Those celebrating the Fourth of July in southern states today owe a debt to the emancipated African Americans who conserved the region’s patriotic inheritance in place of whites who abandoned them in those first postbellum years.
“Whereas whites expressed little interest in celebrating the Fourth following the surrender of General Lee’s forces, the new black ‘freedmen’ celebrations that took place throughout the South played a major role in assuring the Independence Day traditions of former times remained intact,” James R. Heintze writes in The Fourth of July Encyclopedia. “On July 4, 1865, in Raleigh, North Carolina, a large African-American parade that included a brass band processed from Guion Hotel to the ‘African Church’ where those assembled heard speeches and sang songs. In Newbern, North Carolina, on July 4, 1866, a parade hosted a ‘Freedman’s Bureau’ wagon covered with an immense American flag.”
That same encyclopedia notes many other occasions across the decades when the Fourth of July inspired attempts at patriotic unity amid difference. The nation’s July 4, 1876, centennial provided an occasion for North-South reconciliation, with Virginians raising the Star-Spangled Banner over the state capitol building in Richmond for the first time in 16 years. Also that year, Representative William T. Avery declared in a Memphis, Tennessee, oration, “This Fourth of July is a common heritage: it belongs to no North, no South, no East, no West.”
On July 4, 1890, a march of 2,000 Confederate veterans in Chattanooga, Tennessee, concluded with former Confederate General John B. Gordon declaring that slavery was wrong and that the Confederacy had been on the wrong side of the Civil War.
In 1915, Frederic C. Howe, commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island, successfully urged cities to host July Fourth “Americanization Day” celebrations to welcome and honor new citizens. The Immigrants in America Review declared, “If American ideals and purposes are to be fully realized, the barriers that separate the newly naturalized citizen from the native born must be swept aside.”
On July 4, 1922, Wisconsin’s governor gave clemency to every man in Wisconsin prisons “incarcerated due ‘directly or indirectly’ to causes borne out of service to the nation.” The following year, Oklahoma’s governor gave a July 4 clemency “and used the occasion to express his dislike for capital punishment.”
Starting in 1961, even Soviet authorities sent conciliatory Fourth of July messages to the United States in hopes of reducing Cold War tensions, with Nikita Khrushchev attending a 1962 celebration at the American embassy in Moscow.
After the tumult of the late 1960s and early ’70s, Americans seized on the bicentennial of the declaration as an occasion that could bring healing. They may have been riven by the events of the recent past, but could unite around the spirit of ’76. A man quoted in The Washington Post, a computer specialist named Bob Peloquin of Springfield, Massachusetts, summed up the effect of bicentennial festivities on many: “This has rejuvenated my faith in America,” he said. “After Vietnam and Watergate, people were afraid to wave the flag. Maybe with the Bicentennial, people can come out of their shell and say, ‘We’ve made some mistakes, but let’s go on from here.’”
The principles of the declaration are still there to unite us, even amid the persistent divisions that define this moment. Much more so than in 1776, there is a widely held belief that all humans are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Happy birthday, America.