“The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
These were Frederick Douglass’ unyielding words from his momentous “Fifth of July Speech”* to the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester’s Corinthian Hall in 1852.
Douglass had been asked to speak on Independence Day but with entrenched slavery supported by the recently adopted Fugitive Slave law, how could he? After all, he declared with authority, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, extended to us….I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary.” But he was included “within the pale” of another anniversary which was annually observed by African Americans in the State, and it was a chief reason why he chose to speak the following day. During this pre-war period, the July 5th Movement captured and shaped blacks’ identity as a cohesive, active community.
For 25 years, the Fifth of July was the day to commemorate the abolition of slavery in New York. The legislation which freed over 10,000 slaves—there were almost 30,000 free blacks, according to the 1820 census – was signed by Governor Daniel Tompkins on July 4, 1827. Like Douglass, many black New Yorkers rejected the 4th as a day to hold ceremonies in observance of emancipation. Research provides three rationales and explanations for this decision. First, an ad hoc committee assembled in Albany in late March, 1827 to plan and coordinate a commemorative event for the impending enactment. On April 2, the Albany Argus and Daily City Gazette reported that “at a meeting of the people of colour… held at the African meeting house [Lewis Topp motioned] that whereas the fourth day of July is the day of National Independence is recognized by the white citizens, we deem it proper to celebrate on the fifth.” The resolution was accepted unanimously. Word of this decision spread in various parts of the State. For example, on May 5, the Plattsburg Republican reported on this planning group’s decision for July 5, noting that its purpose was “to not interfere with the festivities with white citizens” one day earlier.
In 1856, Henry Highland Garnet remembered a similar organizational meeting in Manhattan. On July 7, the New York Daily Times described a welcome home reception for him after an absence of 6 years, and reported that “it was further designed to commemorate” the 28th anniversary of this State’s abolition of enslavement. When called upon to speak, he recalled that as a very young man he attended a planning session — if he indicated 1827 the newspaper did not say so—and “at one meeting, particularly, he recollected they passed resolutions never to unite in the slightest in commemorating [abolition] until the last vestige of Slavery was removed from the United States.”
Lastly, two historians have examined the rejection of July 4 as the day to memorialize NY’s abolition of slavery. In Festivals of Freedom: African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915, Mitch Kachun concludes that in NYC one major concern was the “potential violence from white July Fourth celebrants.” An example of racial violence occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1828 when a mob of white celebrants attacked and vandalized a black church as its congregation held a special “Watch Night” service. Later, he contends that along with the danger of white violence, many blacks chose July 5 ”to protest their exclusion from Independence Day celebrations” in the past. In “’It’s a Proud Day’: African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741-1834,” (The Journal of American History, June, 1994), Shane White posits that on a “practical level “how could blacks celebrate safely [on July 4] when much of the state’s white population, hardly friendly to blacks at the best of times, was intoxicated and in a mood to be rowdy and boisterous, or worse.”
For a variety of reasons beginning in 1827, NY’s African Americans chose not to celebrate freedom on July 4 when the legislature’s abolition of slavery act took effect. It simply was not within their “pale,” as FD forcefully explained. Instead, July 5 became the traditional day of observance from 1827 until the 1860’s when national celebrations often supplanted those on July 5th after the freeing of slaves in D.C. in 1862, and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation one year later. In addition, black New Yorkers frequently observed another emancipation day in early August starting in 1834 upon the end of enslavement in the British West Indies. Douglass spoke on August 1 at Poughkeepsie’s observance of this freedom day in 1858. (Interestingly, in 1867, Cortland’s African American community syncretized the traditions when they held the July celebration of emancipation on August 1).
Douglass’ strong, unbowed oratory prompted invitations to present his views at July 5 events. When he spoke at Auburn’s celebration in 1856, one brief statement was rebuked in the village’s Daily American four days later with the editorial comment, “this atrocious sentiment was not favorably received.” In italics, FD was quoted as saying, ”it was the duty of every slave to cut his master’s throat. Understandably, this quote was repeated in Southern newspapers such as Nashville’s Union and American, and Louisville’s The Daily Democrat.
Although Frederick Douglass moved into New York twenty years after its abolition of enslavement, his bold and vigorous speeches often captured the spirit of the July 5th Movement in this State. FD understood, and influenced, the day’s vital role in shaping the pre-war identity of NYS’ s African American identity. Beginning in 1827, this Movement’s founders established a tradition that reflected their views, and to a great extent, FD’s.
*This is the address’ name used by William S. McFeely in Frederick Douglass (1991), although it has been given other titles.
Portrait of Frederick Douglass courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.