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Why Blacks Used to Celebrate July 5th

This Independence Day falls on July fifth, and if the significance of that date were better known, it would trigger a strong reaction in the United States, particularly among people of color.

During the long night of slavery in the United States, free African Americans in the North discussed how to respond to a holiday that celebrated the independence of a country that held millions of their loved ones in chains. They came up with many creative solutions, some based on changing world events.

In the northern states African Americans gained their freedom in the years following the American Revolution. But it was a slow process in which enslaved people in New York for example, were not liberated until 1827, and in not in New Jersey until the next year.

What then to celebrate? On January 1, 1808 when the slave trade was abolished in the United States, Black New Yorkers, hoping to spur their own freedom along, met to hear a prominent black city minister, Rev. Peter Williams, denounce the rape of Africa, the tragedy of the slave trade and praise the heroic efforts of anti-slavery advocates in England and the U.S. The next year New York organized three spirited celebrations that featured speakers who marked the end of the slave trade.

When freedom became a reality in New York in 1827, the leading celebration was hosted by the African Zion Church, and it sang the virtues of outstanding abolitionists. In a stirrring address that was widely circulated, Black orator William Hamilton said, “This day we stand redeemed from a bitter thralldom.”

But what about our national holiday, July 4? In 1827 a black parade of four thousand made its way through downtown city streets to the Zion Church led by a grand marshall with a drawn sword and mounted men. Commemorations marked the day for a few years after that.

Then, in the 1830s as Southern states showed no movement to end bondage, African Americans chose as their protest to celebrate July Fifth. One year July Fifth celebrants gathered at the African Baptist Church in Albany to hear pastor Nathaniel Paul denounce “the ponderous load of misery” heaped on his people. In Rochester a booming cannon ushered in a day of observance by African Americans and their white supporters. Governor Thompkins and runaway slave Austin Steward spoke. At Cooperstown the Presbyterian church hosted a meeting attended by white and black people. There were also muted commemorations in slave Baltimore and Fredicksburg.

For African Americans the Fourth of July became a time for bitter reflection on “the land of the free.” In 1834 a black national convention formally voted against holding any celebration on July Fourth, and four years later a black paper suggested that on that day a slave ship should replace the stars and stripes on the flag. One black paper called it “the bleakest day of the year. We wish we could blot it from the calendar.”

In 1852, the former slave and great leader of his people, Frederick Douglass, asked “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” His brilliant answer, pointing to the hypocrisy of a land of freedom based on human bondage, remains one of the country’s most inspired and poingnant orations.

What did people of color celebrate? Beginning in 1834, again as a sign of protest, they celebrated August First, the day emancipation was decreed in British the West Indies. This occasion was often marked by picnics, calls for liberty throughout the land, and sometimes military parades.