To say the relationship between Black Americans and the Fourth of July is an understatement. The day commemorates the United States’ independence from British rule. However, the holiday is fraught with hypocrisy for Black people since enslaved people were left out. This extended to the celebrations of democracy for multiple reasons.
Long before the Confederate War and Reconstruction, enslaved and freed Blacks in the 1700s and 1800s saw the holiday as an opportunity to show they were part of the American fabric despite their unfair treatment. Black communities used the day to illustrate why they deserved the right to emancipation and full citizenship. However, that didn’t mean Black communities necessarily celebrate the Fourth of July on its designated day.
They often commemorated the holiday on July 5 to avoid violent confrontations from white Americans. They were bold and stepped out on Independence Day despite receiving immediate backlash. The backlash led to attacks by angry white mobs in cities like Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Boston, dating back to 1841.
While Black Americans used Independence Day to advocate for fair treatment, it wasn’t the only day they used to illustrate their activism. Black people celebrated the banning of the transatlantic slave trade on January 1, 1808. New Yorkers celebrated the gradual emancipation law on July 5, 1827, and the abolishment of slavery in the U.K. on August 1, 1834. Freed and enslaved Blacks were celebrating their independence long before earning true freedom.
Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” challenged the hypocrisy of celebrating independence while the institution of slavery was still in place. Douglass’ famous words were just one example of the many Black Americans who have fought for freedom and justice, often facing significant obstacles and oppression.
However, once the enslaved gained their freedom, July Fourth became almost exclusively a celebration for Black people in the American South after the Confederacy lost the war. White Southerners chose not to celebrate the holiday starting in 1865. Black Americans immediately embraced Independence Day across the Southeast. They celebrated with fireworks displays, parades, and readings of documents like the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.
From the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement, Black people have set the tone for liberation throughout the nation’s history. As we approach the U.S.’s independence from Britain, let’s take a moment to reflect on the complicated and sometimes painful relationship between Black America and this holiday. We honor the legacy of those who have fought for freedom and justice while recognizing the progress still needed to create a truly equitable and just society.