1st Post-Civil War 4th of July Wasn't Anything Like Today

1st Post-Civil War 4th of July Wasn't Anything Like Today
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This year’s July 4th celebrations will be muted due to the pandemic. No fireworks, parades, baseball games, or large gatherings. However, imagine the first Independence Day celebration after the end of the Civil War:  July 4, 1865. How was that celebrated? What did the losing side, the South do? How about the newly freed African-Americans?  

In 1852, African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave an Independence Day keynote address entitled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” First, he honored the Founding Fathers: “Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men.” But the Declaration of Independence ideals did not apply to enslaved people: “I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.” Douglass continued, “This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” I wonder if he could imagine that it would take a costly Civil War to free enslaved people.

Thirteen years later, in 1865, the Civil War is over, and the nation is celebrating the Fourth of July. Just three months earlier, Confederate forces surrendered at Appomattox, bringing the war to its conclusion. The country was still in shock after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Much of the South was in ruins, the cities of Richmond and Atlanta, burned. Many Southerners did not celebrate the day. One group in Georgia said a celebration was ‘inexpedient’ due to losing the war. Another group said the people are too poor and hungry to engage in festivals. 

Vicksburg didn't celebrate July 4 until 1947

The town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, held a grudge for over 80 years. Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant’s Union forces on July 4, 1863, after a 47-day siege, which destroyed the city and starved the population. Vicksburg did not celebrate Independence Day until after World War II. Future President Eisenhower visited the Vicksburg on July 4, 1947, the town honored him with a parade, and the holiday has been vigorously celebrated since. 

In South Carolina, newly freed enslaved people and occupying Union soldiers organized parades to celebrate the 4th. Celebrants read both the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. Few white Southerners participated. One woman wrote in her diary: “The white people shut themselves within doors and the [blacks] had the day to themselves — they and the Yankees.” For a long time, some considered July 4th a Black holiday. 

African-Americans embraced the holiday. In Washington D.C., a black group called the Educational Monument Association in memory of Abraham Lincoln, organized a ceremony on the Fourth. African-American abolitionist William Howard Day gave the oration. “We come to the capital with new hopes, new joys, and new prospects.” He called the Declaration of Independence “Glorious.“ Mr. Day reminded the audience that not only did Black people fight in the Civil War but also in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Despite that, Blacks were still not allowed to vote: “the Declaration of Independence is not yet fully carried out, nor will it be, until … the Black man, as well as the white, is permitted to enjoy all the franchises pertaining to citizens of the United States of America.” (African-Americans were not guaranteed the right to vote until the 15th Amendment to the Constitution passed, fifteen years later, in 1870).

In the South, 4th of July was for African-Americans

In many other Southern cities, African-Americans celebrated Independence Day with parades, fireworks, food, and dancing. While Reconstruction was enforced, these celebrations continued. Freedmen were able to vote and held many governmental positions during this time.  After Reconstruction ended in 1877, circumstances changed. As segregation and Jim Crow rules were enforced, African-American celebrations became less robust. 

Independence Day is celebrated primarily to honor the founding of our nation with Thomas Jefferson’s famous declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Martin Luther King reminded the nation of these words in his ‘I Have a Dream Speech’: “[the declaration] … was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As we celebrate quietly on July 4, 2020, we should remember July 4, 1865, the first time all Americans had the opportunity and reason to celebrate the holiday. And recommit ourselves to ensuring that those words still apply to all people.

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