enacting a gradual abolition law that emancipated slaves born before July 4, 1799, on July 4, 1827. Black leaders in New York debated whether it was appropriate to celebrate a statute that denied immediate freedom to nearly ten thousand people born before July 4, 1799, but they saw it as their responsibility to express gratitude to God and their benefactors for the emancipation of slaves in the state. The leaders chose July 5 as their emancipation day to avoid conflating their celebration with the national July 4 holiday. In a July 5, 1852, speech in Rochester, New York, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” Frederick Douglass declared, “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! . . . This Fourth [of]July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” According to Douglass, the Fourth of July, more than any other day revealed the gross injustices and cruelties to which blacks were subjected.

Read entire article at The American Historian

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