Dominion of New York

Black History Month

February 27, 2012

Freed From Slavery, But Prohibited From Celebrating, New Yorkers Rebelled

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Written by: Kelly Virella

Emancipation Day

Photo Courtesy of NYPL, from Harper’s Weekly, by J.M.D. The cartoon mocks America’s delayed promise of freedom to blacks. Caption: “Sensation among ‘our colored brethren’ on ascertaining that the grand performance to which they had been invited on New Year’s Day, was unavoidably postponed to the year 1900! “


lavery ended in New York in 1827 and when that end came, after decades of abolitionism, black people wanted to celebrate. New York City’s black community was very diverse then, just as it is now — with West Indians, native born blacks and Africans who had survived the Middle Passage. On Emancipation Day, the day the state decreed for celebration, folks wanted to do it up with a parade, in our unique colorful, musical, outlandish style, with a touch of military grandeur, according to Black Gotham: A Family History of African-Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York. But their white “friends” from the Manumission Society said “No.”

It was presumptuous for the Society to prohibit the parade, but predictable. They were conservatives who hardly deserved the label abolitionists. As  Black Gotham explains:

Most endorsed the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1799, which rejected the call for the immediate end of slavery. They were committed to improving the lot of slaves through a benevolent act while delaying their freedom to a distant future. Indeed many of them were themselves slave owners, unable to shake off Linnaean stereotypes about black primitiveness and inferiority, and fully aware of the degree to which the wealth of the city depended on southern and West Indian slave economies.

Awesome. My kind of “friends.”

The Society’s argument against the parade was that such a public display would spark an outburst of racial violence. A lot of black New Yorkers cowered and agreed. But many were undeterred and tricked the Society.

On Emancipation Day,  July 4, 1827, a carpenter who was a leader in the black community delivered a stately address. But the next day, folks showed out 19th century style, with a brazen display of military prowess and partying. Dr. James McCune Smith — the nation’s first university trained black doctor — and Henry Highland Garnet — the first black man to speak before the House of Representatives — were there. Smith wrote about the event in his 1865 biography of Garnet:

That was a celebration! A real, full-souled, full-voiced shouting for joy, and marching through the crowded streets, with feet jubilant to songs of freedom!

First of all, Grand Marshal of the day was SAMUEL HARDENBURGH, A splendid-looking black man, in cocked hat and drawn sword, mounted on a milk-white steed; then his aids on horseback, dashing up and down the line; then the orator of the day, also mounted, with a handsome scroll, appearing like a baton in his right hand; then in due order, splendidly dressed in scarfs of silk with gold-edgings, and with colored bands of music, and their banners appropriately lettered and painted, followed, “THE NEW YORK AFRICAN SOCIETY OF MUTUAL RELIEF,” “THE WILBERFORCE BENEVOLENT SOCIETY,” and “THE CLARKSON BENEVOLENT SOCIETY”; then the people five or six abreast, from grown men to small boys. The sidewalks were crowded with the wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of the celebrants, representing every State in the Union, and not a few with Gay bandanna handkerchiefs, betraying their West Indian birth: neither was Africa itself unrepresented, hundreds who had survived the middle passage, and a youth in slavery joined in the joyful procession.

Our community saw a rare glimpse of itself organized, resistant and proud.

It was a proud day, never to be forgotten by lads, who, like Henry Garnet, first felt themselves impelled along that grand procession of liberty, which through perils oft, and dangers oft, through the gloom of midnight, dark and seemingly hopeless, dark and seemingly rayless, but now, through God’s blessing, opening up the the joyful light of day, is still “marching on.”

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About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


beware of kidnappers and slave catchers