On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass asked a group of white abolitionists in Rochester, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”
The question was repeated in the fall of 2018 by incoming history majors at Virginia Tech taking the class Introduction to History.
The answers became the web site African American Fourth of July, a collection of more than 400 articles published between 1865 and 1988 in seven African American newspapers. The articles show how African American perspectives on the day that celebrates freedom and patriotism have changed over decades and how those views, as Douglass seemed to express, differed from those of white Americans.
“I answer,” Douglass is quoted on the website as saying, “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.”
Students in professor Brett Shadle’s class used databases from the Virginia Tech library to research newspapers selected to represent different locations and decades. According to a news release about the website, Shadle selected the papers to get viewpoints from the Civil War through the Civil Rights era that spanned geographic differences.
“Many of our students are from southwest Virginia,” Shadle said in a phone interview. “We have a lot of white students who may not have thought about these issues much.”
More than three dozen students transcribed articles from the Arkansas State Press (1941–1959), the Baltimore Afro-American (1893–1988), the Chicago Defender (1921–1968), the San Francisco Elevator (1865–1874), the Savannah Tribune (1876–1922), the Washington Bee (1883–1922) and the Wichita Negro Star (1920–1952).
“These are newspapers for and by African Americans,” Shadle said in a news release from Virginia Tech that promoted the website. “These are the conversations African Americans had among themselves about what their politics should be, what their patriotism should be, and what their role is in the United States.”
The website, which went live months ago but has been publicized by Virginia Tech to coincide with July 4, sorts the articles in various ways. A word cloud tags the articles by keyword and a chronology groups them by year. There also is a list of all the articles with a description of the topic.
“We can actually see the same arguments, the fight for rights, threading through the different periods,” said Shadle, chair of Virginia Tech’s Department of History. “The Fourth of July during Reconstruction was generally positive because the people are now free, and they seem to have opportunities — they can vote, and many of them hold office in the South. It’s a time of hope and possibility, and the newspapers reflected that hope.”
The students saw a change chronicled during the Jim Crow years, after 1877 and until the start of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
“The holiday seemed like a mockery,” Shadle said. “The day’s ideals were great, but not a reality for African Americans. People wanted to talk about life and liberty, but at the same time lynchings were taking place. So, they could celebrate the ideals, yet mourn their ongoing political exclusion.”
According to the website, the articles show that some African Americans viewed the Fourth as did white Americans: a day off from work to take in a ball game and cook something special for the family. Articles printed before the Jim Crow era show the political nature of African American celebrations in parades that included black military units. The newspapers also ran opinion pieces that directly address the meaning of the Fourth for African Americans.
Shadle said he got the idea for the project when a speech by Douglass made the rounds of social media. He modeled it on a project done by a colleague that looked at how newspapers in the North and South viewed Fourth of July during the Civil War.
Shadle said he would like to see his class’s project expanded upon to include how newspapers in different regions covered the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 and Juneteenth, when on June 19, 1865, slaves in Texas learned of the abolition of slavery. He said his students’ research revealed articles writing that both of those days, not July 4, represented Independence Day for African Americans.
In his speech in 1852 where he seemed to take abolitionists to task, Douglass called the celebration of American independence a sham.
“The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me,” the website quoted Douglass in his speech to abolitionists. “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”