When the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited abolitionist Frederick Douglass to give his famous July 4 speech in 1852, Douglass chose to speak on July 5 instead. Historians say Black Americans at the time used national holidays like the Fourth of July (Independence Day) as an opportunity to display their citizenship and patriotism but they often celebrated July Fourth on July 5 to avoid the violence they experienced when they celebrated the holiday on the same day as white people in America.
A federal holiday, July 4th or Fourth of July is Independence Day in the United States. 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. Still, 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.
When Douglass gave his iconic “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech in 1852 decades after the passage of the Declaration of Independence, millions of his fellow Blacks were still in chains. 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.
While his white audience thought he would use the occasion to celebrate the nation’s successes, he instead used it to remind everyone of the continuing enslavement of millions of his fellow Blacks. And his speech was appropriate 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.
Hence, even before Douglass’ speech, many African Americans in the 1800s introduced creative ways to react to a holiday that celebrated the independence of a nation that was still enslaving millions. In New York, for instance, enslaved people were not freed until July 4, 1827. As the date neared, Black residents debated over how to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the state. They feared that a parade on Broadway on July 4 to celebrate abolition would lead to disturbance as white people usually attacked blacks on public holidays.
At the end of the day, New York’s Black residents chose the day after July 4 to celebrate the end of slavery. So on July 5, 1827, about 4,000 blacks marched along Broadway, “preceded by an honor guard on horseback and a grand marshal carrying a drawn sword,” according to The New York Times. The celebration was hosted by the African Zion Church, where abolitionist William Hamilton stated, “This day we stand redeemed from a bitter thralldom.”
Black people in Boston and Philadelphia also joined in celebrating the news from New York, The New York Times said. In effect, both Douglass’s speech about Independence Day and the celebration of the abolition of slavery in New York on July 4, 1827, occurred on the fifth.
Other Blacks also celebrated the idea of Independence on other days besides July 5. In 1808, Black people in the U.S. started celebrating January 1, when the U.S. banned the transatlantic slave trade. William Loren Katz writes in the History News Network: “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.”
August 1 also became a holiday in 1834, when Great Britain abolished slavery. “Those dates might not supersede July 4 but in terms of national notions of independence, they’re just as important and don’t carry the same kind of baggage,” said Derrick R. Spires, associate professor of literatures in English in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Today, those who feel that many are still entrapped in a form of modern slavery in America and the nation is still grappling with racism may choose to celebrate July 5th instead of July 4th.