The holiday reminds us how African Americans’ commemorative calendar is different from that of white Americans. And this has been the case since the country’s founding. While White Americans celebrated July Fourth, African Americans, many enslaved, understood the hypocrisy underpinning a nation that promised freedom and equality but was founded on slavery and routinely denied to Black people the basic rights and liberties enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. So they created their own holidays — like Emancipation Day and then later Juneteenth — to celebrate their own freedom, draw attention to the continuing enslavement of millions of others in the U.S. and forge connections to Black people the world over.
As the U.S. reckons with its white supremacist history, now is time to foreground African American holidays that highlighted the limits of American liberties and citizenship. These alternative commemorative dates focus sharply on the continuing racism and inequalities at the heart of the republican experiment.
Even if African Americans wanted to celebrate the Revolution in the decades after the founding of the nation, they were not welcomed by whites. As July Fourth celebrations expanded in the 1790s, whites often harassed any African Americans who dared join them. Black people quickly learned to take shelter on July Fourth or risk being “shamefully abus’d” as abolitionist and founder of the Black Freemasons Prince Hall said in 1797.
And so, African Americans created their own commemorative traditions. Starting on Jan. 1, 1808, African Americans in New York and Philadelphia celebrated the day the slave trade came to an official end. That date also marked the 1804 anniversary of Haitian independence.
At St Thomas’s African Episcopal (AME) Church of Philadelphia, Absalom Jones declared a day of thanksgiving should be set aside every year to remember “the history of the sufferings of our brethren, and of their deliverance,” and conjured up a Pan-African community of those who might rejoice in Africa, the Caribbean and the U.S. For many African Americans like Jones, the abolition of the slave trade, and not the American Revolution, was “one of the greatest events that mark the present age.”
Then, as African Americans grew disillusioned with just how little impact the end of the slave trade had on actual conditions within the U.S., many free Black people turned to other more meaningful moments to celebrate. In New York, for example, African Americans held parades marking the end of slavery in the state. But while the official date for this was July 4, 1827, most Black people wanted to distance themselves from this date and held commemorative parades on July 5 instead.
Soon after 1834, African Americans looked outside the United States to draw inspiration and started celebrating Emancipation Day on Aug. 1. The festivities spread from the northeastern states across to Minnesota and California. They were attended by thousands who paraded through towns, occupied city hall, watched the marches of Black militia companies, and listened to fiery speeches by now famous Black Americans such as Frederick Douglass. Later, they played ballgames, danced, picnicked and partied into the night.
During the Civil War, when enslaved people fled Southern states in huge numbers, helping to persuade Lincoln to sign an Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on Jan. 1, 1863 — African Americans had another date to commemorate. In some states, though, African Americans marked freedom annually on the anniversary of the proclamation reaching them: April 16 in D.C., May 8 in Mississippi, May 20 in Florida, May 29 in Georgia and June 19, or Juneteenth, in Texas.
After the war, holidays became a way for African Americans to keep alive their own history, especially as White Americans in the Jim Crow era again shut them out of public celebrations of July Fourth, and erected statues of Confederate generals and soldiers to promulgate a racist rendering of history. Such efforts encouraged Carter G. Woodson to found Negro History Week in 1926, in the second week of February to honor the birthdays of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson, a passionate educator, aimed to empower African Americans with knowledge of Black history, including in Africa and around the globe. His legacy lives on in Black History Month today.
Black Power advocates took up Woodson’s mantle in the 1960s when they invented Kwanzaa, a new event on the Black commemorative calendar. Between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 each year, tens of thousands of African Americans have taken part in this thanksgiving festival, acknowledging the shared experience of enslavement and its aftermath for everyone in the African diaspora.
When it came to the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron proclaimed a case of the “Bicentennial Blues.” Comedian Richard Pryor marked the occasion with a best-selling and Grammy Award-winning album titled “Bicentennial N-----.” With his trademark mix of profanity and insight, Pryor made it clear that no amount of anniversary whitewashing could cover up the racism and injustice that was as much a bedrock of American nationalism as the lofty sentiments of the Declaration of Independence.
Right up to the present day, African Americans continue to be ambivalent about July 4. As one viral tweet this month by an African American woman in South Texas noted, “I personally don’t know anyone who ever has [celebrated the Fourth]. We just off. So we bbq.” A reply agreed: “And we pop fire crackers because it’s fun for the kids. No one is thinking about the white man’s independence from the other white man. At all.”
Instead, at this vital moment when the streets are crackling with the simple statement that Black Lives Matter, there is a resurgence of interest in re-writing history and marking more meaningful alternative dates.
We see it in the focus on Juneteenth, as well as the New York Times 1619 Project, whose very name suggests that United States history might better start with a date other than 1776. We also see it in efforts nationwide to remake the commemorative landscape. Statues of white supremacist military and political leaders are the targets, including the defacing of statues of George Washington in New York, Baltimore, Trenton, N.J. and Portland, Ore.
As Americans continue to struggle with the inequalities and racism that are a legacy of its founding era and complex history, the Black Lives Matter marches of the summer of 2020 themselves will no doubt join Aug. 1 in an evolving but enduring African American commemorative calendar.