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“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

In America today, both black and white citizens gather to celebrate the Fourth of July, but that has not always been the case. Blacks in the antebellum north were sometimes pressured to stay away from celebrations of the Fourth, while in the south no one even thought to include them. Len Travers says in the book Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic, that in the overwhelmingly black south, “the issue simply did not arise; no one was about to allow crowds of blacks to march anywhere, for any reason.”

Travers says that in the plantation country surrounding Charleston in 1800, the African-American population was around 84 percent, and in the city itself that number was still more than half. As a minority, white southerners never allowed slaves to celebrate the Fourth of July, and, Travers says, that they themselves “celebrated, as it were, while glancing over their shoulders…White Charlestonians could never quite dispel their fears of what their enslaved servants might do while their masters celebrated liberty.”

They had reason to be wary. With a regularity not seen in the north, Travers says, Charleston suffered a devastating bout of fires, often at the homes of slaveholders, not a few of which occurred while the owners were out observing the Fourth. As fears spread, laws were passed forbidding gatherings of more than seven blacks for any purpose. Singing, dancing, “whooping and hallooing” in the streets was forbidden, and the use of fireworks, cigars and anything capable of starting a fire was outlawed. Blacks were not even allowed to carry a cane or stick in the streets, and the penalties for breaking such laws were horrific and severe.

Edward Hooker, a white visitor to South Carolina, found the Fourth of July experience unsettling: “The tables were served by negro slaves under the superintendence of the managers. What an incongruity! An Independence dinner for freedmen and slaves to wait on them. I couldn’t keep the thought out my mind, the whole time I was there feasting.” This “incongruity,” however, was not apparent to the party-goers, or the majority of white southerners. As Travers says, “Independence Day was for Americans only, and as far as white Charlestonians were concerned, blacks simply did not qualify.”

Despite the relative freedom of African-Americans in the north after the Revolution and the abolition of slavery in some states there, Travers says that a prejudice prevailed among the white population that “the irreparable degradation caused by slavery rendered blacks incapable of becoming responsible, republican citizens.”

Early on people of African descent were allowed to gather on the Fourth in northern cities but, Travers says, when a hostile group of black youths took to the streets of Philadelphia on that day in 1804, whites retaliated the following year by forcing them all out of the town square.

In his book Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840, Gary B. Nash says that in the years following this incident the exclusion of blacks from Independence Day celebrations became customary in the north; “black citizens could enter the…public space in front of Independence Hall only at their peril.” Nash says that while no legislation was passed mandating this, prejudice prevailed.  

As a result of their exclusion from Independence Day celebrations, African-Americans in the northern states began to create their own holidays. In The Roots of African-American Identity: Memory and History in Antebellum Free Communities, Elizabeth Rauh Bethel says that one of the first opportunities for a collective celebration came on January 1, 1808, when the United States formally abolished the slave trade. This was also the day in 1804 when Toussaint L’Ouverture declared Haitian Independence, a date that would be commemorated by American blacks well into the 1820s.

Black communities also began celebrating on August 1 in 1834, when Great Britain abolished slavery in the British West Indies, and would continue to do so until their emancipation in 1865.

On March 5, 1858—one year to the day after the Dred Scott decision—Boston’s African-American community began the Commemorative Festival, which marked the anniversary of the death of Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre as well as the Supreme Court ruling. “The resulting festival, spanning eight decades of undelivered promises, served two interconnected purposes,” Bethel says. “It celebrated a lost African-American past, and it validated the contemporary demands of African Americans for full and unconditional inclusion in the civic life of the nation they had helped create.”

African-American attitudes leading up to the Civil War toward Independence Day itself were perhaps best expressed by Frederick Douglass in his 1852 speech named after its most famous line, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Asking the crowd why they have asked him, a black man, to speak on this occasion celebrating freedom in a country where his people are not free, his oration demands acknowledgement of slavery, “the great sin and shame of America.”

“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

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