In the United States, July 4th or Fourth of July is Independence Day. A federal holiday, it is the annual celebration of nationhood, commemorating the passage of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The Declaration made public the freedom of the 13 North American colonies from Great Britain.
Yet, in 1776, the United States, which was now independent and free from the control of the British, was still keeping thousands of Black people in bondage. Thirteen years before the United States Congress passed and ratified the 13th amendment that abolished slavery in the country in 1865, abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass gave a brilliant speech on July 5, 1852, on the subject: “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
He told a white crowd in Rochester, New York, that the Fourth of July is “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.”
“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! … This Fourth [of] July is yours not mine,” he said.
It was an appropriate speech as the United States Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, was in no way a reflection of independence for enslaved men and women who helped build the country.
Some years after his speech, Douglass and thousands of African Americans began celebrating the Fourth of July following the end of the Civil War. After the end of the War in 1865, about 4 million people who became emancipated citizens turned the Fourth of July into a celebration of Black freedom.
The Fourth of July or Independence Day was now a holiday largely for Black people and celebrated with feasts, parades, martial displays, and so on. Before the Civil War, it was White Americans who organized these activities to mark July 4th. Black people were not interested in the day.
According to The Atlantic, Blacks who did observe the holiday “preferred—like Douglass—to do so 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.”
Things changed by 1865. White Southerners, who lost the war to split off from the United States and defend slavery, saw the Fourth of July as a celebration of Confederate defeat. With slavery no more and now back to the Union, they found no need to celebrate, but Blacks did. In places like Washington, D.C. and Alabama, Black people gathered during the Fourth of July to pay attention to orators reciting the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, according to The Atlantic. They also watched fireworks.
In Memphis, the city’s first Black Fourth of July celebration occurred in 1866. It featured barbecue and late-night dancing, which were traditions associated with African Americans. In so many areas across the nation, including Charleston, South Carolina, martial displays, feasts, and marches by Black militia companies marked the celebrations, bringing together thousands of people. During these celebrations, Black people were also urged to contribute to their communities through the building of schools, churches, and so on.
In the 1880s, white Southerners brought in place “segregationist laws and customs” that eventually ended Black celebrations of the Fourth of July in public. Most African-American families now celebrated in their homes or churches away from public spaces. White southerners had taken over the celebrations again.
To Black residents in Memphis, it “once again became a far off promise of equality as the words of the Declaration of Independence were voiced, but proved to have little meaning, in the Jim Crow South,” historian Brian D. Page wrote.