African American Commemorations

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African American Commemorations

During the Civil War much occurred that gave African Americans cause for excitement. In April 1862 Congress passed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which was celebrated as far away as San Francisco by August of that year. African Americans also honored the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation and the date it became official in 1863; and in 1865 they commemorated the effective date of freedom in Texas, Juneteenth. They remembered comrades lost in individual battles, such as Milliken's Bend; celebrated electoral victories when Lincoln won another term as president; and in the final tragedy of the war, commemorated Lincoln's death. Some commemorations dropped by the wayside over the years, while others such as Decoration Day, which eventually became Memorial Day, have endured.

Commemorated on the anniversary of its passage, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act became the first of many milestones that African Americans would eventually celebrate. African American society attended that first celebration, which was held at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Elizabeth Keckly (1818–1907), Mary Todd Lincoln's (1818–1882) seamstress, showed up in her capacity as president of the Ladies' Contraband Relief Association, while African Methodist Episcopal minister Thomas H. C. Hinton delivered the first speech of the evening, declaring that "slavery which had been maintained by a legion of political devils… has been partially done away with" (The Liberator, May 8, 1863).

The final speaker of the evening, William E. Matthews, however, captured the spirit of the future of African American commemoration when he noted that "Jews celebrate Passover; England the birthday of her Queen. All the great powers of the earth, including Hayti and Liberia, (applause) have a day of their own. The white Americans celebrate the Fourth of July. But it is an unhappy fact that the colored people of the United States have no day of their own." He "hope[d] the 16th of April [would] ever be a day of rejoicing in the District" and "likes these anniversaries. They inspire me with a manhood I do not feel on other occasions." He did not have to wait long for the next one, for a series of events during 1863 provided a number of red-letter days (The Liberator, May 8, 1863).

After the Emancipation Proclamation became official, New Year's Day held special meaning for African Americans. On the third day of 1865, Benjamin Marshall Mills, an officer in the Forty-ninth United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment stationed in Vicksburg, Mississippi, wrote, "yesterday the black people of this place had a grand time celebrating the anniversary of their Freedom. They marched through town in a long procession and then proceeded to a place a little way out of the city and then they had a glorious old time" (Mills, January 3, 1865). A chaplain in the Fifty-first USCT stationed in another part of town recalled a more serene scene: "At two o'clock went with my regiment to the court house where the Division was assembled to listen to some remarks from Maj. Gen. Washburn in commemoration of this the Anniversary of their Freedom. In the evening held a service in my regiment in the barracks which I enjoyed very much" (Carruthers, January 1, 1865).

The initial battles of the USCT, all within two months in 1863, provided even more days of commemoration. Black troops saw real combat for the first time at Port Hudson on May 27, 1863; Milliken's Bend on June 6; and Fort Wagner on July 18. A year later, in Natchez, Mississippi, Colonel Herman Lieb, who was wounded in the battle of Milliken's Bend, memorialized their baptism of fire with a special supper and a dance (June 7, 1864).

April 1865, brought on a series of short-lived celebrations. With the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, African Americans had another reason to celebrate, but within a week John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865) changed it to despair. Across the nation, blacks went into mourning. At Jefferson Davis's former plantation on the Mississippi River, Major Samuel Denham Barnes of the Fiftieth USCT observed "All the colored people, men women and children have crape and black string as mourning of some kind for as the Uncle Sam, Marse Lincoln is dead" (Barnes, April 23, 1865). A year later—and a sign of the future for African Americans—blacks celebrating in Richmond felt compelled to parse their reason for celebrating in a handbill that they circulated among whites in the city. It read, "that they do not intend to celebrate the failure of the Southern Confederacy, as it has been stated in the papers of this city, but simply as the day on which God was pleased to liberate their long oppressed race." During the parade, a white man opened fire with a pistol but did not hit anyone, while blacks who participated in the celebration were informed that blacks "who left their work to engage in the jubilee will not be employed again by their old masters" (The Boston Daily Advertiser, April 7, 1866).

By the 1890s African Americans had to be even more cautious with how they chose to remember the Civil War. In 1889 a letter to The Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper, outlined that the citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi, would welcome members of the Grand Army of the Republic on Decoration Day, so long as they were white Union veterans, "but that they did not care to aid in an affair with great masses of negroes" (April 10, 1889). In 1897 a concerned white citizen in Henderson, North Carolina, pointed out that "April 9th, the anniversary of Lee's surrender, was observed by the negroes of Henderson… as a day of rejoicing" and "if the negro persists in this he is no true North Carolinian; but an alien. And as an alien let him be treated" (The Daily Picayune, April 18, 1897). Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, African Americans found themselves on the defensive when it came to commemorating their participation in the Civil War.


Barnes, Samuel Denham. Papers of Samuel Denham Barnes, (1839–1916), The Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, MA). "The Civil Rights Bill," April 7, 1866, issue 83, col. C.

Carruthers, George North. Papers of George North Carruthers, 1863–1969, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, LA). "Decoration Day at Vicksburg," April 10, 1889, issue 76, col. G.

The Liberator (Boston, MA)." Grand Emancipation-Celebration."May 8, 1863, p. 75, issue 19, col. C.

Mills, Caleb. Caleb Mills Family Papers, 1834–1880, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.

The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC). "Negro Celebration of the Anniversary of Appomatox,"April 18, 1897, issue 40, col. D.

David H. Slay

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African American Commemorations

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African American Commemorations