Editor’s note: On this, the last day of July, many residents will be thinking ahead to the second day of August, when Ann Arbor voters will select Democratic candidates in city council elections for three of the city’s five wards. Local history writer Laura Bien gives us a reason to pause and ponder the first day of August, too.
Largely forgotten today, August 1 was once an annual holiday for black residents of Washtenaw County: Emancipation Day.
The day commemorated Britain’s 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which a year later ended slavery in most of the British empire. That included Canada, of course, from which many early local black settlers emigrated.
The day was distinct from and older than Juneteenth (also often called Emancipation Day), a holiday that commemorates the belated announcement of the end of slavery in Texas on June 18, 1865. This year, Ann Arbor observed Juneteenth in Wheeler Park, near the city’s historically black Kerrytown-area neighborhood.
Organized by the Ann Arbor branch of the NAACP, local Juneteenth celebrations date back to 1994.
Before the first Juneteenth and even before the Civil War, Emancipation Day was associated in the United States with the anti-slavery movement. The Aug. 1, 1844 Ypsilanti Sentinel reprinted a speech originally given at an annual meeting of Quakers in New York. “Shall it be said then,” reads part of the speech, “that the United States of America, a land of all others the loudest in its boast of liberty and of its liberal institutions, is the last to relax its iron grasp – and that when driven from other lands, slavery is still seen to linger on our own free soil[?]”
According to scholar John Dancy, in 1850 2,372 black people lived in Michigan. Following Wayne County with 697 black residents, Washtenaw contained the second highest number of black residents of any Michigan county, 231 – almost exactly one-tenth of the state’s black population. Close behind Washtenaw was Cass County in southwestern Michigan, which like Washtenaw had a significant number of Quaker settlers.
After the Civil War, the holiday began to be celebrated annually in Ypsilanti with a parade, gatherings at the local fairgrounds (now Recreation Park), speeches, music and a large communal banquet.
“Wednesday, Aug. 1st, was celebrated quite extensively by our colored people here,” reported the Aug. 4, 1866 Ypsilanti Commercial. “Delegations from several neighboring towns met in the morning at the A.M.E. Church and marched to Cross’s Grove (Recreation Park) where one and all enjoyed a ‘feast of reason and a flow of’ – lemonades, &c.” The paper continued, “In the evening music was had at Hewitt Hall [now Mix boutique on Michigan Avenue] and lively feet kept time to the livelier music of Wood’s Band.”
Following the February 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment giving blacks the right to vote, speeches at the 1870 Emancipation Day celebration addressed black suffrage. The Commercial reported, “As the procession swept through the streets, with flags and banners waving and the band playing, it presented a most cheerful and joyous scene.” The paper triumphantly added that “[Now] it is the government of the whole American people” – a sentiment that wouldn’t actually be true for another half century, when women achieved the franchise.
“The Union Cornet Band of this city headed the procession,” reported the Aug. 5, 1876 Commercial. “The large preponderance of the citizens of Ann Arbor and Jackson celebrated with the Band … before dinner, [Ypsilanti doctor] D. A. Post, [Normal School principal] Professor Estabrook and [local black pastor] J. W. Brooks made eloquent speeches [in front of] the grand stand, well filled with people, about half and half black and white.”
Superior Township poet-farmer William Lambie attended this event, writing later in his diary, “Ground very dry – hoping for rain – the colored man’s day of Freedom – [Isabelle] and I went to see the Celebration in William Cross Grove at the Fair Grounds – The dark Beauties rigged out in white, red and blue and a feast of good things. Apples 75¢ a bushel.”
Lambie often made note of Emancipation Day throughout his more than three decades of diary-keeping, and attended the celebrations more than once.
Another Ypsilanti diarist took note of the event, but only to write that her and her grandmother’s domestic help were absent to attend the festival. Abba Owen was the daughter of Ypsilanti mineral water baron Tubal Cain Owen. On Aug. 1, 1888 Abba wrote, “To-day is Emancipation Day and all the colored people celebrate it so we have no girl and Grandma also hasn’t a girl so they all came up to our house and took their meals and helped us do the work. In the afternoon Marian Henderson made a call. [Abba’s brother] Eber started this afternoon for Gross [Ieal] Island to make Miss Gray a visit. To-day has been a great deal cooler than yesterday.”
The event continued to be celebrated at the turn of the century. “On the whole, it was a great day for our colored people,” reported the Aug. 2, 1900 Ypsilanti Commercial, “and was observed in a manner and spirit in keeping with the important event which the exercises were designed to commemorate.” The 1910 paper also took note of the day, but in a more abstract manner without reference to any actual local events.
By 1920, however, Emancipation Day seems to have faded from Ypsilanti news coverage. A cursory survey of August editions of Depression-era and 1940s Ypsilanti newspapers also shows no coverage of the onetime event.
Today the joyous pageantry and stately ceremony of Emancipation Day is gone and the holiday largely forgotten, though once it served as a day of celebration for both black and white citizens of Ypsilanti.
Jim Rees, Cosmonican, and Irene Hieber correctly guessed that last column’s Mystery Artifact was, as Jim said, a “rotary snowplow for use on a railroad,” adding, also correctly, “I’m guessing you don’t actually have one and this is just a drawing.”
This week we’re moving from a macro-artifact to a tiny one in the Ypsilanti Historical Museum. This small device on the second floor shares one aspect with the railroad snowplow, however – it’s a little scary-looking. But what is it? Take your best guess and good luck!
Laura Bien is a local history columnist and collector of non-functioning Depression-era gas station cash registers. Her second book, “Hidden Ypsilanti,” is due out this fall. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.