Each time the Fourth of July holiday rolls around, a constituency of social media users takes to their phones and computers to remind us all that America’s Independence Day didn’t apply to Black people. Their reasoning—sound and grounded in history—was that although the Declaration of Independence was passed on July 4, 1776, giving America independence from Great Britain, that independence certainly didn’t apply to Black people, many of whom weren’t freed from slavery until 1863 or later.
White supremacists of the 1870s made a similar claim, though based on racist and perhaps political sentiments, according to historians. But make no mistake: Black people have for centuries celebrated the Fourth of July and advocated for independence despite racists working to erase both histories.
Rev. Lemuel Haynes, a Black Continental Army veteran, spoke about both American freedom and slavery in 1801. ”When men are made to believe that true dignity consists in outward parade and pompous titles, they forget the thing itself,” he said. “The propriety of this idea will appear strikingly evident by pointing you to the poor Africans, among us. What has reduced them to their present pitiful, abject state?
“Is it any distinction that the God of nature hath made in their formation? Nay-but being subjected to slavery, by the cruel hands of oppressors, they have been taught to view themselves as a rank of beings far below others, which has suppressed, in a degree, every principle of manhood.”
It was a brave argument to lay out in the early 1800s and one to which Black abolitionists clung, especially when New York abolished slavery in 1827, Purdue University history professor Jonathan Lande wrote for The Washington Post. “From that day forward, as historian Shane White discovered, black Americans began to see the holiday as a political moment to show their fitness for citizenship,” Lande wrote. “July Fourth also became the ideal moment to reshape the nation.”
By the 1840s, Black abolitionists had begun doing exactly that, using the American propensity for celebrating freedom to push a message that freedom should apply to everyone, Lande wrote. Their advocacy continued for more than two decades. “Thanks in part to abolitionists’ protests against slavery and racial injustice, the 1865 July Fourth celebrations were the most dramatic in history,” Lande wrote.
Frederick Douglass, an esteemed abolitionist and former slave, joined the movement to bring attention to independence celebrations as a method of urging the abolition of slavery, Lande wrote. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Douglass asked a white New York crowd on July 5, 1852. “I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; ... a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
History professors Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts also documented the cherished orator’s work in The Atlantic. They wrote that Douglass chose to celebrate independence on July 5 “to better accentuate the difference between the high promises of the Fourth and the low realities of life for African Americans, while also avoiding confrontations with drunken white revelers.”
While white southerners nursing wounded egos after having lost the Civil War opted out of celebrating Independence Day in 1865, Black people welcomed the commemoration of independence with a renewed vigor following the Civil War, Kytle and Roberts wrote. “The whole colored population seemed to have turned out into the open air, and the gardens were so densely thronged that it was only with the utmost difficulty that locomotion was possible amid the booths, stalls and sightseers,” a Charleston Daily News reporter wrote on July 5, 1872, which Kytle and Roberts included in their book.
The history professors described Black benevolent societies participating in parades yearly, one of which in 1875 featured a “queen for the day.” The writers called it both “a striking claim to the respectability whites routinely denied black women” and an example of the ways freedwomen pushed back “against the gender and, in many cases, class barriers that relegated them to the sidelines of Reconstruction politics.”
But as with many of the inventive ways Black people have tried to assert their humanity in this country, white supremacists tried violently to cap the efforts. “On July 4, 1875, a white mob broke up a Republican rally in Vicksburg, Mississippi, killing a black deputy sheriff,” Kytle and Roberts wrote. “The next year, in the village of Hamburg, South Carolina, anger over a black militia parade on the Fourth boiled over into a full-blown riot that left at least seven African Americans dead at the hands of white vigilantes.”
White critics belittled Black freed slaves by asserting that Black people couldn’t possibly understand what Independence Day meant and certainly weren’t “worthy of equal citizenship,” and in 1902, white Atlantans “completed their commemorative coup with an elaborate Fourth of July program,” Kytle and Roberts wrote. “The nation’s birthday was back where it belonged—in the hands of ‘true’ Americans,” the writers said. “That this patriotic display honored men who had fought to destroy the United States did not bother local whites. ”
Published with permission of Daily Kos