Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Celebrating African-American Freedom

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information

African Americans have celebrated American freedoms since well before the nation recognized their right to share in those freedoms. The earliest of these celebrations were a form of political protest, as former slaves in the “free” North gathered, usually in August, to protest their exclusion from the rights other Americans celebrated on Independence Day. These festivities started after Great Britain freed her slaves in the West Indies. The Emancipation Celebrations later incorporated other advances in black civil rights, including the emancipation of American slaves, the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, and the passage of various Civil Rights bills and laws. Today Juneteenth is the most well-known of these festivals, celebrating the date during the Civil War when African Americans in Texas learned of their emancipation.

Members of Geneva’s African-American community outside the High Street Church where many worshiped in the 19th century.

Emancipation celebrations were a vital part of Geneva’s African-American history in the 1800s, beginning in 1840 and continuing intermittently until the 1900. Geneva’s first known African Americans, Cuffe and his wife Bett, were brought to the shore of Seneca Lake (at Rose Hill) in 1792 by Alexander Coventry. During the next decade, the Rose and Nicholas families moved from Virginia, bringing over 100 more enslaved African Americans to the area surrounding Geneva. These people formed the nucleus of a vital and persistent African-American community. Over the next fifty years this population grew, augmented by the migration of former slaves from the farms of Wayne, Ontario, and Seneca counties and by fugitives from the South. With a population of 639 African Americans, Ontario County had the largest black population of any county in western New York by 1860.

Poster announcing the 1879 Emancipation Celebration in Geneva.

Western New York Emancipation Celebrations moved from town to town and were hosted by Canandaigua, Auburn, and Penn Yan and other area communities. Its central location and sizeable African-American population made Geneva a favorite spot for these events, and the village hosted at least eight in the 19th century. Local political officials were sometimes invited to attend the festivities and march in parades to Pulteney Park or Genesee Park. In the parks or halls, members of Geneva’s African-American community read important documents from their crusade for freedom: the act by which England had freed West Indians, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 15th Amendment, and the New York State Civil Rights Bill. Luminaries like Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, and Sojourner Truth spoke to crowds of people from Geneva, Rochester, Syracuse, Auburn, Lyons, and the surrounding region. Many of the celebrations included prayer, parades, songs, sports competitions, food, and an evening dance.

Pulteney Park where many Emancipation Celebrations were held.


Frederick Douglass spoke at many of Geneva’s Emancipation Celebrations. Image courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian.

Unfortunately for historians, most existing accounts of these celebrations are filtered through biased white perceptions. In her 1994 book Make a Way Somehow: African-American Life in a Northern Community, 1790-1965, historian Kathryn Grover teases out the possible meaning of these Geneva celebrations for the African-American community. Using reports from national sources like The North Star and the biased commentary in Geneva’s white papers, she argues that the celebrations were political demonstrations, which white residents often chose to view as harmless theater or purely social events.

When they reported on the celebrations, the local papers invariably concentrated on the amusements and social aspects of the festivities, rather than the political content that underpinned the gatherings. At the 1860 celebration held in Geneva, Frederick Douglass gave his first address since returning from Europe, where he had fled after the arrest of John Brown, whom he called “the hero of Harper’s Ferry.” He spoke of the example of the British in freeing their slaves in the West Indies and his disappointment that the United States, with its proclamations of liberty, continued to support slavery and the slave trade. He addressed an audience that understood him when he said,

I have spoken and written much on the subject [of slavery] during the last twenty years, and have been at times accused of exaggeration; and yet I can say with truth, that I have fallen far short in describing the pains and woes…. The warp and woof of slavery is yet to be unraveled.—Each bloody thread must yet be disentangled and drawn forth, before men will thoroughly understand and duly hate the enormity, or properly abhor its upholders and work its abolition. This is the work still to be done. After all the books, pamphlets and periodicals—after all the labors of the Abolitionists at home and abroad—we have still to make the American people acquainted with the sin and crime of our slave system.
Rather than focus on Douglass’ arguments, the Geneva Gazette newspaper emphasized Douglass’ “free ebullition and bile” in his criticism of churches, political parties and society generally.”

After the Civil War and Emancipation, Geneva newspapers devoted more space to celebrations that seem to have lost their political force. At the same time that white southerners were terrorizing African Americans in the post-Reconstruction South, the 1881 orator never mentioned it. He focused on the African-American’s long history in the country, his contrast to the Chinese immigrant laborer, and the importance of his labor “where the white man cannot—in the warmest parts of the country,” in the cotton fields, sugar plantations and iron foundries. He pointed out that black Americans paid taxes and that progress that had been made in education. At the same time, he reminded his audience (white and black) that “We are…just as much within the circle of American citizenship as if we had come over in a different manner [than as a captive]. The negro belongs here.” The writer went on to detail the subsequent social events with no acknowledgment that this citizenship was being denied across the country.

One of the last celebrations in 1900, “hardly came up to those of former years” in attendance. The audience was described as mostly white and attracted by the sporting events. The decline of the Emancipation Celebration occurred as many African Americans left Geneva and other small towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the opportunities available in larger cities. The local community seems to have become too small and too focused on survival to host large celebrations. This remained the case until the post-World War II era.


For more information about these celebrations and about Geneva’s African-American community, see the 1994 book Make a Way Somehow: African-American Life in a Northern Community, 1790-1965 by Kathryn Grover.

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