Americans have used the Fourth of July to celebrate independence since the beginning of the nation.
Black Americans have also used the holiday as a reminder to white Americans that they, too, deserved equality, said Jonathan Lande, an assistant professor of history at Purdue.
New York abolished slavery in 1827. That year, black Americans celebrated their newly found freedom with enthusiasm.
“From that day forward, as historian Shane White discovered, Black Americans began to see the holiday as a political moment to show their fitness for citizenship,” Lande wrote in an article for the Washington Post page “Made in History” in 2020.
Americans have celebrated Independence Day differently depending on their backgrounds. It is a “contested holiday,” Lande said.
Many Black Americans during this time would celebrate July Fourth, not by looking to the past and seeing what the nation was or its accomplishments, Lande said, but by looking at the principles in the Declaration of Independence and celebrating what the country could be.
This aspirational perspective led many Black Americans to use it to advocate for change and push for equality.
“Black abolitionists organized celebrations, mixing commonplace traditions,” Lande wrote, “such as reading the Declaration of Independence to venerate the founders, with demonstrations critical of slavery and racism.”
In 1852, former slave Frederick Douglas gave a commemoration of the Fourth of July titled “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” He answered, “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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless.”
Douglas still had hope for the country. To him, the constitution was still a document in which he believed, which held principles of equality he hoped to see for Black Americans.
“Black Americans were being pushed off the streets in South Carolina because they were trying to celebrate July Fourth,” Lande said. In the 1830s and 1840s, Black Americans sparsely celebrated the holiday for that reason.
As the movement grew, abolitionists consistently used the Fourth of July as a day to advocate for equality and to reconcile what was reality in America during that time.
“While the abolitionist calendar included celebrations of Emancipation Day and August First to mark major victories in the abolitionist movement,” Lande wrote, “the famed abolitionist William Wells Brown saw the abolitionist festivals of American independence to be ‘the most important meetings held during the year.’”
Lande continued to highlight the hope of Black Americans then.
“Even if the country had a long way to go before it mirrored the nation they yearned to live in,” Lande wrote, “Douglass, (formerly enslaved New Yorker Sojourner Truth) and Brown believed July Fourth offered a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the flaws that needed to be eradicated.”
In the 20th century, more cynicism around the holiday grew, according to Cornelius Bynum, director of African American studies and a Purdue professor of history.
Abolition at the end of the Civil War in 1865 gave many Black Americans hope for equality, but as time passed into the 20th century, African Americans began viewing the Fourth of July with “a certain jaundice or side eye,” Bynum said.
Black Americans still believed in the principles of the declaration, but as time went on since abolition, black Americans saw the principles of equality therein were not being expanded to include them.
Fighting against fascism during the world wars with a Jim Crow military seemed ironic, Bynum said.
While Black Americans used the Fourth of July to fight for civil rights less during this time than during the Civil War, the use of the holiday did not disappear completely.
Just because they were cynical, Bynum said, does not mean they did not have hope.