Juneteenth is linked to the end of the Civil War. The celebration started a century earlier in R.I.

Timeline of emancipation marks the resilience of African heritage people past and present.

June 19, 2023 5:00 am

An 1890 photo of Rev. Van Horne in his Newport study at 47 John St., Newport, with portraits of Washington and Toussaint Louverture hanging on his walls. (Colletion of Rhode Island Black Heritage Society)

Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of enslaved people in America with the end of the Civil War. It originated in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, but the tradition of marking the end of slavery with emancipation celebrations has much earlier beginnings. 

Celebrations of formerly enslaved people marking the sacred moment of their freedom date back to the Haitian Revolution when Haiti became a sovereign state in 1804. This was a successful insurrection and self-emancipation against French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue. Haiti is the only country where freedom was taken by force, marking the only successful slave revolt in contemporary history.

The British Slavery Abolition Act took effect on Aug. 1, 1834, abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire. Each year on Aug. 1, major Emancipation Day celebrations are organized across the West Indies and American cities, recognizing the historical importance of freedom as a fundamental human right.

An 1854 pamphlet describing an emancipation celebration in Providence. (Collection of the Rhode Island Black Historical Society)

Possibly the earliest incidence of large-scale slave emancipation by statutory act occurred during the American Revolution. On July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. The following year, Vermont was the first of the 13 colonies to abolish slavery, soon to be followed by Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New York. This “First Emancipation” not only set African enslavement on a course toward extinction in America but would also create a new and large population of thousands of free Africans in America, many in New England.

Starting in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1780, free African heritage people began constructing mutual aid organizations to promote and protect their inalienable rights. One of their first acts as free men was the establishment of America’s first civic institutions that would become the guiding light for all African heritage people moving from enslavement to freedom. These “African Union Societies” are established in Newport, Providence, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The African Societies all believed in the benefits of organizing around the shared values of African identity, freedom, and justice. The importance of African identity can be seen in the ceremonial dress at public parades and gatherings in Providence, as recounted in 1819 by African heritage resident William J. Brown in his memoirs:

“The African Societies wore their regalia. The President of the societies, who was their commander, was dressed to represent an African chief, having on a red pointed cap, and carried an elephant’s tusk in each hand; each end was tipped with gilt. The other officers carried emblems decked with lemons and oranges, representing the fruits of Africa and other emblems.”

From the mid-19th century, Providence, Newport, and East Providence were early sites for major Emancipation Day celebrations and festivities in Rhode Island. During the 20th century, tens of thousands attended Emancipation Day events at Roger Williams Park, Rocky Point, and Crescent Park. The African heritage community of Newport actively participated in Emancipation Day celebrations led by the Union Congregational and Mount Olivet Baptist Churches and many civic and masonic organizations. 

Today's Juneteenth celebrations marking the legal end of slavery in America emerged from the August traditions among African heritage communities within the broader African Diaspora and the free African organizations prominently active in Providence and Newport, Rhode Island.

An early and influential African centric interpretation of the importance of emancipation and freedom comes from two African heritage political leaders of the 19th century, joined together with their vision of what the famous scholar W.E.B. DuBois described as a “Double Consciousness” of being part of a nation and the broader African Diaspora. In Haiti, Louis Modestin Florville Hyppolite, president between 1889 and 1896, stated:

“The history of the world shows that no race can develop unless it develops itself; No race can be free unless the means of freedom are in its own hands; And no white people can look at a rich country inhabited by Negroes without desiring to secure it for themselves.”

In Rhode Island, Reverend Mahlon Van Horne, a Republican activist, would become the first person of color elected to the Newport school board in 1873 and later to the Rhode Island House of Representatives. In 1897, he was appointed by President William McKinley to serve as United States Consul General in the Danish West Indies. Van Horne was a student of the Haitian Revolution and would proudly display portraits of two founders of free nations — Toussaint Louverture and George Washington — in his Newport home. The introduction to his 1887 historical narrative, “The Negro in Rhode Island: His Past, Present, and Future,” captures the bitter irony of the often-touted religious freedom established in Rhode Island that would simultaneously include the enslavement of Africans. His words then are at the very core of the racial divide that still consumes Rhode Island and America today:

“The Negro was landed in America not to catch the spirit of liberty and religious freedom which the Puritans expected. His was to be an entirely different experience. The Puritan would be schooled in the things that would draw out his self-reliant individuality in all matters pertaining to manhood. The Negro was to live in the Christian home and upon the rich plantation of the now favored pilgrim, yet the Negro is impressed with the fact by teachers in the schools, the pulpit, and the press that his destiny was to be a hero of wood and drawer of water. That his individuality was to be the personality of his master.”

Today’s Juneteenth celebrations marking the legal end of slavery in America emerged from the August traditions among African heritage communities within the broader African Diaspora and the free African organizations prominently active in Providence and Newport, Rhode Island. Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Liberia are among many countries that continue to observe slavery emancipation. Knowing this deep and rich history of African-led emancipation celebrations is essential in recognizing the resilience of African heritage people past and present. 

Suppose we treat the Juneteenth holiday as simply a day off or a day at the beach. In that case, we would fail to recognize and celebrate the importance of freedom for all Americans regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.


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Keith W. Stokes

Keith W. Stokes of Newport, vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group, served as the former director of business and economic development for the city of Providence. He was the executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, now Rhode Island Commerce and served 15 years as executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce.