Why Blacks Used to Celebrate July 5th

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Mr. Katz has been affiliated with New York University for more than twenty years and is the author of forty books on US history.

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.

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Anita L Wills - 7/16/2004

The slave trade continued after 1808, especially in the more southern states like South Carolina. One of my ancestors was taken from Guinea in 1830, and seasoned in the Caribbean before being sold in South Carolina. Although the slave trade was abolished federally, many of the states ignored the federal laws. The fledgling federal government was dependent on those states economically, and did not have the resources, or military necessary to police them.

I don't know if you are a historian, but slavery was common prior to the American Slave Trade. The difference with American slaves, was the laws which made provisions for enslaving Africans and People of Color for life. The church and state laws went so far as to condone enslaving Africans with Bible references. What laws were quoted when Europeans enslaved each other, or Arabs enslaved Europeans?

In my mind it was pure evil to use the Bible to justify a system that was set up for the economic benefit of (some)Europeans. There is also material showing that Europeans were intent on taking Natives lands because as long as the Natives held land, they were on the same level as Europeans. In Britain the land owners were the ones calling the shots, and it was disturbing to see Natives running free (on their own land), and counter productive to the goals of the Colonizer. That is why so much time and effort went into making laws to set up Reservations, and create situations in which Natives were driven off their lands.

Mark O McDaniel - 7/16/2004

You say that in 1808 the slave trade was abolished "in" the US - does that mean only inter-state trade? Or did you mean any slave trade from the old world to the US was abolished at that point too? If so, was there a "black market" of slaves after 1808? The pun was unintentional, originally; uh, when the term first popped into my head.

Anita Baxter Wills - 7/5/2004

My Great Great Grandmother was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1830, after the British Outlawed slavery. The British began outlawing the American slave trade after they were defeated in the Revolutionary War.

Anita Baxter Wills - 7/5/2004

I am a descendant of Free Blacks, who fought in the Revolutionary War out of Virginia. Two of my direct ancestors, Rawley Pinn, and Charles Lewis were in the Revolutionary War. Rawley Pinn was a mixed raced native/African, who was born in Indian Town Lancaster County Virginia. He was born about 1740, to the Wicomico Indian Tribe, a signatory tribe to the Powhatan. Rawley fought at the Siege of Yorktown with his brother Robert, and Nephews Billy, John, and Jim. John Pinn left a pension application which detailed his Native/African heritage, and his Revolutionary War Service.

Charles and Ambrose Lewis were called Mulatto Bastards in 1771, by the King George County Courts. The courts were referring to their mixed raced status, and the laws passed against such marriages. There was no legal way that Charles and Ambrose would be anything except Bastards in the eyes of Colonial Viriginia Courts. The brothers were sentenced to twenty one year indentures, as required by law.

In 1776 Ambrose and Charles were working on a ship on the Rappahannock, learning the trade of their white father, John Lewis, and his father before him. They signed on as Seamen in the Revolutionary War, a move which would allow them to get out of their forced indenture. After serving three years as Seamen the brothers signed on as Colonial Soldiers, and engaged in The Battle of Camden SC. Ambrose was bayonnetted and shot nine times during this battle. He was taken aboard a British Prison Ship and held prisoner until the end of the War.

Although Cornwallis was successful at the Battle of Camden, he was defeated at the Siege of Yorktown, and some of the soldiers fighting there were Free Blacks, Natives, and Mulatto. I found the name of my ancestors mixed raced unit on a military roster at the Swem Library in the College of William and Mary. Rawley Pinn was living in Amherst County Virginia when he, and many in the community were pressed into service. They marched to Yorktown under the leadership of Colonial William Cabell, who it also apears was mixed raced Native/white.

From the documents I collected, it would appear that my ancestors believed they were fighting for a New Society that would end slavery. After the war, Ambrose Lewis married a freed slave named Fanny. The interesting aspect of this union is that Charles Lewis purchased and freed Fanny. There were many instances of Free Blacks purchasing and freeing relatives.

Rawley Pinn left Lancaster County, and moved to Central Virginia, sometime around 1771, seeking freedom. Although he, and his siblings were born free, he was witness to the enslavement of Natives, and the African Slave trade. During this period Virginia was setting aside land as Reservations for Natives. As far as I know July the 4th was not a big holiday in the black community, or my family, and I always wondered why. Now I know.

Another family that is included are the Bowdens, who were Mulatto Indentured Servants to George Washingtons family. Mary Bowden was born about 1730, and lived free the first seven years of her life. When she turned seven, Augustine Washington Senior, took her to court, and received a thirty-year forced indenture for her. Mary arrived at the plantation in 1737, and remained there until sometime around 1780. Three generations of her family remained as Indentured Servants to the Washington family. The last Indenture was 1811, when the sons of Mary's daughter, Patty, completed their indentures.

The Bowden, Lewis, and Jackson lines connected in Fredericksburg sometime around 1839. The descendants of Charles Lewis, and Rawley Pinn, were participants in the Underground Railroad, and fought in the Civil War. One descendant, Walter Samuel Pinn fought with the 54th Massachusetts, under Colonial Robert Shaw.

Not only were these men participants in the Revolutionary War, they passed their belief in freedom, and resistance, on to their descendants. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow when the men realized that what they thought the war was about, was an illusion, they had been deceived. After all most of the men involved in the fight were not the architects of the War. For Charles and Ambrose Lewis, there was another indignity, they were not paid for their Colonial Service. The brothers petitioned Congress for inclusion on the rolls, and Ambrose was successful. Ambrose eventually received pay, and a pension for his service at the Battle of Camden. Charles died before ever receiving his pay, and his heirs continued their petition. However, they gave up, after their petitions were ignored, and passed from committee to committee.

My interest is in making sure that ALL who participated are recognized. My ancestors reasons for serving were different from the whites who fought. They were fighting for survival, and the right to determine their own destiny. Whites were fighting for the right to control resources from Native land, and African labor (sort of like what Bush is doing in Iraq).

In my book, Notes And Documents of Free Persons of Color; http://www.lulu.com/leboudin, I detail the lives of those labled, Free Persons of Color, including the Lewis and Pinn families.

Yes, they changed the date, and it is wonderful, because by so doing they were holding up a mirror for those in power to peer into.

Kenneth T. Tellis - 7/4/2004

The people of colour celebrated August 1, 1834, because that was the day when the British Parliament outlawed SLAVERY in the British Empire. All thanks for that go the Rev'd William Wiberforce of the Congregational Church, MP for Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire, England. William Wilberforce spent the better part of his life fighting against slavery and he finally achieved that goal in 1834, but being very ill passed away a few months after the British Parliament outlawed slavery. His home in Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire is a Museum which celebrates his lifelong struggle against slavery.