What's Left Ypsilanti

Emancipation Day

Matt Siegfried
Emancipation Day Parade in Amherstburg, Ontario, Late 1800s.

“That morning visitors from neighboring towns arrived on every train, although not in any great numbers. Most of the visitors came from Ann Arbor and Jackson, with a few coming from Toledo. The procession formed at 10:00 am at the corner of Adams and Congress, now Michigan Avenue. The procession marched down Michigan Avenue and then up River Street to the railroad depot at Cross and River, meeting trains from both ways. The procession then formed on Cross Street and marched to Huron Street, then to Michigan Avenue, and then to the Fair Grounds, now Recreation Park, where the celebration was held.

“The notable feature of the procession was the wagon of girls, each dressed in white, wearing the red, white and blue. The Goddess of Liberty sat at the pinnacle of the pyramid shaped wagon. Each wore the name of some state. The procession was headed by the Dexter Juvenile Band, who furnished the music for the occasion. The boys gave good satisfaction,” noted the Ypsilanti Commercial. August 6, 1886.

In the social and political life of nineteenth-century African-American Ypsilanti, no day was more important than the 1st of August, Emancipation Day. The day commemorated the 1834 ending of slavery, with some major caveats, in the British Empire. The act was the greatest legal victory over slavery up to that time and invigorated the abolitionist movement here and around the world. Most important to the Caribbean possessions of the Empire, it also included what is now Canada, and, in the eyes of anti-slavery activists, shamed the ‘democratic’ government of the United States for its continuing expansion of slavery.

Abolitionists in the United States began commemorating the day immediately with speeches, marches, and gatherings. Before the Civil War, August 1st was the most important day in the abolitionist calendar. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and the 1857 Dred Scott decision increased the energy and activity of abolitionists and made the day an important counterpoint to the increasing power of slavery in the United States. Canada became the primary destination of freedom-seekers as the ‘Underground Railroad’ saw many hundreds travel through Michigan, and Ypsilanti, on their way to the relative safety of Black settlements and communities in Ontario. Ypsilanti’s deep ties to those Canadian settlements are highlighted by the longevity and importance of the celebration and well as innumerable family and social connections.

Banner used by legendary abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison

While that tradition was overtaken by the events of the Civil War with commemorations like January 1st (the day in 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect) and Juneteenth became important nationally, in Ypsilanti it was August 1st that continued to be commemorated well into the twentieth century. The day remains a major event in Canada and the Caribbean. Responsibility for hosting the day was rotated through the African-American communities of southeast Michigan, Ontario and northwest Ohio. Ypsilantians were both participants and organizers, and on off-years travelled en masse, with hundreds from Ypsilanti visited other cities for the celebration.

In the early decades, celebrating Emancipation Day was overtly political, even revolutionary, act. The day was used as a moment to take stock of the state of the struggle against slavery and pronounce the aims of the movement to the world. It was a day in which activists would gather together, trade information, protest and plan actions. As the United States became more hostile and whole ‘free’ Black communities in the north relocated to Canada, the day became even more of a focus for activists.

August 1st was so important that soldiers from the Michigan-raised 102nd United States Colored Troops celebrated it during the Civil War while in the field, even after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, the day in 1864 was commemorated by the issuing of new rifles and leaving for their first foray into the battle from their base on the Sea Islands of South Carolina into the interior of Florida on a raiding expedition. Well after the war, Michigan’s Black veterans were at the center of organizing for August 1st events, using the day for regimental reunions with old comrades and rededicating themselves to the cause for which they fought.

Ypsilanti Commercial. July 29, 1876.

After the war, the day expanded and even became something like an unofficial holiday in Ypsilanti. People took the day off work, and since Black labor was central to many area businesses, work in the city stopped on August 1st. Often, important local and national figures would attend. After the 15th amendment won Black men the vote, numerous office seekers also came to court the new voters. White mayors, governors, military officers and congressmen from near and far were sometimes speakers; they were mostly Republicans, but even some Democrats of the time felt the need to attend. On occasion, more than five thousand people joined activities, including many hundreds traveling to the city from surrounding states and Canada.

Among the important Reconstruction-era Black political leaders to speak were local barber Sanford H. Wells, Mississippi leader and former Ypsilantian H.P. Jacobs, John D. Richards of Detroit, Ypsilanti’s first Black lawyer John H. Fox, educator and leading Prince Hall Mason Isaac Burdine, Martin R. Delany “The Father of Black Nationalism”, North Carolina Congressman James E. O’Hara, Mississippi Congressman John R. Lynch, Detroit leaders Augustus Straker, and anti-lynching crusader from Chicago, Reverend D.A. Graham.

Emancipation Day trains from Ypsilanti to Detroit, 1906.

Local organizing was often done through societies like the Good Samaritans, the Michigan Mutual Benefit Society, the Knights of Pythia, and lodges of the Prince Hall Masons. These societies could call on members and resources from around the state and the region— local organizers like barbers Al DeHazen and Exum Johnson, the restaurateur and band leader Thomas Roadman, and the lawyer John H. Fox. Often the gathering would meet on Buffalo and Adams Street, march to the train station in Depot Town to greet arriving guests, then up the hill with floats, banners, and signs to what is now Recreation Park. There the multitude heard speeches, played games, watched horse races, and had a grand picnic. In the evening, the crowds would move back downtown to gather at the Light Guard Hall (where “Mix” is now) for dancing, a cake walk, and merrymaking until the early hours.

As the generation that campaigned against slavery, fought in the Civil War, and won rights during Reconstruction passed away and the gains of those tremendous struggles were drowned in violence and the rise of Jim Crow, celebrations changed: becoming less overtly radical, more social, and more politcally conservative. Windsor, Ontario, where so many freedom-seekers settled before the Civil War, became the site of the largest regional gatherings, with special trains chartered from Ypsilanti to bring hundreds to the festivities. Ypsilantians regularly participated in these events until around World War Two.

Emancipation Day notice. Ypsilanti Commercial, 1900.

In the second half of the twentieth century commemorations like Juneteenth captured the imagination of many, however this region continued to celebrate their own unique history and traditions connected to Canada and the Underground Railroad. The commemoration is still very much alive in Caribbean countries like Barbados, Trinidad, and Jamaica, as it is in Canada where Emancipation Day remains a major yearly commemoration. While it has been decades since the last August 1st was celebrated here, people from Michigan still travel to Canada, including to Buxton, Ontario, for homecomings and August 1st, Emancipation Day, to this day.

For more on the history of August 1st and its legacy read Rites of August First: Emancipation Day in the Black Atlantic World by J. R. Kerr-Ritchie. For an archive of articles on Ypsilanti’s celebrations see: South Adams Street @ 1900: Emancipation Day

Back to Top