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Two hundred years ago in the United States, with the promise of an actual end to the slave trade at midnight on December 31, 1807, the mood in the African-American community was one of optimistic anticipation. The celebrations of the event, which took place in some northern cities, were far from cheerful, though. They were restrained, primarily religious in nature and were attended by Free Blacks and some whites.

For about twenty years thereafter, free people of color continued to commemorate the day that was supposed to have ended the deportation of Africans to the United States. Sermons and exhortations praised the abolitionists and the government, and enjoined African Americans to be respectful, law-abiding citizens, whose dignified behavior would help the cause of those still in bondage.

But as time passed, slavers continued to bring young men, women, and children to the cotton fields of the Gulf States in secrecy; slavery showed no signs of abating; and the mood started to change. The flowery and pious orators, who had saluted the day of freedom in the early years, had to reckon with a grim reality. Their perspectives started to evolve and their sermons tackled issues of pressing concern, such as racism, rebellion, and the Haitian Revolution.

The January 1st celebrations were not without controversy within the black community, but they were important milestones in the appropriation of history and memory by African Americans.

Celebrations in New York

On December 2, a large group of African Americans met at the African Free School, founded in 1787 by Free Blacks in New York City. As "unhappy victims" of the trade who were convinced that all "men are born free," they decided to celebrate January 1, 1808, with "demonstrations of gratitude and thanksgiving." They praised the abolitionists and the government, and appointed a committee of twelve to make arrangements to celebrate "the day which terminates the Slave Trade in this country."

Accordingly, on January 1, African Americans gathered at the African Church, which became the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, to commemorate the event. Abraham Thompson, a minister, opened the celebration with a "solemn address to Almighty God." After an anthem, Henry Sipkins — secretary of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, incorporated later that year — read the "Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves."

Then it was the turn of Peter Williams Jr. to deliver the keynote address. Born in New Jersey to a woman from the island of St. Kitts and a veteran of the Revolutionary War, the young man attended the African Free School and went on to organize St. Philip's African Church in Harlem in 1818. On that day in January, he presented himself proudly as a descendant of Africa."

In his speech, An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade," which he addressed to us, Africans and descendants of Africans," Williams painted an idyllic image of Africa before European intrusion and went on to explain the workings of the slave trade on the African side in a manner that is utterly consistent with modern scholarship. He then described the horrors of the slave trade, calling upon the Africans who had suffered through the Middle Passage to share their memories and asking those whose ancestors had experienced it to try to imagine its dreadfulness.

Williams thanked the abolitionists, the Quakers John Woolman and Anthony Benezet in particular, and reminded those present to show a steady and upright deportment" and respect for the laws of the land in order to express their gratitude and not injure their cause in the face of resolute opponents.

The morning service ended with a hymn and an address by Rev. Thomas Miller, who, like the other speakers, belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the afternoon, the hymns, prayers, and sermons continued. Two sermons were given by James Varick, who became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1822.

Celebrations in Philadelphia

With a large free black population recorded at 11,000 in the 1810 census and with about 4,000 fugitives looking for freedom, Philadelphia had been a hotbed of abolitionism since the eighteenth century. It was the city of Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, and the home since 1787 of the Free African Society, a mutual aid association set up by Rev. Richard Allen — a former slave who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church — and Rev. Absalom Jones.

On January 1, 1808, Free Blacks rejoiced at St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, established by Jones, an abolitionist and former slave who had bought his own freedom. Jones had been a student of Benezet's night school for free and enslaved black children. Rev. Jones delivered "A Thanksgiving Sermon" in which he too described the dreadfulness of the slave trade and slavery in moving terms. But he also repeated some clichés about the slave trade.

Europeans and Americans had always justified the deportation and enslavement of Africans on the grounds that the "heathens" needed to be Christianized, and Rev. Jones did not refute that assertion: "Perhaps [God's] design was, that a knowledge of the gospel might be acquired by some of their descendants, in order that they might become qualified to be the messengers of it, to the land of their fathers."

As a conclusion, in the same vein as Peter Williams Jr., he encouraged his audience to

let our conduct be regulated by the precepts of the gospel; let us be sober minded, humble, peaceable, temperate in our meats and drinks, frugal in our apparel and in the furniture of our houses, industrious in our occupations, just in all our dealings, and ever ready to honour all men. Let us teach our children the rudiments of the English language, in order to enable them to acquire a knowledge of useful trades; and, above all things, let us instruct them in the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, whereby they may become wise unto salvation.

Celebrations in Boston

In Boston, "the Africans and descendants of Africans" residing in the city — they numbered about 1,200 — chose July 14 as the day to celebrate the abolition of the slave trade by the United States, Great Britain, and Denmark. In procession, two hundred Bostonians marched to the African Meeting House, built in 1806 on Beacon Hill, the heart of the black community. As would be the tradition from then on, their speaker was a white clergyman. That first year, it was the Congregational minister and geographer Jedidiah Morse (father of Samuel Morse).

Morse explained the slave trade and its abolition in Christian missionary terms:

It is remarkable, that while Africa lay enveloped in heathenish and Mahometan darkness, those who were to be made free in Christ, were brought, (though by the instrumentality of wicked men) to the light of his gospel, in Christian countries. But since the blessed gospel now sheds its genial influence on Africa, by the preaching of the missionaries of the cross, its natives have no need to be carried to foreign lands, in order to enjoy its light; and God hath shut the door against their further transportation.

As other ministers had done seven months earlier, he stressed that African Americans had to display "good behavior":

Be contented in the humble station in which providence has placed you. By your decent, respectful, regular, industrious, quiet behaviour, authorize your friends still to shew themselves friendly. You know how deeply interested the Speaker feels, in whatever concerns your honour and best happiness in both worlds. Be particularly on your guard against excess in the joys and festivities of this day. Be sober, be temperate, be pious; so will you give pleasure to your friends, and silence opposition from your enemies.

Finally, Morse told his audience that the "worst species of slavery" was sin and that "civil freedom, and its attendant blessings, will avail you nothing without" freedom from it. This was easy to say for a white man who had never been enslaved, whose ancestors had never been uprooted from their homeland. What his audience of freedpeople — many of whom still had loved ones enslaved below the Mason-Dixon Line — thought of that tactless, paternalistic peroration would have been interesting to know.

A short prayer, which went back to the reason for the celebration, was given at the end of the service:

O Gracious God, who lookest down from heaven, the height of thy sanctuary, to hear the groaning of the prisoner, and to loose those that were appointed to death; we give thee hearty thanks that it has of length pleased thee to put a stop to the slave trade, the miseries of which have so long oppressed Africa, and the sin of which has so loudly cried to thee for vengeance upon Europe.

In 1819 another white clergyman, Paul Dean, pastor of the First Universal Church was the main speaker.

Africa and Africans

By 1808, the African-born population had become a small minority. Even though 80,000 Africans had been introduced in the previous seven years, and others had been living in the country for years, they represented only a fraction of the 1,377,000 African Americans. It is estimated that less than 15 percent of Northern blacks had come from Africa. Of course, tens of thousands of people born in the United States had parents or grandparents who had been part of the international slave trade; but for others, the African connection was more tenuous, going back to ancestors they had never known.

In this context, the orators' perspectives on Africa and Africans were quite revealing as they considered the place and role of their African past in their American experience. They were proud of being Africans or of African origin. The continent was a blissful, heavenly place of abundance, filled with generous and peaceful people until it was spoiled by slavers. Although highly positive, their perspective was nevertheless Western and paternalistic: Africans were ignorant pagans, innocents living in harmony with nature.

For all its flaws, the speakers' stance was far removed from the white one that saw Africans as bloodthirsty, nonhuman savages who led better lives as slaves than as free people in their homelands. In addition, the orators presented the European and American slavers and slaveholders as vicious brutes, "inhuman wretches," who, "deaf to the cries and shrieks of their agonizing slaves," pillaged and tortured. William Hamilton went as far as comparing whites to the devil:

Some nations have painted their devils in the complexion of a white man. View the history of the slave trade, and then answer the question, could they have made choice of a better likeness to have drawn from? All that slow, sly, artful, wicked, cunning attributed to him, was practised by them. All the insulting scorn, savage cruelty, and tormenting schemes, practised by him, were executed by them.

Although paternalistic towards Africans, the speakers redressed the misconceptions about African history, creating a positive basis upon which to construct a common nationality. They rewrote European and American history as well by exposing its brutality toward Africa and Africans.

New Issues

From the beginning, January 1 celebrations had followed the same model: a history and denunciation of the slave trade and slavery, Christian exhortations, call to political action against slavery and the domestic slave trade, and social and racial uplift. Education, the creation of distinct institutions, temperance, humility, and respectable conduct were deemed essential to the success of the Free Black population.

As years passed, the orations also included issues of concern to the community other than the international slave trade. The deconstruction of white racism, based on the idea of black people's inferiority, was one such issue. In 1810 Rev. William Miller of the African Methodist Episcopal Church departed from the traditional "ignorant African" theme to declare:

Ancient history, as well as holy writ, informs us of the national greatness of our progenitors. That the inhabitants of Africa are descended from the ancient inhabitants of Egypt, a people once famous for science of every description, is a truth verified by a number of writers. One has asserted, and from fundamental evidences, that the first learned nation, was a nation of blacks.

William Hamilton after describing the cruel behavior of slave drivers, concluded sarcastically: "If these are some of the marks of superiority may heaven in mercy always keep us inferior: go, proud white men; go, boast of your superior cunning; the fox, the wolf, the tiger are more cunning than their prey."

One of the most remarkable examples of the orators' shifting interest from the African past to the contemporary American situation is the address given at Bethel Church in 1823 by Jeremiah Gloucester, pastor of the Second African Presbyterian Church. The most prominent black church in Philadelphia, it had been founded by Rev. Richard Allen.

After the traditional history of the slave trade and a strong refutation of biblical and scientific racism, Gloucester turned the tables and stated that whites, if attacked by Africans and treated the way black people in America had been treated, "would arm themselves with the rights of nature, and sweep us from the face of the earth." With these words, he was, if not advocating, at least justifying an armed rebellion. He made this view even more clear when he lauded the 1791 slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, which resulted in its independence in 1804, under the name Haiti:

Ever since the Africans have been striving to unloose every fetter that bind her; yes, a part of her sons, and daughters have effectually broke their chain on the Island of St. Domingo, and have proclaimed the imprescribable rights of man, sealing the covenant made with liberty, by their blood.

The Haitian revolution sent horrified tremors throughout slaveholding societies, and white abolitionists for the most part downplayed it because of the absolute revulsion it inspired in whites. Black abolitionists, nationalists, and activists, on the other hand — men such as John B. Russwurm, Williams Well Brown, James Theodore Holly, David Walker, and James McCune Smith — drew inspiration from it and especially Toussaint L'Ouverture.

They boldly paid tribute to that revolution — rather than to the American Revolution and its white heroes. Gloucester was one of the first to do so. The pastor then tackled an issue that had become controversial within the black community: he denounced the colonization movement that, since 1816, was sending free black men and women to Liberia. Interestingly, he was opposed to it not only on the grounds that the deportation of free African Americans made the country safer for slavery but also because the people who settled in Liberia were, in his view, not educated enough. He added, "Is it not obvious that the inhabitants of Africa notwithstanding they are heathens, can teach the greater part of those that have gone to Africa in a great many respects?"

Anticipating by fifty years the establishment of black colleges and universities during Reconstruction — in the early years, Cheyney University, founded in 1837, offered only secondary education — he advocated the creation in the United States of "a college, or seminary of colour, where all the arts and sciences should be taught, for it is learning that constitutes a good government, it is the life of any country."

The End of the Celebrations

The January 1 commemorations of the abolition of the slave trade continued for some years. In 1809, reflecting dissension between groups, three separate celebrations were held in New York City. Henry Sipkins was the keynote orator at the African Church. Like Peter Williams Jr. the year before, he described the impact of the slave trade on Africa and the brutal life of enslaved Africans in America, and then thanked the abolitionists.

Another commemoration was held at the Universalist Church, with speeches by William Hamilton, a carpenter and co-founder of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, and Peter Williams Jr. Following Williams's speech of the previous year, Hamilton strongly denounced Europeans' plunder of Africa: "The country of our forefathers might truly be called paradise, or the seat of ease and pleasure, until the foul fiends entered - fiends did I say? yes, the name is too sacred an appellation for the base ravagers of the African coast." As president of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, established just a few months earlier, he explained its goals and ended his oration by thanking the abolitionists.

The third celebration was organized at Liberty Hall by the Wilberforce Philanthropic Association. It was preceded by two processions complete with marching bands. Leaving aside the international slave trade, the main speaker, Joseph Sidney, focused on the abolition of slavery, which he believed had to be gradual because "our brethren in the South are in a state of deplorable ignorance."

In New York, the commemorations stopped in 1815, but in Boston, they lasted until 1830. Each year, two to three hundred black Bostonians had marched in procession, valiantly braving furious white mobs that harassed, insulted, and made fun of them. But not everyone in the black community was in favor of these rallies. Some leaders, such as Absalom Jones, were opposed to what they saw as useless confrontations.

Hostile whites not only ridiculed African Americans on the streets as they marched but also cruelly caricatured their dress, language, and manners in a series of "Bobalition" broadsides, published in Boston between 1819 and 1832 and reprised by newspapers in other cities. On July 14, 1821, a poster titled "Grand Bobalition or Great Annibersary Fussible" was displayed all over town. Written in exaggerated, pompous "black dialect," it started with "Bosson, Uly 18021." In 1819, for the first and only time, an anonymous "Reply to Bobalition" surfaced. It criticized white Bostonians' hostility to the celebration.

The demise of the January 1 celebrations was not exceptional. Other African-American commemorations came and went: Emancipation Day, celebrated between 1827 and 1834 on July 4 in New York City and July 5 in New York State; West Indies Emancipation Day, held on August 1 in thirteen states between 1834 and 1862; and U.S. Emancipation Day, marking Lincoln's Proclamation on January 1, 1863, held until the 1920s.

The Legacy of the Celebrations

The January 1 celebrations and the speeches that were made on these occasions — and later published — were important. It was the first time that a black celebration produced written texts. As they addressed themselves to a black audience, the speakers were freer than eighteenth-century petitioners to forcefully articulate their opinions and criticisms.

These events, however, created controversy, not only with white society but within the African-American community as well. Parades, in particular, seen by some as affirmations of freedom and manhood, were often decried by black leaders as profane, disrespectable shows that helped reinforce stereotypes of blacks and invited white derision.

Why did the commemorations disappear? Perhaps people realized that the event they were celebrating was not what they had envisioned. In his 1814 oration, Russell Parrott spoke of the "partial abolition" of the slave trade. Africans were still arriving in the country on slave ships.

Between 1808 and 1810, an estimated 8,000 people were forced onto these shores. An additional 4,000 - perhaps more - landed before 1822 and another few thousand before 1860. They were a vivid reminder that the nation had not lived up to its own laws. One might argue that these illegal arrivals were all the more reason to turn January 1 not into a celebration but into an appeal for the genuine eradication of the international slave trade.

But times had changed. The hope that the demise of the international slave trade would quickly be followed by the abolition of slavery itself had been crushed. The Deep South was, on the contrary, strengthening the "peculiar institution" with the spectacular development of the domestic slave trade that sent 1.2 million enslaved African Americans from the southeastern states to the Gulf States.

In the end, the celebration of an event that had little real substance in the midst of the continued enslavement and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people might just have seemed derisory. Nevertheless, although they did not last long, the celebrations were significant in the African-American experience, as they redefined African and African-American history and culture and promoted political action and the preservation of memory.

Sylviane A. Diouf
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture


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Gravely, William B. "The Dialectic of Double-Consciousness in Black American Freedom Celebrations, 1808-1863." Journal of Negro History 67 (Winter 1982): 302-17.

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