Days of Jubilee: Emancipation Day Celebrations in Chicago, 1853 to 1877

By Bailey, Amber | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, December 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Days of Jubilee: Emancipation Day Celebrations in Chicago, 1853 to 1877


Bailey, Amber, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


ON THE MORNING OF JANUARY i, 1863, Quinn Chapel swelled with anticipation as hundreds of black Chicagoans crowded into the church and filed into its pews. Unlike previous years, the crowd had not gathered in the city's African Methodist Episcopal church to mark the beginning of a new year. Instead, they had come together to give thanks to God for the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln was scheduled to sign later that day. The congregation filled the church with jubilant song and scripture. Leading the group in prayer, Quinn's pastor Reverend Dare offered up praises "to the Most High for the manifestations of Divine interposition in behalf of the down-trodden and oppressed slaves." At another meeting held later that day, the reassembled crowed vowed to preserve that momentous date for posterity, resolving that they would "ever hold this day, the first day of January, 1863, as . . . the day that four millions of African-Americans were redeemed from the thraldom of American slavery and into the noonday of universal life."1

For the next four decades, the city's black community held true to the promise expressed in that 1863 New Year's Day resolution. But January 1 was just one of many dates black Chicagoans celebrated as critical moments in the struggle for universal emancipation. The festivities held on these dates came to be known as Emancipation Day celebrations or jubilees. Before and even after the Civil War, black Chicagoans observed Emancipation Day on August 1, which marked the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. Beginning in 1860s, Emancipation Day festivities were organized around two dates: September 22 and January 1. The former date referred to September 22,1862, when President Abraham Lincoln announced that he intended to issue a proclamation emancipating slaves held by Confederate states that remained in rebellion against the Union. The latter date referred to January 1, 1863, when Lincolns proclamation went into effect. After the Civil War, black Chicagoans also embraced March 30, the date when the Fifteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, as another emancipation. Although slavery had been legally abolished well before it was ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment extended the franchise to black men, providing blacks with the tool-the ballot-that would help them defend their freedom.

Through the latter half of the nineteenth century, Emancipation Days remained major if unofficial holidays for African Americans throughout the country. In Chicago, Emancipation Day celebrations consistently attracted crowds that numbered in the hundreds or thousands. Black Chicagoans could fill their social calendars with these commemorative festivities, which stretched across entire days and frequently occurred multiple times in a single year. A typical celebration would begin with a grand procession that carried participants through the city's streets and terminated at Quinn Chapel. Once inside, the crowd would offer thanksgiving to God for abolishing slavery. Following the early morning service, the crowd would depart from the church to a train station where they would pack into passenger cars that transported them to a secluded grove in a nearby town. Joined by members of that town's black community, the crowd would be treated to oratory, recitations of poems and historical documents like the Emancipation Proclamation, and music. Following a picnic and dancing, the party would return to the city and might regroup at a meeting hall. There they would enjoy additional oratory and a formal banquet, and top off the day with more music and dancing. Through these multilayered activities, Emancipation Day celebrations combined the secular with the spiritual, the public with the private, the formal with the festive, and the political with the social.

In recent years, Emancipation Day celebrations have begun to attract more attention from scholars of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African American history. …

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