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Emancipation Day (Utah history)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 12, 2008

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.



6 Comments »

  1. Ardis, you keep coming up with just great stuff. I was aware of Juneteenth celebrations in Texas, but had never heard of this. It’s also very interesting that the Republicans were the sponsors of this. My understanding is that originally, most Mormons in Illinois had been supporters of Stephen Douglas over Abraham Lincoln, and more linked to the Democrats of the 1840’s, which would have made the Republicans the minority party in Utah for the balance of the 19th Century, and up to the 1950s in the 20th Century. Certainly things have changed in many ways.

    Comment by kevinf — June 12, 2008 @ 11:56 am

  2. kevinf — thanks, I try! Certainly “the Democracy” was the logical party for the Mormons to join once they did away with the People’s Party in Utah preparatory to statehood, and the Democrats did dominate for a long time (legends to the contrary about wards that were split by a leaders telling everybody on *this* side of the aisle to register Republican, and everybody on *that* side to register Democrat). The national Republican party had been responsible for all the anti-polygamy legislation, the Edmunds and Edmunds-Tucker acts, the setting up of the Utah Commission, the escheatment of church property, the anti-Mormon-immigration policies. On a local level, because Utah was still a territory, the appointed officers who ran Utah to a great degree were appointed by Republicans — the tax assessors and collectors, the men in the land offices, the judges and law enforcement and inspectors of all kinds. Mormons were very, very aware of the Republican politics of those who oppressed them, and the first elections in Utah were heavily Democratic … until Joseph F. Smith, John Henry Smith, and other Mormon officials went Republican (for reasons that I still do not understand, despite the dissertations that have been written).

    The Emancipation Day celebrations, though, were not of course chiefly Mormon. The Republican party contributed funds and food and transportation, and the publicity generated by the genuine pride and pleasure of the participants was good for politics.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 12, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

  3. Thanks, Ardis, for this bit of history. I also find the political shift in that time period interesting. And I always enjoy stories and history of minority groups in the West.

    Comment by Researcher — June 12, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  4. Fascinating. Thanks so much for all this stuff, Ardis. Where do you find the energy?

    Comment by Rick Grunder — June 12, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

  5. #4 – She gets it from the cape.

    Comment by Ray — June 12, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

  6. He, he, he! Thanks, Researcher, Rick, Ray. Do you know how frustrating it is to come across bits of fun and important history like this and not be able to share it with anybody — or if you do share it, you can tell that you’re boring some poor soul to death? Writing it up and having a place to post it for people to read only if they want to or because they’re being nice to me, is a relief. Then your comments are the frosting.

    Hanging up my cape for the evening, now.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 12, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

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