In June 1776, representatives of the first 13 U.S. colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. On July 2nd, the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence.
Two days later its delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence, which was drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
Independence Day became a national holiday in 1941. Most Americans look forward to cookouts, fireworks, and gathering with family. However, to many Americans, Independence means little more than time off from work.
However, Black Americans are keenly aware that our ancestors were still slaves when the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Emancipation from slavery would not come for Blacks for another eighty-nine years. Hence, there is apathy towards the notion of celebrating “Independence” on a day that most Black Americans would agree did not apply to their ancestors.
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall. It was an indictment of the fact Independence was not yet a reality for most Black Americans. Douglass boldly declared: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”
He went on to proclaim: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-giving, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour”
Frederick Douglass would, undoubtedly, deliver a different speech today. I believe he would be proud of how far America has come in ensuring all of its citizens are equally protected under the law. Moreover, he would certainly find more than a few reasons to celebrate the Fourth of July.
No longer is the celebration of Independence a fraud in America, for every American now, under the U.S Constitution, equally enjoys the possibilities of individual freedom that the constitution guarantees.
That said, I also believe that Frederick Douglass would charge Blacks in America with remembering the Blacks who contributed to the Independence of America, even as they often did not live to see the reality of Freedom. They did it because they envisioned the America we now live in. It is these Freedom Fighters I hope we all pay tribute today and, in this, find reason to celebrate the 4th of July with pride and dignity.
Crispus Attucks, a Black American who had escaped slavery, was the first casualty of the American Revolution when he was shot and killed in what became known as the Boston Massacre. On March 5, 1770 a group of Blacks, Irish Americans, and others, attacked a British custom house. Attucks was one of five men killed when they opened fire.
American Patriots dubbed the incident as the “Boston Massacre”. Attucks became known as a martyrs and symbol of liberty. Moreover, in spite of laws and customs regulating the burial of blacks, Crispus Attucks was buried in the Park Street cemetery along with the other honored dead and will forever be remembered as an American hero.
Peter Salem and Salem Poor were commended for their bravery at Bunker Hill. On June 17, 1775 Peter Salem shot and killed British Major John Pitcairn as he was rallying the British troops against American. In his honor, soldiers of the New England army raised money to reward Salem.
He was later presented to Gen. George Washington as a hero.
Salem Poor was born a free Black American in the early 1750s. In 1775, he voluntarily, in the hope of playing a role in the freedom of all Black Americans, joined a Massachusetts Militia company commanded by Benjamin Ames. Salem Poor killed a high ranking British officer, Lt. Col. James Abercrombie.
His heroism was noted, in a petition, by the Massachusetts Legislature and signed by fourteen of his officers:
“A negro slave, called Salem Poor, of Colonel Frye’s regiment, Captain Ames’ company, in the late battle at Charlestown, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. It would be tedious to go into more detail regarding his heroic conduct. We only beg leave to say, in the person of this said Negro centers a brave and gallant soldier.”
Black men everywhere believed that the Revolutionary War was a fight for liberty. Liberty for slaves. Their loyalty was indeed to the principle of individual freedom. Over 5,000 Black men fought for the Continental Army, while over 20,000 fought for the British army. It is important to celebrate the fact that Black women, many of whom were slaves, served both the Americans and the British in the capacity of nurses, laundresses and cooks. They too played a vital role in the independence that we all now are privileged to enjoy.
The heroes and heroines are too many to mention and the knowledge of the contribution of Blacks too vast to know in detail.
“What, to Black Americans, is the 4th of July?
In light of the contributions of Blacks before and during the Revolutionary War, as well as the role the Declaration of Independence would one day play in ending chattel slavery, the answer is quite simple: Everything.