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“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Famed black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass posed this question before a large, mostly white crowd in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852. It is “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,” Douglass explained, adding that he felt much the same: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! … This Fourth [of] July is yours not mine.”
A little over a decade later, however, African Americans like Douglass began making the glorious anniversary their own. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the nation’s four million newly emancipated citizens transformed Independence Day into a celebration of black freedom. The Fourth became an almost exclusively African American holiday in the states of the former Confederacy—until white Southerners, after violently reasserting their dominance of the region, snuffed these black commemorations out.
Before the Civil War, white Americans from every corner of the country had annually marked the Fourth with feasts, parades, and copious quantities of alcohol. A European visitor observed that it was “almost the only holy-day kept in America.” Black Americans demonstrated considerably less enthusiasm. And those who did observe the holiday preferred—like Douglass—to do so on July 5 to better accentuate the difference between the high promises of the Fourth and the low realities of life for African Americans, while also avoiding confrontations with drunken white revelers.
African Americans, meanwhile, embraced the Fourth like never before. From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.
As we document in our new book, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, the most extraordinary festivities were held in Charleston, South Carolina, the majority-black city where Southern secession and the Civil War had begun. At the 1865 commemoration in Charleston, one speaker noted the altered meaning of the holiday for black Americans, who could at last “bask in the sunshine of liberty.”
The martial displays at this and subsequent celebrations underscored his point. Each year, thousands of black South Carolinians lined up early to watch African American militia companies march through city streets. Led by mounted officers, some of whom were ex-slaves, these black companies were often named for abolitionists and other black heroes. The 1876 Fourth of July parade included the Lincoln Rifle Guard, the Attucks Light Infantry, the Douglass Light Infantry, and the Garrison Light Infantry.
The Charleston parades typically ended at White Point Garden, a beautiful park at the base of the city peninsula, where enormous crowds bought peanuts, cakes, fried fish, and sassafras beer from vendors camped out in shady spots. “The whole colored population seemed to have turned out into the open air,” reported the Charleston Daily News on July 5, 1872, “and the gardens were so densely thronged that it was only with the utmost difficulty that locomotion was possible amid the booths, stalls and sightseers.”
Throughout the South, freedwomen were conspicuous participants in Fourth of July celebrations, pushing back against the gender and, in many cases, class barriers that relegated them to the sidelines of Reconstruction politics. The domestic workers and washerwomen of the Daughters of Zion and the Sisters of Zion, two benevolent societies in Memphis, Tennessee, marched in parades each year. The 1875 parade featured a carriage carrying “a queen for the day”—a striking claim to the respectability whites routinely denied black women.
At Charleston’s White Point Garden, freedwomen joined freedmen in annual performances of songs and dances, including one called the “Too-la-loo” that had subversive meaning. About two dozen participants—evenly split between men and women—formed a ring, into which one of the female dancers would move while the others sang and clapped. “Go hunt your lover, Too-la-loo!/Go find your lover, Too-la-loo!” they urged the lady in the center, who eventually chose a suitor to join her. The Too-la-loo allowed ex-slaves to poke fun at the elite courtship rituals of their former masters while also engaging in a raucous celebration of their own emancipation. In 1876, 50 groups danced the Too-la-loo from early morning until after midnight. The dance was so popular among the freed population in Charleston, in fact, that Too-la-loo eventually became shorthand for the Fourth of July there.