History November 25, 2021 at 10:00 am

What was Thanksgiving Day like for enslaved people in America?

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor November 25, 2021 at 10:00 am

November 25, 2021 at 10:00 am | History

Enslaved men and women in America. GETTY IMAGES

Many families in America will today celebrate what is believed to be a joyful feast between Pilgrims and Native Americans, though different meanings have been given to the holiday. Thanksgiving Day, for some, is a time to spend with family, give thanks and enjoy delectable recipes. Others look forward to it because it is yet another day away from the pressures of work and school.

Essentially, Thanksgiving is celebrated to give thanks for the fruits of the previous harvest. In America, the celebration dates back to 1621, when the harvest was celebrated by the Pilgrims who had sailed from England on the ship Mayflower in September 1620 and were now settlers of the Plymouth Colony in what’s now called Massachusetts.

But other accounts debunk any sort of happy feast between Pilgrims and the Native Americans at the time and rather describe the situation as white colonists who invaded a land, claimed it as their own, and slaughtered the indigenous people of the land in what is called the Pequot War between the settlers and the natives. Historians do not also agree about when the first Thanksgiving was held.

But what they agree on is that African Americans have since time immemorial welcomed the tradition of Thanksgiving, including during slavery. Throughout Black churches in Antebellum America, pastors openly preached against slavery and the struggles of Black people during Thanksgiving, with hopes that their troubles would cease in the future.

Field slaves during Thanksgiving would hunt for wild game for their families and friends. Tiny feasts are often organized, with enslaved women making pone cakes or cornmeal cakes to go along with the game, according to one account. Some slaves sometimes ate the leftovers from their slaveowners’ houses.

Escape

Historians say that some enslaved men and women took advantage of Thanksgiving to escape as their slave owners were often far away from them during the celebrations. They used what was called passes granted to them by their owners to facilitate their escape and delay the discovery of their escape.

Enslaved men and women who had spouses, children, and relatives who were owned by different slaveowners would request passes to travel and visit their families during Thanksgiving. In the process, some escaped.

Today, even though many African Americans still spend Thanksgiving visiting families and friends, many have ceased spending the holiday in church. They would rather be with friends and families to celebrate their blessings, and this usually comes with a large meal, which almost always includes turkey.

It is estimated that between 85 and 91 percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving while others refer to Thanksgiving as ‘Turkey Day’. What’s more, presidents pardon turkeys in honor of Thanksgiving, and this dates back to the Truman Administration.

It is significant to note that when President George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1789, some members of Congress were against it. They argued that the president didn’t have the authority to designate a Thanksgiving Day as that right belonged to individual state governors. Others also wanted the Day to be separated from state activities as it was deemed “religious.”

And although the first national Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed by Washington, it did not become a regular holiday in the U.S. until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared that the last Thursday in November should be celebrated as Thanksgiving.

Even though Thanksgiving Day is popularly known to be celebrated in the United States, Thanksgiving Day is also celebrated in other countries, including Canada, Japan and Germany. People in the Caribbean and Africa also mark the day for unique reasons.

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