The first official celebration of Juneteenth was on June 19, 1865. Have you ever wondered what the July 4, 1865 was like? It was the first Independence Day after the end of the Civil War. And it was the first Independence Day after ALL of the enslaved people in America were free-ish. I did a little digging and found some interesting things.
Frederick Douglass gave his most famous speech, ‘What To the Negro is the Fourth of July’ on July 5, 1852. By 1865, a lot had changed. The Civil War had ended and the final enslaved people in Texas were informed that they were free-ish. Douglass’ speech was all about the hypocrisy of America. This is YOUR holiday, not ours! WE aren’t free. But, 13 years later, Lincoln, had freed enslaved people, so…now what.
In my mind, Black people just had one helluva summer. Juneteenth happened and then they celebrated July 4. HardT. In fact, historical accounts of July 4, 1865, prove my hypothesis correct. According to The Atlantic, “The Fourth became an almost exclusively African American holiday in the states of the former Confederacy—until white Southerners, after violently reasserting their dominance of the region, snuffed these black commemorations out.” Before 1865, Black folks would observe July 5, not July 4.
But in 1865, July 4th was a day of BIG celebration for Black people. We held parties and parades, gathered for fireworks and basically had a good ole time. The grandest of the 4th celebrations were in Charleston, SC, but celebrations were poppin’ all over. We had Columbused the 4th of July!! I am totally here for it. Are you wondering what the white people were doing while the former enslaved people were doing all this carrying on during what used to be their day? Glad you asked. They were BIG MAD. The Washington Times had a great set of quotes from the salty:
- The Southern Watchman of Athens, Georgia, reported that the city rejected the notion of celebrating entirely because it was “deemed inexpedient, in view of our recent humiliation, our great loss of property, and more especially of men, to attempt a celebration this year.”
- The Macon (Georgia) Telegraph observed in its July 4, 1865, edition that “our people are in no condition to engage in hilarity and festivity. Where plenty once smiled upon us, we now see the impoverishment and exhaustion resulting from four years of war.”
- The July 5 edition of the Columbia Daily Phoenix in South Carolina perhaps best captured the conflicted feelings across the old Confederacy. The only official observation of the holiday was organized by blacks, who were joined by a much smaller group of whites. Despite the lack of an official celebration, the local government declared that day that it was “the duty of the people of the South to accept, and acquiesce in the result, and to submit in good faith to the authority of the United States government.”
Of course this hijacking of the Fourth of July by Black people wouldn’t be tolerated for long. In the years to come, the holiday became more political. And in the years where segregation and laws to enforce racism and segregation became more prevalent, the day took on a totally different meaning for Black people – on purpose. By the 1900’s, Black people now marked the holiday by “going way off by himself,” celebrating behind closed doors in black churches and cultural institutions or with family. There were even concerted attempts and campaigns to question why Black people would even want to celebrate the 4th in the first place – this holiday isn’t for you.
Now here we are in 2020 and I am happy to see a resurgence and energy around Juneteenth. That’s ours. It’s always been. I will remain hopeful that one day, we (or may my grandkids) can and will celebrate the 4th without conflicted feelings. I’m a South Carolina girl and the state’s motto is: “Dum Spiro Spero – While I breathe, I hope. So…I shall keep hope alive.
Read more about the evolution of the Fourth of July here:
Denmark Vesey’s Garden: denmarkveseysgarden.com