Following in the footsteps of my ancestors in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, in an attempt to experience Emancipation Day celebrations of days past as they would have known them. Most white newspaper accounts of the day focused on participants’ clothing and comportment. Beyond an annual observance of “freedom day,” the celebrations were an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of the community, through sharing history, sustaining commitments to progressive political change, and fundraising for benevolent societies and community institutions.
“The freedmen celebrated the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to-day by a military parade. The negroes were decked out in flashy uniforms of various colors, the officers sporting epaulets, swords and all the trappings of the military.” – New York Daily Herald, 1867
Cedar Grove Cemetery, est. 1820. Family surnames: Orton/Horton
“Yesterday, the colored population of Norfolk, Portsmouth, and the surrounding country, turned out in force to celebrate the anniversary of their emancipation. The streets were crowded by the sons and daughters of Ham at an early hour. About ten o’clock, the different organizations and societies formed in procession on Bute street, in front of the colored Methodist Church. The marshals were gaily mounted, and bedizened off in grand array with their tri-colored scarfs, and fancy ornamented batons. At half past ten o’clock, the procession moved off, headed by two companies of the 20th New York, as an escort, which was preceded by the regimental band. Then followed the ‘Sons of Houn,’ ‘Humble Sons of God,’ ‘Zion’s Sons,’ ‘Hebrew Union,’ ‘Independent Society,’ ‘Mechanic’s Bible Society,’ ‘Sons of Adam,’ ‘Pilgrims,’ ‘Glee Club,’ and the ‘Monitor Club,’ – after which a number of carriages containing the orators and the invited guests and reverend clergy. Several societies were preceded by martial bands. The rear of the procession was brought up by the colored population. The procession moved through the principle streets in the most orderly and decorous manner—not one single instances occurring to mar the festivities of the celebration. An oration was delivered at Bute street church by the Rev. Solomon Hodges, (colored), which was exceedingly appropriate to the occasion. Mr. Hodges was particularly severe upon his brethren and sisters who pass their time in idleness and depravity, and told them the great blessing of freedom, and its purest principles were to do good. Other speakers addressed the assembly, but none, white or black, were more earnest in their expression of opinion, then the reverend colored orator. About 4 o’clock, the procession marched up Main street to Market square, when the Portsmouth societies wheeled out of line, and moved towards the ferry wharf en route home. Thus ended the procession.” – The Norfolk Post, 1866
“The annual celebration of Emancipation Day by the colored people of Norfolk took place yesterday. The procession went over the line of march as published yesterday and the closing exercises took place at St. John’s A.M.E. Church. The following were the managers and participants in the exercises: Thomas Teamer, president; William H. Selden, secretary; Lewis Dawley, treasurer; Nicholas Langley, chief marshal; Moses Jordan, orator; Lucy B. Cotton, ‘Goddess of Liberty;’ Emma Satyer, poem; Adela Ruffin, reader of proclamation, and Rev. W. H. Bolden, chaplain.” – 1904
West Point Cemetery: Family surnames: Butt, Elliott, Lynch
Calvary Cemetery: Family surnames: Carter, Elliott, Orton
“The negroes of Smithfield celebrated the anniversary of Emancipation Day by parading behind a brass band.” Isle of Wight CountyTHE TIMES, 1901
“The negroes in Western Branch township are arranging for a grand emancipation celebration at Getty’s Station, on New-Year’s day. The colored element of the city will doubtless follow suit.” – 18741
Grove Baptist Church. Family surnames: Copeland, Elliott, Orton, Pitt, Trotter, Wright
“The Emancipation Association, organized January last, and composed of delegates representing about thirty civic organizations of the city of Portsmouth and that part of Norfolk county lying west of the Elizabeth River, for the purpose of having an appropriate celebration of the first day of January, have made arrangements for a suitable commemoration on next Thursday, the first day of January, 1891, that being the twenty-eighth anniversary of the emancipation proclamation. The following programme has been planned for the day:
The procession will be formed in two divisions at the intersection of High and Effingham streets. The first division will form on Effingham street, north of High, right resting on High. Second division will form on Effingham street, south of High, right resting on High, and move at 1:30 P. M., in the following order:
- First Division – 1. Chief marshal and staff, 2. Silas Fellows Post, G. A. R., 5. Union League Club No. 1. 6. Representatives of emancipated States. 7. Chestnut street Academy boys. 8. King Solomon Lodge No. 6, Seven Wise Men. 9. Charity Club.
- Second Division – 1. Enterprise Band. 2. Vanguard of Freedom. 3. Rescue Fire Company. 4. N. G. U. O., of Love and Charity, male members. 5. North-street Church A. M. E. Sunday -school. 6. Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. 7. Hod Carrier Working Club. 8. Good Samaritans. 9. Citizens unattached. 10. Carriages containing chaplain of the day, orator, reader of the Emancipation Proclamation, poetess, the president and secretaries of the association and chairmen of the several committees.
The procession will move promptly at 1:30 and pass through the following streets: From point of formation to Green street, Green to Glasgow, Glasgow to Court, Court to High, High to Crawford, Crawford to County, County to Godwin, Godwin to Glasgow street extended, Glasgow street extended to Effingham, Effingham to South, South to Green, Greet to North to the speakers’ stand, where the following programme will be rendered: Introductory remarks by the president, Mr. Nelson Proctor; prayer by Rev. J. M. Armistead, chaplain, singing, ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee;’ reading of Emancipation Proclamation, by Miss Edith Jordan; patriotic music by Seaboard Band; poem, by Miss Laura J. Butt; music by Enterprise Band; oration, by Rev. W. H. Hunter, D. D.; benediction, by Rev. Jacob Gaskins; closing remarks by the president.
Any organization that desire to do so, but has not yet made arrangements, can participate in the parade by seeing Samuel Davis, chairman of the Finance Committee, and complying with the regulations adopted by the association, after which they will report to the chief marshal, Isaac Gordon, for assignment in the procession.” – 18902
Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex: Family surnames: Allen, Alston, Ash, Barnes, Brown, Butt, Colden, Copeland, Davis, Drew, Eley, Elliott, Lynch, Majette, Mason, Mitchell, Myrick, Orton, Pitt, Proctor, Riddick, Tillery, Vann/Vaughan, Williams, Wilson, Young
“The celebration of the emancipation proclamation by the negroes to-day occupied the attention of everybody here, to the exclusion of that of New Year’s day. The stores were closed and the streets entirely deserted, except by the freedmen, who this morning formed in procession by societies, wearing all kinds of fantastic badges, and carrying banners, the officers being mounted, with drawn sabres in their hands, and the whole headed by two bands of music. They then marched through Main street. They cheered lustily for Hunnicutt when passing the offices of the Times Dispatch and Examiner newspapers, and were entirely unmolested except by some United States Soldiers, who, being on a New Years spree, snow-balled the procession, which however, was not resented, one of the mounted officers remarking, “It was not worth while to notice the ‘poor Yankee white trash.’
They drew up in the Capitol square, at the base of the Washington monument, where they were greeted by an immense crowd of their colored brethren, numbering some three thousand. Here they were harangued by the illustrious Hunnicutt, who made a violent incendiary speech. He demanded ‘the removal of the present Governor and Legislature elected by you, the loyal people. Then we would have a restored country, and the doors of Congress would be open to our representatives. Andrew Johnson is a traitor, and Congress will fail in their duty if they do not impeach and remove him. All the rebels must be disenfranchised, the leaders executed and you, the loyal people, must govern the country.’ This speech was loudly and wildly cheered again and again, amid the greatest excitement, and at its termination several dusky orators and a United States soldier, named Davis, made some remarks, which were vociferously applauded. The Governor showed himself on the steps of his mansion, and was honored by a call from the crowed, and after some military evolutions on the part of the various societies and bands of music, accompanied by flourishing of sabres, yelling of orders in the negro dialect and a number of salutes, the crowd broke up, the societies marching to their places of rendezvous. All passed off quietly.” – The New York Daily Herald, 1867
Suffolk (Nansemond County), Virginia
“To-day was observed by the closing of the banks, the post office (except for an hour and a half) and a few people received the regular New Year callers. The colored people enjoyed themselves by a big parade, in which one of their number represented the Goddess of Liberty. A unique feature of the parade was a log cabin on a wagon drawn through the streets with a United States flag floating from the top. The emancipation proclamation was purported to, have been read by an ex-slave 100 years old. Several addresses by prominent colored men were made and an annual banquet to-night closed the day.” – 19023
Oak Lawn Cemetery. Family surnames: Cooper, Elliott, Hart, Jackson, Riddick, Smith, Twitty, Vann, Warren, White
Belleville Cemetery. Family surnames: Elliott, Orton,Trotter, Ward
“The colored people had a big time to-day, it being ‘Emancipation Day.’ They had a long parade and two brass bands. The Grand Army of Suffolk turned out, headed by the G. A. R. post band and the Tidewater Band. They paraded around the principal streets and then marched to the Baptist Church on Pine Street. At the church there were two very fine addresses made by Lawyer Carter and Rev. Smallwood, of Clairmont. Jordan Thompson, who is president of the Tidewater Industrial Association, ordered out the association. The speaking came off at 3:30 o’clock. There was a large crowed of strangers here in Suffolk-today.” – 19034
“The negroes held their emancipation day celebration on New Year’s day in Windsor, and there were nearly three thousand in the procession. The day was rainy and many were prevented from attending. Had the day been fair there would have been double the number.” – The Commonwealth, 1891
“The colored citizens of Asheville and vicinity will, according to a well established custom, celebrate their thirty-ninth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, at the Young Men’s Institute, today at 2 p.m. The program is as follows:
Music, Select chorus; invocation, Rev. J. S. Cunningham; introductory remarks, Prof. J. H. Michael; reading Emancipation Proclamation, Mr. Geo. Jackson; solo, Miss Mamie Martin; essay, Mr. Robert Wills; Young Men’s Institute quartet, Jackson, Trent, Hamilton, Morrow; poem, Miss L. T. Jackson; anthem, select chorus; oration, Rev. W. B. Fenderson; solo, Miss Lilliam Pulliam.
A special effort will be put forth to raise a neat sum of money for the Colored Children’s Home, and all are requested to come prepared to help this worthy charity.” The Asheville Daily Gazette, 1902
Shiloh A.M.E. Zion Church. Family surnames: Featherston, Shipman, Whitmire
“The colored people observed emancipation day today by holding a meeting in the court house which was largely attended. It was for the benefit of the Lincoln Hospital, of this city, and a collection was taken up for this purpose, realizing sixteen dollars.
The program was interspersed with music, both instrumental and vocal. J. A. Dodson was president of the day and made the opening address. There were essays by Rebecca N. Ray, Cora D. Freeman, and Julia L. McCauley. A declamation by Benny Marisham; and the reading of the emancipation proclamation by C. F. Rich. The annual oration was delivered by M. L. Newby.
J. A. Dodson was re-elected president and C. C. Spaulding secretary of the association.” – The Durham Sun, 1904
Beechwood Cemetery: Family surnames: Perry, Foster, Sutton
“The colored people Friday will celebrate their emancipation, but upon how expensive a scale this deponent saith not, but he is inclined to believe that the chief participants will be the local rad politicians.
No one blames the colored people for celebrating their freedom. It would be strange if they did not, but politics should not enter into that day.
If they will taboo politics they will find many friends to help make the occasion pleasant and profitable and notable. It is high time for the colored man to cease imagining that his color makes him a republican.” – The Taborough Southerner, 1891
“At the emancipation celebration in Raleigh by the colored people a Tarboro girl, Edna Earl Mitchel read an original poem.” – The Tarborough Southerner, 1892
“Although the weather was unfavorable yesterday, the colored people jollified over their emancipation nearly all day. Considering the bad weather a good crowd was here, and about mid-day a procession was formed in front of the Court House, and headed by a brass band from Nelson’s Chapel, this county, they marched through the principal streets, some in carriages, some on horse-back, and others on foot. WE understand that some speeches were made, but the writer failed to hear them.” – The Franklin Times, 1891
“The colored people celebrated their emancipation on Monday last, and the following proceedings were handed us for publication:
Early Monday morning people began to gather from all parts of the county, as they always do, on the day of their annual celebration to accept the instructions given them, and to give their expressions of gratitude and joy to their benefactors and review their history that they may correct their mistakes and receive counsel for the future. We, learning that one of North Carolina’s brightest sons was to grace the state, were anxious to hear him, knowing that if we accepted his advice we would be benefitted in the future. 12:30 p.m. having arrived, the people were ready for the parade. There was no space in the streets from the Court House to the Academy groves. Horses, carriages, buggies and footmen were numerous. It seemed to us that the town authorities had given us control of the town, yet in the midst of this there was perfect order. Not an arrest was made during the day. When the parade returned, they marched into the Court House and were seated. After which President S. P. McKnight called the house to order. Music by the Mapleville Brass Band. Prayer by Brother L. N. Neal. Reading of the Proclamation by Miss Gussie A. Kearney. She read it very distinctly. Her voice could be heard in all parts of the room. After which in a few, choice, select, and appropriate words, Mr. L. N. Neal introduced the orator of the day, Prof. S. N. Vass, of Raleigh, N. C. We have never listened to a better speech. The impressions he made on us will not be forgotten. His speech was practical, rich, deep and rhetorical. His instructions were appropriate and accurate. Oh! That we had many such men. Remarks were also made by Dr. J. A. Savage, Mr. J. H. Williamson and Mr. John Young, which were very instructive and suggestive.” – The Franklin Times, 1899
Family surnames: Bennett, Bond, Brodie, Carr, Edwards, Foster, Hight, Minor, Neal, Sutton
“Weldon was full and overflowing on Wednesday, January 1, 1919. Never in its history had the number of colored people visited Weldon. The occasion was the celebration of the 56th year of their freedom—’The Emancipation Proclamation.’ They came from far and near, to do honor to the occasion. The procession was formed on the campus of the Colored Graded School, and marched through the principal streets winding up at Bachelor’s Opera House, which the Batchelor Brothes had kindly rendered them. Here they were called to order by the president, Dr. J. A. Tinsley, who in a few well chosen words, told of the past achievements of the colored man, how he had covered himself with glory in the war just ended, and what was expected of him in the future. He then introduced the Mayor, Hon. George C. Green, who delivered the address of welcome. Dr. W. H. Moore, of Wilmington, N. C., was then introduced as the orator for the day, and delivered an eloquent and instructive speech. He depicted in glowing terms the past history of the negro, and predicted a glorious future for the race. Cheer after cheer went up after the Doctor’s well rounded periods of eloquence. The opera house was crowded from pit to dome, and standing room was at a premium.” – The Roanoke News, 1919
Family surnames: Crowell, Tillery
“Emancipation Day was celebrated by the colored people on New Year’s day. A large number from out of town were present.” – The French Broad Hustler, 1907
“The colored population of Hendersonville celebrated Emancipation day Tuesday. An imposing parade was formed on the streets and exercises were held at the courthouse.”
The West North Carolina Times, 1907
Henderson County. Family surnames: Featherston, Logan, Shipman, Whitmire
“The colored people will celebrate Emancipation Day at Winton on Tuesday, Jan. 1st. Pres. Charles F. Meserve, of Shaw University, will deliver an address. An effort will be made also on that day to raise a large amount for Waters Institute, of which Rev. C. S. Brown is principal.” – The Murfreesboro Index, 1894
Family surnames: Barnes, Cooper/Cowper, Hart, Jones, Myrick, Picot, Riddick, Vann
New Hanover-Brunswick Counties
“The freedmen had a grand anniversary celebration here to-day in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln. There were about ten thousand in the procession, males and females. A number of addresses were delivered, and everything passed off smoothly and without disturbance.” – The New York Daily Herald, 1867
Family surnames: Moore, Orton
“An Emancipation celebration was held in the Court House on the 1st. Speeches were made by Thos. A. Sykes, Esq. and Jon. J. H. Shaw.” – The North Carolinean, 1874
“Emancipation Day was duly observed here on yesterday. The weather interfered somewhat with the parade, but appropriate exercises were held at the Court House.” – The North Carolinean, 1895
“In connection with the celebration of Emancipation Day, the committee has endeavored to arrange an entertaining program to be presented at Court House. Prof. P. W. Moore will deliver the annual address, while the music will be under the direction of Mr. F. W. M. Butler.” – The North Carolinean, 1897
“Despite the severity of the weather the Emancipation celebration was entirely successful. The cold interfered somewhat with the parade, but in every other respect the occasion equalled any previous effort. All of the participants performed their parts well, but the address of Prof. Moore is worthy of special notice, dealing as it did, in a plain, practical way with matters of vital interest to our race. The music under direction of Mr. F. W. M. Butler was appreciated and well rendered.” – The North Carolinean, 1898
“The different colored societies of this place celebrated Emancipation Day by parading the streets and speech-making at the court house.” – The North Carolinean, 1899
“The Emancipation celebration held here on Tuesday was the most successful one of recent years. President Spellman and his committee worked earnestly for its promotion and a decided success was the result. Two bands, several societies, and a number of citizens were in the parade. Appropriate exercises were held in the court house, the most prominent feature of which was the annual address by Prof. J. H. M. Butler, Principal of the Normal and Industrial Institute. Though young, Prof. Butler is at all times a fluent and forceful speaker and his effort on this occasion was unusually brilliant, logical and thoughtful. Following are a few thoughts from his most excellent address: ‘We should create a sentiment for independent toil. The practice of selling out and coming to town should be discouraged. Town life is strenuous. If you can own a farm stay on it; if you do not buy one. The man who makes his own bread and meat is independent. This is a favored section. Small tracts, watched and tended as carefully as a merchant does his store, will yield a good living.
Ally yourselves with the good white people and work for the promotion of the South. By thrift and intelligence you become so important as to be felt in all that helps to build up the Southland. Develop both hand and mind. Determine to win by merit, not rights, but manhood backed by character should be our watch-word.” – The North Carolinean, 1900
Oak Grove Cemetery. Family surnames: Elliott, Turner
The African American Civil War veterans of J. C. Abbott Post, Grand Army of the Republic. Oak Grove Cemetery, November 2, 2013. Elizabeth City, North Carolina
“The colored people celebrated their Emancipation to-day at this place. Large numbers were in attendance. In the forenoon, the procession was formed, which marched through the principal streets of our Town.
In the afternoon, they all assembled at the Court House where appropriate addresses were delivered by Col. D. McD. Lindsey, Elder G. W. Connor, and Hon. J. W. Albertson.
The Chairman, Wm. E. Ferebee, then made a few remarks, and adjourned the meeting.” – The North Carolinean, 1872
Family surnames: Elliott, Hurdle
“The Raleigh freedmen are making grand preparations for the celebration of Emancipation Day.” – The Rocky Mount Mail, 1875
“A good many colored people came in from the country, and joined with the townspeople of their race in celebrating the anniversary of the emancipation proclamation. As usual, Oberlin village was the scene of these festivities. All the darkies are fond of their ‘freedom,’ but some of them certainly have rather crude and vague ideas about it.” – The Tobacco Plant, 1889
“The colored people, as is their custom, celebrated Emancipation day here yesterday by a street parade and exercises in Metropolitan hall. The parade was led by mounted marshals in regalia, after which a large crowd of people assembled at Metropolitan hall. The emancipation proclamation was read by James H. Young, colored, and a poem was read by Sallie Upperman. The address of the day was delivered by J. H. Branch, of the colored school of Oberlin, and other addresses were made by speakers who were called upon. R. H. W. Leak was president of the day and the exercises were interspersed with music.” – The News and Observer, 1894
Oberlin Cemetery. Family surname: Alexander
“The colored people celebrated Emancipation Day here last Tuesday, it being the 32nd anniversary of their freedom. Owing to the bad weather the attendance was not very large, but notwithstanding, the exercises were interesting and those who participated enjoying themselves. The day is one pregnant with interest and possibilities to the colored people, for thirty-two years ago, sir Lincoln affixed his signature to a document that made millions of them free men. Emancipation day is to the colored man what the 4th of July was to the American Anglo Saxon, and they do well to celebrate it. It is, or should be, their Day of all days, and we commend them for celebrating it accordingly, but to do so successfully, they should have method and system and begin in time to make the celebration a success.” – The Warrenton Gazette, 1895
“Our colored citizens celebrated Emancipation Day here last Tuesday. A large crowd was present to hear the exercises which consisted in reading the Emancipation Proclamation, singing and two fine speeches by Revs. L. T. Christmas and J. A. Whitted. The crowd present was very elderly and conservative. The exercises took place in the Shiloh Institute chapel.” – The Warren Record, 1901
Family surnames: Sutton, Williams
“Our colored people celebrated emancipation day here on the first. They had a parade with music by a brass band, and some speaking. Only a small crowd turned out.” – The Wilson Advance, 1895
Rest Haven and Rountree-Vick Cemeteries. Family surnames: Baker, Bell, Hinman, Joyner, Neal, Thomas