Salt Lake City used to have a lot more parades than we do now, some spontaneous and others regularly scheduled to commemorate past events. Throughout the 1890s and into the early years of the 20th century, September 22nd was hailed as a day of thanksgiving and celebration, marked by a parade with pretty girls dressed in white and proud men marching boldly. It was “Emancipation Day,” the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 proclamation setting forth a timetable for freeing four million enslaved African-Americans.
Salt Lake City’s black citizens were very few in those years (fewer than 300 in 1900), but those pioneers enjoyed a vibrant community. They supported two newspapers (Broad Ax and Plain Dealer), two churches (Baptist and Methodist Episcopal), a social hall, fraternal societies, and black-owned businesses. The largest concentration of black residences clustered around the Methodist chapel on Franklin Avenue, a street that used to run between 2nd and 3rd South at 150 East.
Emancipation Day embodied the features of modern “Juneteenth” observances recalling the day that Texas slaves learned of their freedom. In Salt Lake, the celebration began with an afternoon parade circling from Main Street at Fourth South up to South Temple, over to State Street and back to Fourth South. The column was headed by a brass band and always included marching men followed by ladies in carriages. Sometimes marchers carried banners bearing portraits of Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass. One year there was a float bearing young girls representing the Goddess of Liberty surrounded by the states of the nation. In 1898 the special feature was a detachment of veterans returning from service in the Spanish-American War.
The parade ended at whichever hall the organizers had secured for that year’s exercises – in 1892 that was Auditorium Hall on the northeast corner of Fourth South and Third West across from Pioneer Park; another year it was a vacant storefront on Main Street across from the (then) post office. Whichever building was used, organizers always decorated the rooms with bunting, flowers, and the portraits of national figures.
A local citizen, often a clergyman, delivered a grand oration – the Rev. A.W. Tolbert of the A.M.E. Church was a favorite speaker. He rehearsed the story of black contributions to America, beginning with the first blood shed in the Revolution and leading up to the 10,000 African-Americans who had borne arms during the Civil War. The 1898 speaker was J.M. Dickerson, a soldier who had stormed San Juan Hill a few months earlier; he spoke of the bravery of black soldiers during that battle when his regiment had routed Spanish defenders.
Emancipation Day also served as a forum to debate the great questions facing African-Americans of that generation: Should they leave the United States to establish a new nation in Africa, or perhaps in Cuba? Would social equality be achieved through immediate, perhaps violent, political action, or should education and gradual economic improvement be given a chance?
Children played their part on the program every year, reading school compositions and reciting poetry. Someone usually read the Emancipation Proclamation. Sometimes there were sports in the park; one year everyone climbed aboard trolley cars and enjoyed a ride from one end of the streetcar system to the other. And every year, the celebration ended with a grand ball and the crowning of that year’s Queen.
Not surprisingly, Emancipation Day celebrants were predominantly African-American, but organizers invited all Salt Lakers to attend. The audience for speeches and recitations was often dotted with white faces. Dr. T.C. Iliff of the Methodist church delivered a speech in 1892. John Held, Salt Lake’s most noted band leader, led his musicians in one parade.
Emancipation Day was sponsored and financed by local Republicans. As political fortunes changed early in the 20th century (Democrats gained power nationally and “Americans” dominated locally), Emancipation Day disappeared from our streets and our memories.