Emancipation Day celebrations

The Slave Emancipation Act, which freed Britain’s slaves in the West Indies, went into effect on Aug. 1, 1834. Freedom wasn’t immediate unless a slave was younger than 6; others had to serve as unpaid apprentices to their former masters. Their real freedom didn’t take place until July 31, 1838.

Nonetheless, the day emancipation was decreed in the West Indies — Aug. 1, 1834 — became a day of celebration and protest for anti-slavery Americans. Prominent abolitionists like Frederick Douglass (an escaped slave) and Ralph Waldo Emerson often gave anti-slavery speeches on the anniversary of Aug. 1.

Some people in Springfield celebrated it, too. On Aug. 5, 1858,  the Illinois State Journal noted their celebration. “We neglected to notice that the colored people of our city, on the 2nd, celebrated the twenty-fourth anniversary of the British West Indies emancipation. They formed a procession and with music and banners, marched through the principal streets. They then proceeded to Kelsey’s Grove where they had a dinner and several speeches. The occasion seemed to be generally observed by the colored people, who were out with their wives and children.”

Next year’s celebration got more notice.

“The colored people of this city celebrated Monday the first of August, in commemoration of the emancipation of the 800,000 slave men, women and children, in the West India colony, in 1834,” said the Aug. 5, 1859 Journal. “They went out to the Fair ground, whereupon the following speeches were delivered: Opening address — by P. L. Donnegan; subject, ‘West India Emancipation.’ Mr. Donnegan made a good speech; one that did good to the audience and honor to himself. The Rev. Mr. Myers was next called upon to occupy the stand; subject, ‘Sabbath Schools.’ His speech was very encouraging to parents and children.

“After this the audience were (sic) dismissed till after refreshment. It was amusing to see every one take their baskets and retire on the blue grass, to partake of their pic-nic dinner. After which the audience was called on to rally around the stand to hear more speeches. Mr. Green, from Pa. next occupied the stand; subject, ‘Education.’ His speech was good, but not lengthy.

“The Rev. G. Nelson from Belleville, next spoke; subject, ‘Temperance.’ His speech was animating (sic) and good. After which the whole audience was greatly deceived (sic) by a young man from Belleville, John W. Menard Jr., who came to the stand. His voice is very strong and his manner impressive. Subject, ‘American Slavery,’ which he painted in its darkest hues, and gave able remarks in defense of Liberty and equality. His speech was truly the best of the day; after which all retired with hearty cheers for Menard, Fred Douglass, and others.”

Following the Civil War, black residents of Sangamon County changed their Emancipation Day observances to Sept. 22, the date in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (which officially took effect the following Jan. 1). Frederick Douglass, by then  78 years old, spoke at Springfield’s 1893 Emancipation Day celebration.

Contributor: Tara McClellan McAndrewbridge

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

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