“A DAY OF PUBLICK THANKSGIVING”
Let the first of January, the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country, be set apart in every year, as a day of publick thanksgiving for that mercy. Let the history of the sufferings of our brethren, and of their deliverance, descend by this means to the remotest generations; and when they shall ask, in time to come, saying, What mean the lessons, the psalms, the prayers and the praises in the worship of this day? let us answer them.
—Absalom Jones, 1808
Without meetings, without rituals, ceremonies, myths and symbols, there can be no great people. Afro-Americans, recognizing this, … went out into the alleys and the fields and formed their own institutions and, in the process, invented themselves.
—Lerone Bennett Jr., 1968
P HILADELPHIA CLERGYMAN Absalom Jones, when he delivered his sermon on the United States' abolition of the Atlantic slave trade on January 1, 1808, identified key elements of an incipient African American commemorative tradition that would persist for more than a century. To give thanks to heavenly and earthly benefactors was certainly of central concern to the pastor of St. Thomas's African Episcopal Church. But of at least equal importance was Jones's explicit exhortation that the ongoing public observance of the occasion should serve as an opportunity to explain the lessons of history and the meaning inherent in the event, especially to the youth of his day and to generations yet unborn. Jones's vision extended far into the future of his race and his nation. Between 1808 and the late 1820s public festive rituals among northern free blacks underwent important changes and were, as Jones hoped, becoming integral components of a maturing African American political culture. But African Americans' regular participation in a different sort of public ritual and celebration had been established several generations earlier. An assessment of the characteristics, functions, and meanings of nineteenth-century African American Freedom Day celebrations must begin, then, at least briefly, with their precursors in the slave festivals of the pre-Revolutionary period.