Bridget Brereton

Recently, many of us have learned something about the “Juneteenth” celebration in the USA, which commemorates the day (June 19, 1865) the black inhabitants of Galveston, Texas, heard that they were free. This was a year and a half after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863) and two months after the surrender of the pro-slavery Confederacy and the end of the Civil War (April 1865).

What is less well known is that Emancipation Day in the British Caribbean—August First—was widely celebrated in the northern states of the USA, and in Canada, between 1834 (the formal end of slavery in the British colonies) and the start of the Civil War (1861-65). August First was an international commemorative day from the very start.

JR Kerr-Ritchie’s interesting book, Rites of August First: Emancipation Day in the Black Atlantic World (2007), examines these “freedom festivals” in the northern states of the USA and in Ontario (Canada), probing their meaning, and showing how they helped to mobilise Blacks and others in the cause of ending slavery in the USA.

Of course, it was only in the states where slavery had long been abolished, north of the so-called “Dixie Line”, that August First celebrations could be held between 1834 and 1861. Some were organised mainly by White abolitionists, often affiliated to Protestant churches, and frequently featuring visiting British and West Indian speakers. Known as anti-slavery “picnics”, they were widely attended by Black residents in the northern states.

Other events were organised by Black Americans in those states, especially in big cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Some were staged by the important Black churches of these and other cities; others were secular, public celebrations, especially in the 1850s when Blacks were responding to the sense of impending crisis over the future of slavery. Kerr-Ritchie says that some of these events were among the largest independent gatherings of African-Americans to be seen before the 20th century.

In Ontario, August First was celebrated by two different groups. The older “Loyalist” Black settlers had arrived in the 1780s, after they had served with the British armed forces during the American Independence War (as our “Merikens” had in the later Anglo-American War of 1812-1814). They and their descendants celebrated August First partly to express loyalty to the British Crown and a Canadian or British identity, in opposition to the USA where slavery still flourished and, indeed, was expanding in the 1840s and 1850s.

The second group comprised “fugitive” communities of formerly enslaved Americans who had fled across the Canadian border, especially in the 1850s, to escape the runaway slave hunters roaming the northern states. For them, August First celebrations were mainly a way to mobilise against American slavery and to defend and help fugitive communities. These people were “self-emancipating actors engaged in seizing their own freedom”, as Kerr-Ritchie puts it, and their aim was the destruction of slavery everywhere but especially in the USA.

Their August First events were held in southern Ontario towns close to the US border, often involving Blacks on both sides of that border. They stressed not so much British benevolence or loyalty to the Crown, but rather self-emancipation by African-Americans and self-defence by fugitives in the northern states of the USA.

August First was widely celebrated by free Black communities in the northern USA and in southern Canada between 1834 and 1860, Kerr-Ritchie’s research shows. Along with the powerful example of self-liberation provided by Haiti’s successful rebellion and independence as a Black nation created by former slaves, August First events helped to inspire enslaved and free African-Americans with hope, and provided a way of mobilising against slavery in the USA before the Civil War finally ended it.

— Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of history at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine

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