On July 5, 1852, the famous black abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a stinging indictment of American independence. He did so because it was not yet realized for black Americans.
At Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, Douglass declared: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” To his hosts, he asked: “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
Douglass continued, explaining:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Today, however, Douglass would undoubtedly think differently. He would more likely be proud of how far America has come in ensuring equal protection under the law. There are now many reasons to celebrate Independence Day.
Now, for example, under our Constitution, everyone enjoys the guarantee of individual freedom.
Douglass would probably also appeal to modern blacks to remember their predecessors who contributed to American independence. It is these people, who surely envisioned the America we now live in, who deserve tribute and are a reason to celebrate the 4th of July now with pride and dignity.
It is important to share — especially with our youth — the stories of black patriots such as Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem and Salem Poor.
Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave, was an early casualty of the American Revolution when he was killed by British troops in the Boston Massacre. He became a martyr during the Revolutionary War and was later a symbol of liberty in fight against slavery. In spite of restrictions related to the burial of blacks at that time, Attucks was nonetheless buried at the Granary Burial Ground beside other honored dead such as Paul Revere.
Peter Salem and Salem Poor exhibited bravery at battles such as Bunker Hill. Salem shot and killed British Major John Pitcairn as Pitcairn rallied his troops. His fellow soldiers later presented Salem to General George Washington as a hero.
Poor, who earlier bought his freedom, joined a Massachusetts militia company in part to promote black liberty. For killing a high-ranking British officer, Lt. Col. James Abercrombie, Poor’s heroism was noted in a petition signed by fourteen of his officers:
We declare that a negro man, called Salem Poor… in the late Battle at Charlestown, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. To set forth particulars of his conduct would be tedious, we would only beg leave to say in the person of this said negro centers a brave and gallant soldier.
It’s obvious that lack men of that era believed the Revolutionary War was a fight for everyone’s liberty. Their loyalty was to the American principle of individual freedom. Over 5,000 black men fought for the Continental Army. Many black women served as nurses, laundresses and cooks. They all played a vital role in winning the independence we are all now privileged to enjoy.
Responding to Douglass today about the meaning of and reason to celebrate Independence Day, we ought to proudly stand tall and respond: We have everything to celebrate — for we played a big part in the independence in this great nation.