African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Rochester
To many of us, the First of August is like the white man’s Fourth of July, a day of freedom – Frederick Douglass
Over the years, Americans have picked many different dates to celebrate emancipation and the end of slavery:
* January 1 – the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation
* April 16 – the date slaves in the District of Columbia were freed.
* June 19 – the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas
* September 22 – the date the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued
* December 6 – the ratification date of the 13th. Amendment abolishing slavery
But decades before these events occurred, another date was celebrated in Rochester and other parts of the United States, the date of an event of emancipation that didn’t free a single American slave. The date called the First of August. Emancipation Day. The day an act of parliament abolished slavery in the British colonies.
First, a little historical background. After nearly 50 years of contentious debate the British parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, designed to emancipate all slaves in the British colonies beginning on August 1, 1834. Many young slaves would be immediately freed, with the rest required to work for their former masters as “apprentices” for several additional years. But the plan proved unworkable, forcing the government to accelerate the process, with all slaves finally being freed on August 1, 1838. By the Act, 800,000 British slaves were freed, most residing in the West Indies. While slavery still officially existed in British North America as of that date, due to a long history of incremental internal emancipation, only about 50 slaves remained to be freed in Canada.
Early First of August/Emancipation Day ceremonies in the Caribbean tended to be purely religious in nature, where divine Providence was thanked for the slaves’ freedom. The day’s observance, with its religious aspects, was brought to America in the late 1830s when former slaves from the West Indies settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Within a short time more militant local anti-slavery advocates, led by the recently-formed American Anti-Slavery Society, had secularized the First of August, bringing the observances out of the churches, making them biracial and moving them to out-of-doors venues, becoming part of what was called the “from the pulpit to the grove” movement. By 1844, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society was reporting that the First of August, “was fast taking the place of the Fourth of July in the hearts of the true lovers of liberty” with festivities including singing, speeches and “elegant collations”. It wasn’t long before these celebrations had begun to spread out of Massachusetts to New York and other northern states
With no emancipation progress of their own to celebrate, American blacks and anti-slavery whites began to utilize the First of August observance as a surrogate ceremony in anticipation of the goal they so fervently sought for their own country, and as a highly-public example of how the races could work together as equals for a common goal.
It’s estimated that between 1837 and 1861 as many as fifteen northern and border states, plus states as far away as Kansas and California held First of August ceremonies, which began to take on the aspects of civic festivals with anti-slavery speeches, prayers, parades, bands, marchers from black social and militia units, banners and picnics; increasingly becoming black America’s substitute for white America’s Fourth of July, a holiday Frederick Douglass would eventually deride in his famous, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, speech given in Rochester in 1852 …
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…This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
However, the abolition of British slavery had a more direct and profound impact on American slavery and the anti-slavery movement than just an annual day of feasting and speechifying. While fugitive slaves had been crossing the border into Canada as early as the Revolutionary War, and although they had been given protection when an application by the US government seeking authority for American slave owners to pursue their runaways into British territory had been rejected, it wasn’t until the Emancipation Act officially abolished slavery in British North America that Canada became widely viewed as a Land of Freedom, which in turn vastly accelerated the mass exodus of fugitive slaves to that country through Underground Railroad “terminals” in Rochester, Buffalo, Detroit and other border locations.
By 1847, First of August celebrations were being held in Western New York. That year, Frederick Douglass had been invited to participate in a ceremony in Canandaigua. Following speeches by Douglass and others, a crowd estimated at 4,000 whites and blacks marched to the Canandaigua Hotel, and, as reported in the local press, “the remainder of the day was devoted to feasting and hilarity”.
By the next year, Douglass‘ newspaper, the North Star was announcing a First of August celebration in Rochester, asking residents to:
Come, friends. Come from the country- come by fives, tens and hundreds, that we may hail the day by thousands. Let every man wearing a sable hue, and every one having within his bosom one free and generous pulsation, come out and devote one day to the honor of holy freedom, and do what he may towards advancing the cause of Emancipation in our own land.
With a racially-mixed crowd estimated at 2,000 – 3,000, a procession began at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on the corner of Ford and Favor Streets (where the greatly-remodeled church still stands) and with bands playing and banners proclaiming, “Ethiopia Shall Stretch Forth Her Hands to God”, one with a painting of a Christian cross accompanied by the slogan, “With This we Overcome”, and one carried by school children, with the still-topical message, “Knowledge is Power”, marched over the Genesee River to Washington Square Park where Douglass, as the featured speaker, stood before the crowd and set the scene:
The day we have met to commemorate, is marked by no deeds of violence, associated with no scenes of slaughter, and excites no malignant feelings. Peace, joy and liberty shed a halo of unfading and untarnished glory around this annual festival. The day, the deed, the event, which we are met to celebrate, is the Tenth Anniversary of West India Emancipation.
I rejoice to see before me white as well as colored persons: for although this is our day peculiarly, it is not so exclusively. The great fact we this day recognize – the great truth to which we have met to do honor, belongs to the whole human family.
Referring to the political revolutions then unfolding in Europe and to France’s recent emancipation (for the second time) of 300,000 slaves in their colonial empire, and mocking the pretensions of liberty of white Americans and their lack of will to foster social progress in America, Douglass proclaimed:
We live in stirring times, and amid stirring events….The moral sky is filled with signs and wonders. High upon the whirlwind Liberty rides as on a chariot of fire. The long pent-up energies of human rights and sympathies, are at last let lose upon the world… (But) while our boast is loud and long of justice, freedom, and humanity, the slave whip rings to the mockery; while we are sympathizing with the progress of freedom abroad, we are extending the foul curse of slavery at home; while we are engaged in congratulating the people of the East on casting down tyrants, we are electing tyrants and men-stealers to rule over us. Truly we are a great nation! At this moment, three million slaves clank their galling fetters and drag their heavy chains on American soil.
Pointing an accusatory finger at his white audience for their acquiescence in a system that allowed slavery to continue in America, Douglass further chastised them:
I have no doubt, that there are hundreds here to-day, that have parents, children, sisters and brothers, who are now in slavery. Oh! how deep is the damnation of America—under what a load of crime does she stagger from day to day! What a hell of wickedness is there coiled up in her bosom, and what awful judgment awaits her impenitence!
I therefore this day, before this large audience, charge home upon the voters of this city, county and state, the awful responsibility of enslaving and embruting my brothers and sisters in the Southern States of this Union. Carry it home with you from this great gathering in Washington Square, that you, my white fellow-countrymen, are the enslavers of men, women, and children.
That night a grand ball was held in Rochester, with a reception and fair presented at Minerva Hall, the site of today’s South Avenue Garage.
The next week’s edition of Douglass’ North Star reviewed the First of August events and opted to praise rather than condemn the white participants, and ended with a left-handed compliment for all those in attendance:
The people of Western New York have shown, by their presence and sympathy on this occasion, that their hearts beat in unison with the great God-given truth expressed on the Declaration of Independence, that all men have an inalienable right to ”life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”…..We are happy to be able to state, that the day passed harmoniously, soberly, and pleasantly, without any of those riotous manifestations which are too apt to disgrace the rejoicing days of the blacks and the whites.
While the First of August/Emancipation Day continues to be celebrated in Jamaica, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands and even in parts of Canada, with the advent of the Civil War it became an increasingly irrelevant event in the United States, replaced in the public conciseness by “home grown” abolition successes such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.
But with secession and civil war still over the horizon, as late as 1857 Frederick Douglass was still giving speeches commemorating the events of the First of August. Returning to Canandaigua, he delivered a noted address on “West Indian Emancipation” and one last time compared emancipation progress in the Caribbean to the lack of progress at home:
All civilized men at least, have looked with wonder and admiration upon the great deed of justice and humanity which has made the first of August illustrious among all the days of the year. But to no people on the globe, leaving out the emancipated men and women of the West Indies themselves, does this day address itself with so much force and significance, as to the people of the United States. It has made the name of England known and loved in every slave cabin from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, and has spread alarm, hatred, and dread in all the accursed slave markets of our boasted Republic from Baltimore to New Orleans.
It is in this view that West Indian emancipation becomes the most interesting and sublime event of the nineteenth century. It was the triumph of a great moral principle, a decisive victory after a severe and protracted struggle, of freedom over slavery; of justice and mercy against a grim and bloody system of devilish brutality.
As a nation, we are deaf, dumb and blind to the moral beauty and transcendent sublimity of West India Emancipation. We have passed by it with averted eyes, regarding it rather as a reflection to be resented than as an example to be imitated.
Douglass would have been amazed and gratified could he have been told that just eight years in the future, after an existence stretching back two and a half centuries, a constitutional amendment would finally abolish slavery in America. He also would have known that abolition was not an end, but only another beginning.