Thu. Apr 25th, 2019

“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

As Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day this year, it is important to recognize the history behind the iconic holiday. 


Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #: 200-FL-22 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 113

As Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day this year, it is important to recognize the history behind the iconic holiday.

The Atlantic published an outstanding piece yesterday titled, “When the Fourth of July Was a Black Holiday,” and we at Iron Triangle Press felt as though that is where our focus should be today, as well.

The man whose words comprise this article’s title was a dedicated abolitionist and former slave whose speech by the same title on July 5, 1852 still sounds down to us through history; Frederick Douglass, one of the nation’s most beloved reformers, was the first to point out the injustice of our country’s favorite holiday.

In his speech, Douglass uses the relationship that existed between Great Britain and the United States as a metaphor to explain the hardships faced by newly freed slaves in America.

“Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance of time, regard it.”  — Douglass

Although Douglass includes himself as an American citizen (he addresses the crowd as “fellow-citizens”), he also keeps himself at a linguistic arm’s length by constantly using the general “you” and “your” instead of the inclusive “we” and “our.”

“Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.”  — Douglass

It seems like a nit-picky detail only an English major would care about (spoiler alert…), but it’s actually an ingenious method of communicating the societal segregation Douglass would have experienced on a daily basis.

His whole speech is formatted as a story — a story about the plucky Americans taking up arms against the tyrannical government of the Brits and winning their freedom.

“They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation.”  — Douglass

It’s exciting, it’s compelling, and in 1852 the memory of British colonial rule would still have been relatively fresh for people — it would have been personal.

His praise of American culture and the founding fathers would have endeared him to the crowd, making the turning point in his speech all the more climactic and impactful.

“Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”  — Douglass

“Do the benefits of independence from Britain extend to people of color? Does the Declaration give us the same rights and protections and freedoms as you? Do you expect me to thank you for the freedom you have yet to give us?” He asks.

And yet, by July 4, 1865, everything had changed.

The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued three years earlier, and white folks living in the Confederate states weren’t exactly enthusiastic about celebrating a holiday associated with a government they viewed as oppressive.

The result?

Black people in the South began to embrace the Fourth of July as their own. Folks would get together and listen to readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and eventually the Thirteenth Amendment, which would be ratified later that year.

Charleston, South Carolina, the former hub of the slave trade, often had the most raucous celebrations with black militia companies performing drills and marching in parades. Many of the militiamen were former slaves.

The article by The Atlantic tells wonderful stories of black celebrations of the Fourth, including the tradition of “a queen for the day,” a black woman who would be featured in the parade riding in a carriage — a direct commentary on the treatment black women received at the hands of white people.

In fact, The Atlantic writes that freedwomen were central to the holiday, with organizations like the Daughters of Zion and the Sisters of Zion marching in parades each year.

Eventually, the holiday became more politicized, with tensions reaching a breaking point once more in 1875 when a white mob disrupted a Republican rally in Vicksburg, Mississippi resulting in the murder of a black deputy sheriff.

At least seven black people were killed the following year when white vigilantes attacked a black militia parade.

With the introduction of Jim Crow laws and systematic segregation, black folks were forced to give up their Fourth of July celebrations and returned to the pre-Emancipation status quo.

So, as you prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July in 2018, take a moment to think about all the different ways in which our society resembles that of the early 20th century, all the ways in which black people are oppressed, marginalized, and mistreated even unto today.

Take a moment to appreciate and thank all of the black men and women who died so that this country could be born.

If you can, pay your respects to a soldier or veteran of color — let them know that you recognize the legacy they are a part of and that you appreciate all that they’ve done.

But whatever you do, don’t forget.

Don’t forget that you’re celebrating a holiday that espouses freedom and liberty even at a time when black people are dying at the hands of police at staggering rates, when indigenous women and children are raped, abused, and disappeared, when immigrants and refugees can no longer find asylum within our borders, and when the rights of women are being attacked like never before.

Don’t forget that liberty is something we all need to fight for.




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