There is nothing quite like the beauty of Fourth of July fireworks lighting up the dark sky in an array of color on a hot summer night. This Saturday, Americans across the country will celebrate the 244th year of the United States’ independence with their annual cookouts and family gatherings. While we congregate once again, it is important to also remember that for the first 155 years of American independence, freedom was legally limited to white citizens, creating an inexcusable irony with “Independence Day.”
Frederick Douglass laid out this unjust irony to a mostly white crowd at a Fourth of July celebration in Rochester, New York in 1852: “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? …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… Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…”
The 4th of July for African Americans in the year 1776 was not worth celebrating. But on July 4, 1863, Independence Day marked the beginning of the end of America’s slave-holding. For three days, from July 1 to 3, two mighty armies clashed in the most massive battle of the war on the fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Subsequently, Vicksburg, Mississippi, fell on July 4, 1863, splitting the Confederacy in half. While the war dragged on until 1865, most historians believe the Confederacy came to its end on July 4, 1863.
Following the end of the Civil War, the Fourth of July started to be viewed by many African Americans in a new light, and “the nation’s four million newly emancipated citizens transformed Independence Day into a celebration of black freedom. The Fourth became an almost exclusively African American holiday in the states of the former Confederacy… Confederate sympathizers had little desire to celebrate the Fourth now that they were back in the Union and slavery was no more… African Americans, meanwhile, embraced the Fourth like never before. From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment…” These celebrations largely reflected the ones we have today “until white Southerners, after violently reasserted their dominance of the region, snuffed these black commemorations out…” For example, in Charleston, South Carolina’s “White Point Garden, freedwomen joined freedmen in annual performances of songs and dances, including one called the ‘Too-la-loo’ that had subversive meaning… The Too-la-loo allowed ex-slaves to poke fun at the elite courtship rituals of their former masters while also engaging in a raucous celebration of their own emancipation… Beginning in 1881, Charleston city leaders pushed Too-la-loo to parks further and further away from downtown until finally, in 1886, they succeeded in removing it from the peninsula altogether.”
For some, the holiday became not as big of a deal, also due to economic oppression. Activist Fannie Lee Brown (1954 – ) explained how for her family in Georgia, the holiday was not always a major celebration: “There were times because we were so poor we worked in the morning of July 4th and then had a little bit of celebration in–in the afternoon. And there were some times where we didn’t have anything on the Fourth of July. But when we did they were festive.” Similarly, Spike Lee’s father-in-law George Lewis (1941 – ) recalled while growing up in Virginia: “Fourth of July wasn’t a big deal, everybody was working, all the black people were working.”
Still, for many, Fourth of July celebrations were synonymous with fireworks and family cookouts. Former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, Jay Harris (1948 – ) takes us down memory lane: “You could see the fireworks from our back porch on the Fourth of July… you could look down and you could see the capitol; you could see the Washington Monument until they built [Benjamin] Banneker [Academic High School.” Brig. Gen. Elmer T. Brooks (1932 – ) adds: “We would always have a bag of fireworks that everyone had on the block. You’d take out your shopping bag and you would light your fireworks with Roman candles and the sparklers and … we had to go over to Rhode Island to buy them; you couldn’t buy them in Massachusetts… the cherry bombs and things were illegal;  Dentist Dr. Enrique A. Riggs (1943 – ) shares additional memories: “[We would] sit out on the stoop and just watch all the fireworks. Kids across the street, up the block, down the block firecrackers and cherry bombs. You know put the little cherry bomb on the ground and you put a soda can on top of it, you light it up, bomb and watch the can go up.”
TV Journalist Renee Ferguson (1949 – ) recounts the time she worked at WLWI-TV in Indiana and “David Letterman was the weatherman… [and] we had a guy on the Fourth of July weekend who came in with a bunch of illegal fireworks, and he left some of them there. And Dave and I after the broadcast was over, went to the top of the station and set off those fireworks… and one of the rockets landed on a roof of a nursing home. Somebody had to call the fire department, and he called, to his great integrity, the fire department; and the evidence was there then that he had done it, and he didn’t deny it, but he didn’t give me up, and so he got fired. I was so sad. He was so happy. He was off to Hollywood.”
And let’s not forget the cookouts and camaraderie. English professor Shelby Steele (1946 – ) fondly remembered when “somebody would dig a hole in the ground and they would put hot coals in the hole and they would put a piece of wire chain link fence over it and that would be the barbecue pit and it would cook all day. Then–in the evening, you could go around for a few cents and buy a plate with some white bread…” Robert Goodwin (1948 – ) recalled how “we’d do the cookout….not just all of the immediate siblings but their friends and extended family so we could have a big crowd and my father [Edward Goodwin] would,…take great pride in grilling not just the traditional hot dogs and wieners or hamburgers but coon [raccoon] and possum and we’d never know where he came up with some of this stuff (laughter) and had to find, often excuses why we weren’t gonna try his latest specialty…” Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole (1948 – ) claimed “you didn’t have to know where I lived; you could smell the barbecue. If you came to any section in Queens, you could follow your nose, you’d be at my house and my father would actually go down and get a pig. I would have to take care of it, and then we’d kill it, scald it, scrape it, split it, barbecue it…”
For Howard Brown, Jr. (1945 – ), co-founder, chairman and CEO of Greystone Community Reinvestment Associates, the hot Fourth of July in Alabama was always spent by the lake: “We always had a big Fourth of July picnic in either–it would be around a lake, either my father’s lake or one of the uncles’ lakes and we’d invite the family, and they would invite special friends and it was always a big thing to be invited to a Brown picnic… And so there was the Fourth of July and we’d do something around the water.”
Whether you decide to celebrate the 4th of July inside, in your backyard or in a public space, please remember that this holiday for African Americans has historic and complicated roots. Today, as we witness the Robert E. Lee statue and the flag of the old Confederacy coming down across these United States, we observe a new day of freedom on this July 4, 2020. Reflect, celebrate (while social distancing) and enjoy!
 Fannie Lee Brown (The HistoryMakers A2005.069), interviewed by Regennia Williams, March 17, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Fannie Lee Brown talks about growing up with her maternal grandparents in Macon County, Georgia.
 George Lewis (The HistoryMakers A2007.247), interviewed by Adrienne Jones, September 7, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, George Lewis recalls celebrating the holidays with his family.
 Jay Harris (The HistoryMakers A2005.235), interviewed by Paul Brock, October 7, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 5, Jay Harris remembers his childhood in Washington, D.C.
Brig. Gen. Elmer T. Brooks (The HistoryMakers A2006.139), interviewed by Robert Hayden, November 10, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Brig. Gen. Elmer T. Brooks recalls celebrations during his childhood.
 Dr. Enrique A. Riggs (The HistoryMakers A2003.216), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, September 17, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 12, Dr. Enrique A. Riggs recalls his childhood in New York, New York.
Renee Ferguson (The HistoryMakers A2005.058), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 3, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 7, Renee Ferguson talks about joining WLWI-TV in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Shelby Steele (The HistoryMakers A2002.046), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 30, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Shelby Steele shares memories from his childhood.
Robert Goodwin (The HistoryMakers A2004.148), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, August 26, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Robert Goodwin describes his family’s holiday traditions.
Abiodun Oyewole (The HistoryMakers A2006.164), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, December 13, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, Abiodun Oyewole recalls barbecues at his home in Queens, New York.
 Howard Brown, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2003.184), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, August 13, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 8, Howard Brown Jr. talks about the street he grew up on and celebrating holidays with his family.
“My Skin Covers Me Very Well. I Fit In It and I Don’t Let Anyone In It.“
Robert Beale, Ph.D.