Do you know why Frederick Douglass gave his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech on the fifth of July, in 1852, to be exact?
Because in the years before the Civil War, the Fourth was celebrated mostly by whites. In his speech Douglass eloquently explains why African Americans had little reason to celebrate the Fourth. When they did observe the date, it was generally on July 5.
But, as Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts note in their important article in The Atlantic, “When the Fourth of July Was a Black Holiday,” when the Civil War ended and the enslaved became free, all that changed. Then, at least in the South, it was African Americans who “embraced the Fourth like never before. From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.” White people were reportedly rarely seen in public on that day.
Kytle and Roberts add:
Throughout the South, freedwomen were conspicuous participants in Fourth of July celebrations, pushing back against the gender and, in many cases, class barriers that relegated them to the sidelines of Reconstruction politics. The domestic workers and washerwomen of the Daughters of Zion and the Sisters of Zion, two benevolent societies in Memphis, Tennessee, marched in parades each year. The 1875 parade featured a carriage carrying “a queen for the day”—a striking claim to the respectability whites routinely denied black women.
But as white supremacy reasserted itself and Jim Crow took hold, as statues to Confederate generals and leaders were erected across the South, white people reclaimed the Fourth of July.
Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts are the authors of the new book Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, which the New York Times and quite a few others have called a must-read.
On July 4, 2018, at 4 p.m. there will be a public reading of Frederick Douglass’s great speech at the Inkwell in Oak Bluffs. Come read or come listen! Either way you’ll be inspired.