Juneteenth and More: Celebrating Regional Black Civic Holidays

Kabria Baumgartner

A copy of the 1768 petition from white Salem residents regarding the “great disorder” associated with Negro Election Day. Courtesy of Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

This past Juneteenth was like no other as print and digital media turned the spotlight on the historic day, some 155 years ago, when enslaved people in Texas celebrated their emancipation. African Americans across the nation have long embraced the day, but this year companies like Hulu and Nike took notice amid growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. On July 24, 2020, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker signed a bill recognizing Juneteenth as an official state holiday.

The fanfare accompanying this year’s Juneteenth, however, may have obscured the fact that it’s actually one of a handful of vibrant Black public celebrations in the United States. African Americans boast a history of establishing their own holidays that honor their heritage, culture, and traditions. Such a holiday was born in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, and it’s called Negro Election Day. In 2019, Massachusetts state senators Joan B. Lovely and Bruce E. Tarr introduced Bill S.1880 to make Black Picnic Day/Negro Election Day an official state holiday on the third Saturday in July. This legislation is now pending in the state house.

So, what was Negro Election Day?

Though no documents written by Blacks about the origins of the holiday have yet been found, remarks from white observers centuries ago provide some insights. The first documented reference came from Benjamin Lynde, a white lawyer, who wrote in his diary in May 1741: “Fair weather, Election; Negro’s hallowday [holiday] here at Salem.” Most white residents did not understand this holiday nor did they care to learn about it; to some, it just parodied white elections. Such celebrations actually bothered white Salem residents who petitioned the city in 1768 to “regulate,” what they deemed, “a great Disorder . . . [of] Negroes assembling together.”[1] But this holiday was anything but a disorder.

For Blacks, Negro Election Day was an ode to a west African past and an expression of Black joy amid the horrors of enslavement. Enslaved and free Blacks celebrated in grand fashion, beating their drums, firing guns, carrying swords, dancing, and shouting. They also elected their own leader. Though this rival Black election was mostly ceremonial, it became an alternative way to exercise civic virtue. King Pompey was one such elected leader. A formerly enslaved man who claimed African royal lineage, he welcomed Blacks from neighboring towns to his property in Lynn, for merriment and community.

Similar celebrations occurred throughout New England, from Connecticut to New Hampshire. Salem’s Negro Election Day continued through the nineteenth century. In June 1817, William Bentley, a white minister, described a Black servant girl in his home as “too restless . . . to be of any use” as she eagerly awaited the festivities.[2] For Black children, men, and women, Negro Election Day became one of the most important days of the year.

A view of the stage at Salem Willows Park during the 2018 Black Picnic Day celebration. Author’s collection.

Negro Election Day was held annually for at least 76 years. Then it apparently stopped. Historian Joseph Reidy explains that as African American activists fought for full suffrage, Negro Election Day, with its ties to symbolic political participation, actually undermined their efforts.[3] Perhaps the holiday continued, on a smaller scale and outside of the purview of whites.

In the 1870s, hundreds of African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churchgoers from Chelsea, Lynn, and Salem began an annual gathering at the historic Salem Willows Park in Massachusetts for fun and fellowship. In 1894, for example, thousands of people descended upon this park for a “national convention, a celebration of emancipation, and a picnic.”[4]The Colored People’s Picnic had been established. The historical record does not yet support an assertion that Negro Election Day became the Colored People’s Picnic, but continued archival work might shed some more light on this. Even if these two holidays are not one in the same, they are surely linked to a tradition of Black public celebrations in New England. By the twentieth century, the Colored People’s Picnic was in full swing with jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway entertaining crowds. The emphasis on civic activism continued over the decades, too. In 1982, then-Massachusetts governor Edward King visited the annual celebration to meet and appeal to Black voters.

Doreen Wade’s nonprofit group, Salem United, currently organizes Black Picnic Day.[5] Wade sees a usable history in Negro Election Day because it represents black self-governing. “It is our voter convention day,” she explained to me. In 2018, I facilitated a community conversation about the holiday. Over fifty people convened at the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts for this conversation. I remember that one audience member, who identified himself as Middle Eastern, recalled the wonderful welcome he and other immigrants received at the Black Picnic Day celebration. “It was one of the most beautiful experiences I had being here [in the United States] less than a year at that time [1983],” he said.[6] With a nod to its civic roots, the annual event usually features a voter registration booth on-site. The pandemic forced this year’s celebration to go virtual, but next year promises to be the biggest yet, as Salem United will mark the 280th anniversary of the first documented Negro Election Day celebration.

Commemorating Juneteenth as a Massachusetts state holiday was long overdue. And Juneteenth will probably become a federal holiday, and rightfully so. But let us keep the local in mind, too. The Massachusetts legislature should pass Bill S.1880 now. Doing so honors the rich tradition of Black public celebrations while also encouraging New Englanders, especially, to learn the local history of Black suffrage. (This year is, by the way, the 150th anniversary of the 14th amendment and 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment). The history of Negro Election Day in the present affirms that the right of all to vote is fundamental to our democracy.


Endnotes

[1] “To the Selectmen of the Town of Salem . . . [1768],” Salem Town Records Collection, Salem State University Archives, MA.

[2] William Bentley, The Diary of William Bentley, D.D. Pastor of the East Church Salem, Massachusetts, (Salem, MA, 1914), 4: 457.

[3] Joseph Reidy, “Negro Election Day and Black Community Life in New England, 1750‒1860,” Marxist Perspectives (Fall 1978), 102 and 108. See also Shane White, “‘It Was a Proud Day:’ African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741‒1834,” Journal of American History 81 (June 1994), 13‒50.

[4] “Colored Convention,” Boston Globe, July 27, 1894.

[5] Full disclosure: I am a member of this organization.

[6] “The History of Salem Black Picnic [Community Conversation],” House of the Seven Gables, July 26, 2018.

17 August 2020

About the Author

Kabria Baumgartner is associate professor of American studies at the University of New Hampshire.

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