On August 1, 1861, many African Americans in Illinois joined others throughout the Union in celebrating Emancipation Day, marking the anniversary of the August 1, 1834, abolition of slavery in most of the British Empire. For many African Americans, August 1 seemed more appropriate for celebration than the Independence Day anniversary just weeks before. They certainly sensed more than their white countrymen the contradiction between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the reality of millions of their fellows being regarded as a form of property. Even for those blacks residing in free states, daily life involved limitations that brought into question the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration.
Emancipation Day celebrations were first held in eastern states during the 1840s. In larger towns and cities they included large, organized parades, much like those of Independence Day. The events, planned by local black community leaders including ministers, usually began with prayer and included long, formal speeches that often included a history lesson highlighting the role Africans had played in building the nation. The planners aimed for an atmosphere of religious and educational uplift and restrained celebration, in part, to prove to white neighbors that African Americans were “respectable”—an important attribute among those aspiring to the growing middling class—and as capable of carrying civic responsibility as any other American. Many participants seem to have looked forward more to the picnic lunch and a chance to spend a peaceful day meeting and relaxing with friends.
Emancipation Day in Illinois
It appears that Emancipation Day observances came to Illinois in the middle 1850s, a time of growing tension over the role of slavery in national life and growing hostility to the institution. In 1857 more than 200 Chicago blacks and whites met at the African Methodist Church and marched to the railroad depot, led by the city band. At a grove south of the city they listened to several speeches and enjoyed a picnic lunch. After a late afternoon return to the city another gathering was held downtown. After short speeches and “an elegant supper,” participants danced until after midnight. The event seems to have been fairly typical, one to which white neighbors were welcomed and which at least some supported and attended.
In Galesburg, a center of antislavery activity, African Americans from several counties gathered on property owned by white antislavery activist George W. Gale. The event opened with “a fervid prayer,” followed by singing of a women’s choir. Joseph H. Barquet then made a speech lasting over an hour, “full of burning eloquence, deep thorough and historical research… recurring the bloody scenes that were being enacted in the State.” Joseph D. Allen of Knoxville followed with a sermon. After an elaborate picnic lunch the meeting resumed, formally adopting statements that condemned the U. S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which ruled that blacks were not, and never could be, citizens of the United States. Another resolution officially invited Frederick Douglass to lecture in central Illinois. The last action thanked Gale for use of his grounds, “and the citizens of Galesburg, for their liberality and protection,” the altter an important point since African American civic events were sometimes disrupted by disapproving whites. At Galesburg, “the meeting then adjourned; every body in the best of humor.”
Emancipation Day 1861
In 1861 Emancipation Day came less than four months after the opening of hostilities at Charleston, South Carolina. Any excitement felt over the possibilities for black freedom that might come from the war apparently melted in the oppressive heat that covered Illinois. In Bloomington, where the temperature topped 100°, the celebration took place in a local grove. The local newspaper reported that “their Fourth of July” comes at a time too hot for whites, “yet they are going in with heart and strength to have a good time.” Any activities that had been planned for Springfield fell by the wayside because “The day was entirely too hot to feel good.” The people in Quincy stuck it out, and the observances “took place in one of the public squares, and were appropriate and harmonious.”
Emancipation Day 1862
By August 1862 the war had been underway for over a year, and circumstances had pushed Abraham Lincoln and the Congress to actions that slowly changed the situation of African Americans. Black men were being quietly recruited into the army, and newly signed laws gave freedom to the slaves of those actively involved in the rebellion and ended slavery in the District of Columbia and the territories of the United States.
Emancipation Day ceremonies in Bloomington emphasized the promise of the hour. Local blacks were reported to have celebrated “in the usual style, though we think with something more than the usual spirit and interest.” E. Hutchens, “a man of many years, whose life has been spent amidst slavery,” made a speech in which he “dwelt at length upon the duty of his brethren in the free states, to educate their children, elevate their moral and religious character, and fit them for the higher position which he dared to hope they would soon be allowed to enjoy.” J. W. Hill of Peoria spoke on temperance and education, “and the importance of the African demonstrating that he is capable of self government.” The white reporter in attendance commented that “if any one is impressed with the idea that the negro cannot enjoy freedom, a few moments spent on the ground yesterday would have dispelled it… and it seemed pleasant to reflect that the fond dreams of freedom so long indulged by this oppressed people, promise a speedy realization.”
Interested in learning more?
Detailed studies of Emancipation Day observances and how they changed over time can be found in Mitch Kachun, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915, and J. R. Kerr-Ritchie, Rites of August First: Emancipation Day in the Black Atlantic World.