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Freedom of Assembly: Online exhibit showcases little-known Emancipation Day marches and celebrations

March 14, 2013

On April 3, 1905, a photographer from the Detroit Publishing Co. captured hundreds of African Americans parading through the streets of Richmond, Va. The photo made it onto a postcard. Years later, an archivist for VCU Libraries spotted the postcard on an auction website. After a little digging, it inspired "Timeline of Emancipation Day Celebrations," a new online exhibit from James Branch Cabell Library's Special Collections and Archives. The focus is on how African-Americans in Richmond have celebrated their freedom over the last 150 years.

"The date, April 3, was on the image, so...we had a look at the white and African- American newspapers at the time to see what the coverage was for this parade," said Archives Coordinator Ray Bonis. He found that the parade was part of an Emancipation Day celebration held by Richmond's African-American community on the anniversary of the fall of Richmond. The parades began on April 3, 1866, one year after the fall of Richmond and just over three years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  

These celebrations also relate to recent efforts by Richmond's Elegba Folklore Society to celebrate Juneteenth National Freedom Day, which commemorates the day slaves in Texas learned they were free. Bonis is working with the Folklore Society to include their coverage of these celebrations in the exhibit as well. 

Bonis discovered the story behind the 1905 image almost 10 years ago, but work on the larger exhibit only began last summer. The exhibit covers every documented emancipation celebration from 1865 to 2012 and was launched as part of VCU's "Year of Freedom" initiative, and is the only exhibit of its kind to focus on a single city.

"This year is the year of emancipation, and that's in some ways the most important event in American history," said John Kneebone, the chair of the "Year of Freedom" committee. "African-American Richmonders didn't have the resources, the power or the money to take up public space, yet they too celebrated their history and tried to keep alive the memory of emancipation." The photos and newspaper articles in Timeline of Emancipation prove just that.

Danielle Tarullo, a recent art history graduate and a research assistant in Special Collections and Archives, investigated the history of these celebrations through VCU Libraries' collection of The Richmond Planet, the city's major African-American newspaper, and digitized newspapers from the Library of Congress.

"In the beginning it was very much a parade through town," Tarullo said. "Sometimes the routes were given in the newspapers, and a lot of times they would end at the governor's steps or on the capitol steps - places that it was very important that they show they had the right to go. ... But in the later Emancipation Day celebrations it became less about walking through the city and more about gathering at one central location."

Though the manner of the celebrations changed over time, their continued existence was a testament to their importance for the African American community, according to Lauranett Lee, curator of African-American History at the Virginia Historical Society.

"Immediately after the war, it really says something about the determination of people to have Emancipation Day celebrations, because most of the white people did not want them to do this," Lee said. "Even in the nadir between 1890 and 1920, when a great deal of lynching occurred, they continued holding these parades and celebrations."

In fact, according to Tarullo, the celebrations held strong until the 1950s and 1960s, at which point the African-American community's focus shifted to civil rights and to honoring  Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination.

But the exhibit shows more than the importance of commemorating emancipation. Lee said photos like these represent an important shift in the African-American community.

"[Before the Civil War] you did not see photographs of black people in mass like this," Lee said. "This was something that whites feared. So to have photographs of black people marching says a great deal about how they want to be seen, and the fact that they could gather and march in public as a people.

And for Bonis, the exhibit is a reminder of history that is not so far in the past.

 

"That photo is from 1905. That's just two or three generations away," he said. "So for a lot of Richmonders, their great-grandparents participated in these marches. With this website they can learn more about it, explore the topic itself, and tell others about it."

 

To view the exhibit, visit http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/vbha/freedom.html. The information was gathered from a variety of sources but mostly from newspaper accounts from Richmond newspapers. Chronicling America, the Library of Congress' online resource of digital versions of American newspapers, was instrumental in that research. Other sources included journal articles, monographs, and the microfilm versions of late 19th and 20th century newspapers. Additional items will be added to this site as new information is uncovered. Members of the community are invited to emailSpecial Collections and Archives  additions to the information as well as personal observations and questions. Visit this site for additional Resources on Slavery in Richmond.

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