Asheville Archives: Emancipation Day

FREEDOM: The YMI regularly hosted Emancipation Day celebrations throughout the early half of the 20th century. The gathering typically took place on Jan. 1. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library Asheville

On Dec. 30, 1899, The Asheville Gazette ran the following statement, issued by an unnamed committee composed of members of Asheville’s African-American community:

“Fellow citizens: Inasmuch as next Monday, January 1, 1900, marks the 37th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation, which in the exigency of war and under the providence of God was sent forth by that justly renowned and eminent man, Abraham Lincoln;

“And inasmuch as by that historic document four millions of our race were set free from bondage that they might enjoy the inalienable rights of man, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;

“And inasmuch as we men should and do most highly prize these God-given rights as being the necessary condition of our highest mental, moral and religious development;

“It would seem eminently fit and proper, therefore, that we observe, in some intelligent, public and fitting way, the anniversary of that event which makes possible to us a life of civil and religious freedom.

“To this end all our people and the lovers of liberty generally are cordially invited to meet at the Young Men’s institute in this city on Monday next, January 1, at 2:30 p.m., to take part in the celebration of the emancipation proclamation.”

It was by no means Asheville’s first Emancipation Day celebration, nor would it be the last. The earliest available account was reported 10 years prior. On Jan. 2, 1890, The Daily Citizen ran an article titled, “Emancipation Day: How it Was Celebrated by the Colored People Yesterday.” In it, the paper wrote:

“[A] procession was formed in the court square [present day Pack Square], and moved through the streets of the city headed by a very good colored brass band from Statesville, and marshalled by a great array of gaily caparisoned horsemen in all the bravery of bright colored ribbons and sashes, and a plentiful display of the stars and stripes.”

The following year, on Jan. 2, 1891, the Asheville Daily Citizen offered similar coverage of the annual event. Ambivalence marked the page:

“The colored people of Asheville and vicinity celebrated emancipation day yesterday. For a considerable portion of the afternoon they occupied the court house and the adjacent streets, almost to the exclusion of everybody else. Court house hall was pretty nearly all their own for an hour or so. Their bands, harmonizing with nature’s sodden aspect, discoursed what we doubt not was intended for music. Not any, the slightest restraint was put upon the celebration. At some points the white citizen surrendered his rights to the sidewalk and took to the street, with his life in his hand, to be liberally bespattered with mud from the feet of horses decorated with men and red-and-white sashes. It was a large day for the emancipated and we hope they enjoyed it.”

The YMI continued to host celebrations throughout the early part of the 20th century. The organization’s Jan. 1, 1901, gathering featured music, readings and prayer. The event’s keynote speaker was the Rev. C.C. Somerville, the principal of the Wharton Normal and Industrial School, based in Charlotte, N.C.

The following day, The Asheville Daily Citizen included excerpts from Somerville’s address. The speech was part history lesson, part sermon. It offered a message of hope, encouragement and caution. In it, Somerville declared:

“After emancipation, turned loose without a dollar in the world, and among those who had the experience of a thousand years in business, and who controlled the marts of trade, the railroad and the telegraph, [African-Americans have] been able to get hold of some property and … some standing in the business world. Today the negroes of North Carolina own upward of $8,000,000 of property, and in the nation $400,000,000. This wealth was not given to him out of sympathy, but it came as the chips from the unyielding granite, cut by his own energy, with his own steel.”

Somerville went on to remind his audience of the role African-Americans played in the earliest stages of the country’s history. He noted Crispus Attucks, “a man who fired the first shot for American independence in Boston.” Later, the reverend called to mind Peter Salem, a freed slave who served in the army during the Revolutionary War and is widely credited for the death of British Maj. John Pitcairn during the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Somerville’s speech concluded with the following call and promise:

“Cultivate politeness and sobriety, and convince the world that no man shall more fully carry out the spirit of charity and brotherly kindness than you, and that your heart beats in sympathy with the needy of every race and that in showing compassion you will not stop to ask whether a man is white or black, but does he stand in need. When this sentiment becomes yours, this spirit your rightful heritage, then shall be brought to pass ‘Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hand unto God.’”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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