Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861

By John Ernest | Go to book overview

chapter four
The Assembly of History
Orations and Conventions

On March 5, 1858, African Americans in Boston held a Commemorative Festival at Faneuil Hall, organized primarily by William C. Nell. In her extensive summary and analysis of this event, Elizabeth Rauh Bethel notes that March 5 “marked two important events for African Americans: On March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks, a fugitive from slavery, had been the first American to die in the Revolution, during the Boston Massacre; and on March 5, 1857, the United States Supreme Court had declared that African Americans had no rights that white Americans were bound to respect when it rendered its decision regarding Dred Scott's freedom suit” (1).1 Fifth of March celebrations of the Boston Massacre were standard fare in Boston from 1770 until 1783, at which time they were replaced with Fourth of July celebrations. In reviving the day of commemoration, Bethel notes, Nell “transformed the meaning of that eighteenth-century town tradition by redefining the holiday, shrewdly centering Crispus Attucks in the already-popular cultural image of soldier-patriots engaged in an heroic battle. The story told through the symbolism of the Commemorative Festival became a metaphor for the nation's failure to make good the democratic promises of the Revolution to all her citizens” (11). In addition to speakers and musical groups,2 the event included a display of “Emblems—Relics—Engravings—Documents … of Revolution-

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