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Celebrating Emancipation

Frederick Douglass and the story of New York City's 1865 "Emancipation Jubilee."

An 1865 illustration in Harper's magazine celebrating Emancipation.

The ongoing campaign to eradicate Confederate symbols marks an important moment in American public memory, perhaps allowing the scars of slavery and segregation to start healing. Yet while the actions of Bree Newsome and company have been truly inspiring, the collective feeling when the flags began to come down seemed mainly to be a sigh of relief.

One hundred fifty years earlier, in the first summer after the actual downfall of the Confederacy, African Americans across the land were more upbeat. Emancipation did not immediately bring full equality, but the war’s end was still cause for optimism. The shackles had come off in the South, while in the North, blacks no longer had to fear being sent back to slavery. It was time for celebration.

In New York, their previous efforts to do so had sparked controversy. Just a few weeks after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865, the New York Common Council had denied blacks the right to formally participate in President Lincoln’s funeral procession. At a Cooper Union event in early June, an indignant Frederick Douglass called the council’s action “the most disgraceful and scandalous proceeding ever exhibited by people calling themselves civilized.”

But on August 1, both Douglass and Manhattan’s African-American community were in a far better mood as they traveled across the East River for an “Emancipation Jubilee” in Brooklyn. And though he only spoke for a few minutes at the gathering, Douglass again memorably captured the spirit of the moment.

The jubilee was timed to coincide with West Indian Emancipation Day, which marked the end of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. Initially celebrated in abolitionist centers like Philadelphia, Boston, and Upstate New York, by the 1850s Emancipation Day events could be found across the frontier, from Indiana to California.

Douglass had regularly attended such events near his home in Rochester. But while he had close ties to many Brooklyn abolitionists, Douglass hadn’t yet journeyed down for one of the local jubilees, which had been held regularly since the early 1850s. Everyone knew that the first one after the Civil War would be grand, though.

At just over 5,000 (or 1.5% of the city total), Brooklyn’s black population was still relatively small in 1865. Yet over the preceding two decades, black communities in Williamsburg and Weeksville had served as abolitionist strongholds. During and after the Draft Riots of July 1863, many blacks from Manhattan had also taken refuge on the other side of the East River.

The August 1 festivities took place in what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant, at two sites that have since been demolished — the vast Hanft’s Myrtle Avenue Park and the nearby, smaller Lefferts Park.

Despite their racist caricatures of “exultant darkies” or “dancing darkies,” lengthy accounts in the Democratic Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Republican New York Times conveyed the mood of the attendees. “Twenty thousand men, women and children of sable hue yesterday mingled their joys and experiences in the suburban parks of the city of churches,” the Times wrote. At stands outside Myrtle Avenue Park, the Eagle reported, “quaint-looking damsels in gorgeously striped dresses with brilliant turbans on their heads” dispensed peaches and pigs’ feet, with sides of corn, cabbage, apple dumplings, and chicken potpie.

Writing in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, Sydney Howard Gay — a leading white abolitionist and longtime friend of Douglass — maintained a more genteel tone. “Colored people” turned out in great numbers in their “Sunday best,” Gay noted. He described a range of activities on display, from formal dancing to less high-brow amusements like a Jefferson Davis knock-down game, with three tosses costing a nickel.

In addition to live bands, carnival attractions, and sporting events (including a game played by the Weldenken Colored Baseball Club of Williamsburg), there were also talks given by an array of distinguished African-American speakers. At Myrtle, Professor William Howard Day (who had challenged segregation in Michigan in the late 1850s) explained the history of West Indian emancipation; while at Lefferts, two leading local abolitionist ministers, James Pennington and James Gloucester, urged receptive listeners to continue the fight for full equality.

When Douglass addressed the Myrtle gathering, the great orator was surprisingly brief. But what he said was also surprising, as illustrated by the divergent reports found in the various daily newspapers.

By most accounts, Douglass cheerfully told the enthusiastic crowd, “No man here wants to know whether liberty is a good thing or slavery a bad thing; we all know it already; we don’t want any instruction.” After all, he said, the main message of abolitionists had always been that “‘every man is his own master; every man belongs to himself.”

But what Douglass said next remains open to dispute. According to the Times (and the Eagle), he stated: “Every man has the right to do as he pleases, to come and go, to make love, get married, and do all sorts of things that are pleasant and profitable. [Applause.] We are here to enjoy ourselves — to sing, dance and make merry. I am not going to take up your time; go on; enjoy yourselves. [Prolonged cheering.]” The Tribune account by Douglass’s friend Sydney Gay, however, says nothing about love or marriage, and skips right to “[w]e are here…to sing, dance, and make merry.”

Perhaps the most convincing reportage can be found in the New York Herald. James Gordon Bennett’s paper — which had the largest circulation in the US — may have been a house organ of the War Democrats (who supported the Union but opposed Lincoln). But during the Civil War, the Herald bolstered its journalistic reputation by sending numerous correspondents into the field.

Near the end of its lengthy August 2, 1865 recap of the preceding day’s Jubilee events, the Herald presented Douglass’s statements as follows:

The only thing abolitionists ever taught the American people was that every man is himself. That is all. Every man belongs to himself — can belong to nobody else. We are not here for instruction. We are here to enjoy ourselves, to play ball, to dance, to make merry, to make love (laughter and applause), and to do everything that is pleasant. I am not going to take up your time. Go on, and enjoy yourselves.

The moral instruction to “get married” is conspicuously absent here. Yet of the various reports, the Herald’s is the one that most reads like an impromptu direct address. Such carefree comments by Douglass ultimately seem most befitting for an ecstatic day-long jubilee, one filled with joy in every sense of the word.

Beyond simply playful encouragement, Douglass in his brief remarks urged African Americans in Brooklyn and elsewhere to start envisioning their own future, and to fully enjoy their freedom. Any hopes for a bright future would be short-lived, of course. But in the summer after the war, blacks everywhere could echo Douglass’s insistence that at last, “every man belongs to himself.”