In the Archives: August Emancipation

" ... well filled with people, about half and half black and white.”

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.

Excerpt from Abba Owen's diary entry for Aug. 1, 1888. (Image links to larger file.)

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.”

Excerpt from the diary of William Lambie. (Image links to larger file.)

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.

Mystery Artifact

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.”

Mystery Artifact

Mystery Artifact

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


  1. By Jared Collins
    July 31, 2011 at 11:46 am | permalink

    Laura, I truly enjoyed reading this article. I just wanted to point out that you note “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” is in effect stating that women’s suffrage achieved in 1920 was the date of inclusion of all Americans. I would like to point out that it was not until 1924 that the Indian (Native American) Citizenship Act was passed giving them the right to vote en mass.

  2. By ScratcjingmyHead
    July 31, 2011 at 12:53 pm | permalink

    Thanks for a wonderful and informative article. I’m going to print it out ans share with others who need to know this.

  3. July 31, 2011 at 4:19 pm | permalink

    Re: [1] “I would like to point out that it was not until 1924 that the Indian (Native American) Citizenship Act was passed giving them the right to vote en mass.”

    The sentence in Bien’s original piece ended with ” … for another half century.” That left the allusion non-specific, and I supplied what I assumed was the intended implicit reference on editing: ” … when women achieved the franchise.” Ordinarily, Bien will review any edits before final publication, but this week, exceptionally, circumstances conspired against that. In any case, the unintended slight was introduced by the editor.

  4. By Eric
    July 31, 2011 at 4:55 pm | permalink

    The so-called Juneteenth event disrupts an important Saturday for the Farmers’ Market. The Market is all ready in serious decline from inadequate parking, extortionate stall fees from the City of Ann Arbor, and rampant reselling. The so-called Black Business Day ruins another Saturday in June.

  5. By Jared Collins
    July 31, 2011 at 6:47 pm | permalink

    Re:[3] I understand, and the article was well written and well received. I think your assumption would be the one that most Americans would make, women’s suffrage after all is part of not just our history, but of our American myth.

    Sometimes our myths gets so ingrained into our culture and education that we neglect the actual history. My only point was that women were not the last people to be denied the most basic of freedoms.

  6. By cosmonıcan
    July 31, 2011 at 6:59 pm | permalink

    Politics aside, I’ll take a wild guess that the oval, veined, pieces on this jackknife thingy are of different sizes for comparing stuff. So, I will propose that it is an acorn grader, and leave it at that.

  7. By Laura Bien
    July 31, 2011 at 7:36 pm | permalink

    Jared: Thank you, that is a valuable correction and I appreciate your pointing it out. That is my fault (not Dave’s; his edits always improve my articles) and simply a result of my ignorance about that event granting voting rights to Native Americans in 1924. I appreciated learning about it (and will probably spend a good deal of the evening Googling it up to learn more), and it’s definitely a detail that I’ll include in any future iterations of this story. Thank you.

  8. By Laura Bien
    July 31, 2011 at 7:38 pm | permalink

    SCRATCJINGMYHEAD: Thanks for your kind comment. The event was pretty significant locally for the latter part of the 19th century especially but seems to have been obscured in the mists of time.

  9. By Laura Bien
    July 31, 2011 at 7:45 pm | permalink

    Cosmonican: Today I visited Makers’ Faire at the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village and later reverentially pilgrimaged to the onetime office of one of my favorite historical people, Luther Burbank. The office, tucked away in Greenfield Village, is small, graceful, and tasteful and says a lot about this modest yet extraordinarily gifted gardener and botanist. So much could be said about this gentleman but as I am still enjoying a residual fangirl glow from having touched the selfsame brass doorknob he may have touched, let’s just say that the importance of grading acorns doesn’t seem silly at all. AT ALL.

  10. August 1, 2011 at 9:17 am | permalink

    The artifact reminds me of a feeler gauge, used for example to set the gap on a spark plug. I could go with acorn grader, as Cosmo suggests. Maybe the ones with smaller gaps between the acorn and hat fetch a higher price at the Farmer’s Market.

  11. By Laura Bien
    August 1, 2011 at 9:20 am | permalink

    Jim: It does look like a feeler gauge; I’ve seen those as wads of metal strips, each one of slightly different thickness, linked together on a ring. You’d definitely want to choose the larger-graded acorns in order to make an optimal acorn whistle.

  12. By Laura Bien
    August 1, 2011 at 10:45 am | permalink

    Incidentally, for anyone who’d like to see the unedited ad for the railroad snow plow, I’ve parked it over on my blog.