It’s 1876 and the annual 4th of July parade is in full swing in Charleston, South Carolina. Thousands have gathered to celebrate with food, dancing and fireworks. Many of the revelers line the street as a military procession marches by, featuring the Attucks, Douglass and Garrison Light Infantries as well as the Lincoln Rifle Guard. Later, the festive crowd will gather to listen as the Declaration of Independence, Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment are recited. And, because its 1876 in Charleston, South Carolina, the faces in the crowd on this day are almost exclusively black.
White southerners were not in the mood for merrymaking on the 4th in the years following their defeat in the Civil War and its consequences, including the abolition of slavery. But that didn’t mean they were enthusiastic about the holiday being celebrated by black people. On the contrary, resentment simmered through the years and boiled over into a riot in Hamburg, less than 150 miles from the Charleston festivities, where at least seven African Americans were killed by white vigilantes. It would become known as the Hamburg Massacre. This is not the only example of violence related to African Americans celebrating the Fourth of July and violence was not the only method employed to put a stop to it. Between 1881 and 1886, celebrations were pushed further and further out of city centers and by the early 1900s, both Charleston and Atlanta had ordinances forbidding food vendors from setting up along the streets where African Americans were known to gather on the Fourth. Celebrations that continued did so behind closed doors - in homes and black churches even as the message was spread: the Fourth of July does not apply to black Americans.
To emphasize the point, white Americans united - veterans of the Union and the Confederacy marching together to commemorate their day. Welcome to the Jim Crow South.
It was 24 years earlier, on July 5, 1852, when Frederick Douglass was invited by the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society to speak at a July 4th celebration in Rochester, New York. He agreed, but insisted on the 5th – the day following the actual holiday. Here’s some of what he said that day:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; 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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
Frederick Douglass was born a slave and when he made this impassioned speech, slavery was still alive and well in the American South. But his words would still ring true to the men and women celebrating as free Americans decades later. Today, they provide all of us with historical insight that is vital to our understanding of our past - as they help illuminate our path to the future.