Emancipation Day

Emancipation Day 2013

Washington Examiner

A note to readers: This is a portion of a chapter from my biography of Milton Holland and his family. At times, I have used the term “colored” to describe African-Americans because, though archaic today, it was widely in use by African-Americans to describe themselves in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Chapter 17: Festivals of Freedom

By the thousands, African-Americans from Maryland and Virginia trekked toward Washington on April 16, 1883 — undaunted by a continuous drizzle mixed with occasional torrential downpours. They wanted to join the parade celebrating the twenty-first anniversary of the emancipation of 3,100 slaves in the District of Columbia, the first step in freeing as many as four million of slaves in America.  President Lincoln had signed the bill freeing the District slaves and compensating their owners as a precursor to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation four months later. While freed slaves and their descendants in other parts of the country celebrated other dates as Emancipation Day, for the African-Americans of Washington, the date is April 16.

The rain at first had seemed to threaten the success of the Emancipation Day parade, possibly thwarting weeks of work by a committee headed by Milton Holland. The previous year’s parade had demonstrated a good turnout of civic organizations, whose members marched past throngs of African-Americans on the sidewalks, but there had been a distinct separation between those in the parade and those on the sidewalks. As day dawned on the 1883 celebration, there were questions as to whether there would be much of an audience, would the rain prompt the free men and women of the city, with their day off from work, to seek the cozy comfort of their homes instead of the damp streets of Washington. By mid-morning, Holland and the other Emancipation Day organizers took comfort. Thousands of District residents turned out and many more were coming from the surrounding countryside – not just to watch, but to participate in the celebration. A procession formed that was a mile and a half in length. W. Calvin Chase, the ever-hyperbolic African-American editor of the Washington Bee declared the parade as “the grandest event in the history of the colored race.”

Most employers gave their colored workers the day off. The butlers, cooks and coachmen of the wealthy mixed with porters and messengers from government agencies along with waiters and stable hands and the laborers who were building the buildings of growing Washington. The wealthiest of the city were dressed in grand style, and the less fortunate showed up in muddy boots and whatever was the best clothing they had. The crowd consisted of men, women and children of all ages. Along the route were vendors of peanuts, cakes and pies. “Prattling boys” raced among the crowds. “Not withstanding the inclemency of the weather, thousands of people could be seen on the streets.”

The parade’s grand marshal was Perry H. Carson, a former District deputy U.S. Marshal under Frederick Douglass. Carson initially had trouble organizing the march because the rain delayed the arrival of numerous civic organizations. Carson finally started the procession shortly before one in the afternoon “in the midst of a driving rain.” The long column moved past the statue of Lincoln at the District City Hall and then wheeled onto 4 ½ Street before marching west on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Behind Carson came a series of military drill units from Washington and Baltimore: The Butler Zouaves, the Baltimore Rifles, the Capital City Guards, the Webster Rifles, to name a few. Christian Fleetwood, who had fought with Milton Holland at Chaffin’s Farm, led sixty members of the Washington Cadets drill and drum corps as their captain. At a reviewing stand at the intersection of Fifth and K Streets, Milton Holland sat watching the parade with orator-of-the-day Frederick Douglass at his side. Holland — the man born a slave in Panola County, Texas, and cast off from the white aristocracy by his father — now was a member of the colored elite, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the lion of abolition, watching a parade celebrating freedom. As the military units passed the reviewing stand, the colored soldiers snapped their heads toward it and saluted.

Next in the procession came the hacks filled with orators and emancipation committee members. What followed were decorated wagons – “chariots” – representing civic groups and labor organizations, with many of the groups having their chosen queens dressed as goddesses. There were wagonloads of brick masons, as well as oyster-shuckers. There was one open car “handsomely decorated from which the rain had driven the gods and goddesses, whose seats were occupied by grave-looking colored men carrying umbrellas.” The Goddess of Liberty traveled in a covered car provided by the Knights of Labor, an integrated union made up of skilled and unskilled laborers. In Rick’s Park chariot “a couple of beer kegs occupied prominent positions.”

That night, 2,000 people gathered in the First Congregational Church for speeches from prominent men, with Milton Holland serving as the master of ceremonies. Holland opened the evening by reading a poem written for the occasion by Republican activists Mary E. Kail, who was a poet, hymnist and newspaper editor from Ohio. The lyric, in part, read: “Sound aloud the trumpet of freedom, Let the answering echo ring, While with liberty commanding, We our heartfelt tribute bring…For the shackles had been broken, And four millions souls were free, That ‘till then had never tasted, Of the joys of liberty!”

For the African-American aristocrats of Washington, D.C., in the joys of liberty, this was the apex of their rights and power. Slavery was in the past, they had the right to vote and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed they could mingle in public with the best of white society, even if most of the home parlors were closed to them. But there was a growing dissent among the leading colored men. Some argued that freedom celebrations should be dropped and the history of slavery forgotten as too painful to remember, while others argued that the celebrations were too costly and embarrassed the race when the poor and ignorant misbehaved or got drunk in public, reinforcing white prejudices against blacks. And the blacks suffering the most were far away deep in the region from South Carolina to Texas; their repression more of an idea than a reality that northern blacks had to face.

Milton Holland was not one to forget either slavery or the ongoing suffering of African-Americans in the South. In introducing Frederick Douglass as the speaker of the evening, Holland lectured his Emancipation Day audience that theirs was a responsibility to remember slavery and to celebrate freedom: “There are those among us who sneer as such evidences of the gratitude of a people for blessing received. Grumblers, croakers, objectors, anti-date celebration, and I doubt now that when Gabriel blows the trumpet summoning the dead from the grave, there will be some who do not think the trump is pitched in the right key or see the necessity of propriety for such proceeding.”

Holland compared the Emancipation Day celebration to the Fourth of July, saying this “rises in importance as the cause of a man bereft of every right, robbed of every privilege, driven out from the society of men and forced to find his legal status with the beasts of the field …It is well that with full and grateful hearts you celebrate its return. Teach your children its importance, and hold it in high and sacred remembrance. Prize it as your dearest legacy from man and cherish it as the richest gift of God.” Then he introduced Douglass as “a man whose name is inseparable with the cause we celebrate.”

Taking the stage, the sixty-five-year-old Douglass told the audience that he wished one of the younger men had been chosen as the orator of the night. “I represent the past, they the present. I represent the downfall of slavery, they the glorious triumphs of liberty. I speak of deliverance from bondage, they speak of concessions to liberty and equality. Their mission begins where my mission ends.” Douglass acknowledged that the Republican Party was not as strong as it once was, and alluded to the Democrats taking a majority in the U.S. House elections the previous year but he had faith in the continued future of the GOP as a friend of African-Americans. “The sky of the American Negro is dark, but not rayless; it is story, but not cheerless.” Douglass said the future of the race seemed to face either relocation to Africa, “extinction though poverty, disease and death” or assimilation. Colonization was impractical, he said, and extinction was unacceptable. “There is but one destiny, it seems to me, left for us, and that is to make ourselves and be made by others a part of the American people in every sense of the word. Assimilation and not isolation is our true policy and our natural destiny.”

On Emancipation Day 1883, assimilation must have seemed possible for the colored aristocracy of the District of Columbia; equality was just around the corner. But the divisions caused by petty personal infighting and the weight of white prejudice in politics was about to erode the ground beneath them, leaving African-Americans living in a separate and unequal land for two-thirds of a century. And the U.S. Supreme Court was about to wipe away the protections they had under the Civil Rights Act of 1875.


That fall, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion declaring the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. The court said Congress only had the power to regulate civil rights in the District of Columbia and the territories, not the states. The decision, in essence, endorsed discrimination.

Milton Holland quickly organized a meeting to discuss the Supreme Court action and what could be done about it. “We don’t propose to make this a party question. It will be a meeting of people without regard to color or party,” he said. Holland said civil rights, to him, were identical to the personal rights protected by the Constitution.

More than 3,000 people packed into Lincoln Hall, jamming the stairs and leaving standing room only. Extra police were on duty to maintain order. Holland called the meeting to order and turned it over to the Reverend Francis Grimke for the invocation, but before Grimke could begin white abolitionist Robert G. Ingersoll entered the hall, setting off a wild ovation. Grimke then thanked God for the progress of the colored race and asked for devine help in breaking down the remaining prejudice and caste that still existed. Frederick Douglass gave a short speech, saying the colored people of American had been sickened with a pain like someone trampling on their mother’s grave. He said only mean and base whites would see justice in the court’s ruling.

Ingersoll, an ally of Republican presidential candidate James Blaine, then delivered a speech from a fifty-page document he had written. The speech was a combination of a lawyer’s plea and a radical’s exposition: “What are “the fundamental rights, privileges and immunities” which belong to a free man? Certainly the rights of all citizens of the United States are equal. Their immunities and privileges must be the same. He who makes a discrimination between citizens on account of color, violates the Constitution of the United States.” Ingersoll closed with passion, “it is very easy to see why colored people should hate us, but why we should hate them is beyond my comprehension. They never sold our wives. They never robbed our cradles. They never scarred our backs. They never pursued us with bloodhounds. They never branded our flesh…The colored people do not ask for revenge — they simply ask for justice.”

For the District’s black elite, the most vivid example that injustice was returning to their lives occurred on Christmas Eve. Milton Holland was among the men who had set up a Ball and Reception for the colored ladies at the Washington Rifles Armory, the hall of a white military group. About one hundred carriages started arriving at the armory around 9:30 p.m. with young men and women in their finest clothes. They discovered the doors locked. They were told they could not have access to the armory “on account of color.” And what made it worse was the fact the Washington Rifles was not an organization of white Democrats but was in fact Republican. Holland and the others on the organizing committee had gotten word in advance of this potential insult and had booked an alternate hall. From the doorway of the armory, they directed the crowds to the other location, “where a most pleasant time was enjoyed.” The evening was saved. But for Milton Holland, the Washington Rifles Armory was just one more door slammed shut in his face and signaled greater racial divisions yet to come – even with the whites he had once considered as allies in the fight for freedom and equality.