The annual August First Day celebrations were a rare example of multiracial advocacy in the 19th century. Its dialectic of protest can be seen in the methods and structure of Black Lives Matter: the decentralized nature of a national justice movement, the use of public spaces to agitate for the dignity of Black lives and the powerful rhetoric of inclusion. The centuries are different, but the methods and goals are similar.
August First Day faded in importance after the Civil War with the belief that its abolitionist goals had been achieved. It disappeared altogether in the 20th century — its last known observance was in 1927 in Detroit. But this aspirational movement once squarely in the mainstream of Black American politics deserves to be better remembered and perhaps even celebrated again in the modern era.
The holiday had its roots in Jamaica, where a five-week revolt led by a Black preacher named Sam Sharpe in 1831-1832 had forced the British Parliament to make a calculated decision that maintaining slavery overseas was simply too expensive. “Let us pray that our brothers and sisters in other lands may be made free,” said the once-enslaved William Gibson in Falmouth, Jamaica, on Aug. 1, 1838.
This peaceful transition from slavery to freedom in the Caribbean — without the bloodshed that many had feared — inspired the American abolitionist John Anderson Collins to write a letter to the antislavery Liberator newspaper in 1842, suggesting an annual recognition of what the British had done. But African Americans were already ahead of him. They had formed their own anniversary celebrations in the mid-1830s, first in private and then increasingly in public. A crowd of hundreds of Black people marched through the Moyamensing neighborhood of Philadelphia in 1842 and triggered a violent response from some local White people who misread a banner that read “Liberty” as the famous imperative “Liberty or Death.” They viewed the message as too threatening for Black people to utter.
But the popularity of the celebrations grew as the abolitionists gained more of a public stage, and they became racially mixed. Some called them “Freedom Picnics.” Their influence and geographical reach expanded from New England into Indiana, Ohio and western New York. Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson showed up to several celebrations to make orations, and former president John Quincy Adams sent notes of support. Formerly enslaved African Americans Henry Box Brown, Samuel L. Ward and Henry Highland Garnet were sought-after guests, and an already famous 30-year-old Frederick Douglass praised the revolutionaries of Jamaica as “examples to be admired and copied.” Both Black and White attendees ate boiled ham, barbecued chicken, grapes and cake. They danced waltzes, mingled with each other, shared news and sang hymns.
As the free-soil crisis worsened in Kansas and the Lincoln-Douglas debates unfolded in Illinois, the tone and rhetoric of the holiday celebrations became more militant. The 1858 gathering at Tranquility Grove in Abington, Mass., featured a radical speaker: the Rev. Henry Bleby, who had witnessed the Jamaican revolt and spent time with Sharpe in his jail cell. Sharpe had declared to Bleby what would become his most famous statement — “I would rather die on yonder gallows than live in slavery.” Bleby now told the story again with its daring revolutionary cast. He told the crowd it was Sharpe’s direct action that had seized the government’s attention, intimating that America’s own problem would not be solved through mere legislation but through uprising.
By 1859, August First Day had shifted from a day for marginalized dreamers into a movement that helped spark the abolition of slavery in the United States. The holiday celebrations bridged the divide between Black abolitionists and their White allies. The annual gatherings shifted from a celebration of an overseas emancipation into a demand for a domestic one. Black militia companies showed off their drill maneuvers, marching in formation with weapons to the sounds of fifes and drums. In one typical display in 1859 in Richmond, Ind., a crowd “marched through diverse streets with music and banners, making a grand display.” This was itself a revolutionary gesture, made on a day when African Americans took some control of public spaces and claimed them for their own purposes. Many of these units were recruited wholesale into the U.S. Army after the Civil War erupted.
As the historian Jeffrey Kerr-Ritchie argues, the historical moment represented the nascent development of Black nationalism — infused with preexisting ideas about American nationalism. In effect, the August First promoters had forged their own “Independence Day,” not one whose great deeds were in the past, but in the future. Abolitionist James Pennington observed at the 1839 celebration that Black people simply had no other holiday to mark the catastrophe of their bondage, and also their hope.
August First Day gradually faded from observance after the Civil War, replaced by other celebrations, such as Juneteenth — marking the date of June 19, 1865, when enslaved people were freed in East Texas. However, its lessons remain a vivid part of the long Black freedom struggle. The current wave of uprisings in the United States reflects some of its spirit: the decentralized nature, the claiming of common spaces, the forming of multiracial coalitions, and the insistence on racial equality and the dignity of Black lives.
While the holiday of Juneteenth has rightly been recognized as a crucial marker of a new birth of American freedom, the neglected predecessor of August First Day also deserves to be remembered. It represented a prophetic voice, calling on Americans never to waiver in the fight for the rights and liberty for all people.