Parades, Recitals & More: When July 4 Was A Black Holiday

Smiling man serving food to family during outdoor dinner party

Photo: Getty Images

July 4, or Independence Day, is usually marked with cookouts, barbecues, fireworks, and all types of celebrations. As the day Americans formally claimed their independence after a war with Great Britain, it's considered the best time for U.S. citizens to show off their patriotism.

For Black Americans, it can bring mixed feelings, reminders of how some of the United States' early success was built off the backs of their enslaved ancestors. As a result, some Black Americans choose to celebrate Juneteenth, a now federal holiday that highlights the emancipation of Black slaves.

There was a time in American history, however, where the 4th of July was a time where it was considered a "Black holiday" and a time to celebrate black freedom following the Civil War. To understand this, we need to take a walk back into history.

On July 5, 1852, renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke to a mostly white crowd in Rochester, New York. In his speech, he talked about how Black people were excluded from basic services, amenities, and even the Declaration of Independence and various laws in the country. Therefore, a Black person is excluded from the celebration of Independence Day.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? ...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,” Douglass explained, adding that he felt much the same: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! ... This Fourth [of] July is yours not mine.”

This would consolidate the feelings of both enslaved and freed Black people before the Civil War, culminating in a new sentiment after the bloody conflict.

When the four-year war ended in 1865, things began to look more hopeful for Black people. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln, newly freed slaves embraced this new reality. Not only that but defeated Confederates weren't in the mood to take part in July 4 celebrations for years.

As a result, Black people decided to ascribe new meaning to Independence Day -- a celebration of freedom from slavery.

A Fourth of July celebration by a group of Negroes.

Photo: Getty Images

Parades, feasts, and martial displays by Black militia groups would mark these celebrations, drawing thousands together. Black people were also encouraged to contribute to their communities, such as building schools and churches. "Mutual aid groups like the Sons of Ham and the Daughters of Zion organized events featuring longstanding Black American traditions like barbecue and late-night dancing," according to JSTOR.

Fourth Of July Drummers

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Black people would have big gatherings in various cities from Mobile, Alabama and Miami, Florida to Charleston, South Carolina, and Washington D.C. They were so popular and momentous, it began to grate the nerves of disgruntled white Southerners.

For decades, white Southern politicians worked to quash these Black celebrations of liberty, through segregation, laws, and even violence. Some cities would gradually push out traditional celebration locations, while others published statements delegitimizing Black people's claim to the holiday.

"African American families and friends continued to meet in more informal gatherings in the city, but by the early 1900s both Charleston and Atlanta had forbidden vendors from setting up food stalls along the streets where black residents had long congregated on the Fourth," The Atlantic wrote.

Protests on Fourth of July in Los Angeles

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Eventually, the commemoration of July 4 as a day for Black liberty mostly faded across Black generations. Today, some Black people celebrate the holiday as most Americans do, or they celebrate Juneteenth. Others take the holiday to reflect on America's history, have discussions, or even participate in demonstrations against racial disparities.

Since Juneteenth has garnered more traction, who knows if July 4 will go back to being both a day for American patriotism and black liberty.

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