As the last enslaved people living in New York State were officially freed on July 4th, 1827, celebrations reigned.
According to the New-York Spectator, people packed the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on the corner of Church and Leonard Streets in Manhattan. The major societies for the support and liberation of African American people were there. Banners and flags festooned the church. “Several hymns written for the occasion were sung.”
Portraits of John Jay, a founder of the Manumission Society who had himself owned five people until 1800, and Matthew Clarkson, who introduced a bill for the gradual end of slavery to the New York State Legislature, were hung near a bust of Daniel D. Tompkins, who as Governor of New York had proposed this date as the day for emancipation.
“LIBERTY! Oh Liberty! where thou art resisted and irritated, thou are terrible as the raging sea, and dreadful as a tornado. But where thou art listened to, and obeyed, thou art gentle as the purling stream that meanders through the mead. … Thou hast loosened the hard bound fetters by which we were held; and by a voice sweet as the music of heaven, yet strong and powerful, reaching to the extreme boundaries of the state of New-York, hath declared that we the people of color, the sons of Africa, are FREE! …
“This day the state of New-York regenerated herself — this day has she been cleansed of a most foul, poisonous and damnable stain. … Yes, my brethren, in this state we have been advertised, and bought and sold like any commodity. In this state we have suffered cruelly; suffered by imprisonment, by whipping, and by scourging. …
“My brethren. Our enemies have assumed various attitudes: sometimes they have worn a daring front, [saying] the Negros have no souls, they are not men. Sometimes, in more mild form they say they are a species inferior to white men. … It is hard breathing in their atmosphere.”
His address so described the moment that it was published in full later that year. One can’t help but hear the awful parallels to today’s struggle against racism and police brutality.
Echoes of Slavery
Last year, I wrote about the double-anniversary of the Fourth of July in New York State. At the time I asked “What is the Fourth of July to the unjustly incarcerated or the racially profiled or those targeted by a newly-assertive white-supremist movement? Can we celebrate and organize for social justice and win true equality for all? In order to understand our history we must take into consideration the echoes of slavery as well as present-day sins that still weigh heavily on the nation.”
This year, the murder by Minneapolis police officers of George Floyd who begged for his life and breath, has resulted in a national and international protest movement against racism that seeks to redefine how justice, law, and policing are carried out in society. The massive gatherings have expanded the Black Lives Matter movement which grew out of the 2013 protests against the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. In 2014, the deaths at the hands of police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City led to large growth of the movement. Both Missouri and New York are former slave states. Militant street demonstrations and peaceful protests are one of the historical forces moving society forward.
On this July 4th, it’s time to demand that the United States live up to its own rhetoric that all are created equal. Can we make the words of William Hamilton come true? “Thou hast entwined and bound fast the cruel hand of oppression — thou hast by the powerful charm of reason, deprived the monster of his strength — he dies, he sinks to rise no more.”
Photos, from above: Mother A. M. E. Zion Church historical marker; map showing AME Zion Church on the southwest corner of Leonard and Church Streets; and the published oration by William Hamilton.