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Emancipation Day Celebrations

February 27, 2015 Archive Insight

African American community parade celebrating Emancipation Day in Richmond, Virginia, on April 3, 1905. (P.DPC.018421/THF118868)

This lively scene from 1905 documents African Americans proudly parading through the streets of Richmond, Virginia, in celebration of Emancipation Day. The well-dressed marchers include many elders who were formerly enslaved, as well as many of their children and grandchildren born after the end of slavery. In 1905, forty years after the American Civil War ended, this life-changing event—Emancipation—continued to have deep, emotional meaning for African Americans.

During the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect on January 1, 1863. This Executive Order, aimed at the secessionist states of the fledgling Confederate States of America, declared their slaves to be free. (However, this proclamation did not include all enslaved people—slaves were not freed in slave states that had remained loyal to the Union. In December 1865, the 13th Amendment completed Emancipation by declaring slavery illegal everywhere in the United States.)

Yet, the reality for slaves in states in active rebellion, including Virginia, was that they continued to be oppressed unpaid laborers until Union troops arrived. Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the Confederacy, had been the target of the U.S. government's war campaign for many years. The federal troops finally succeeded in capturing Richmond on April 3, 1865. This was the true date of freedom from slavery for these Richmond residents of African descent.

Freedom for enslaved people continued to occur as the Union Army moved into the former Confederate slave states. Enslaved people in Texas, the final state, were declared free on June 19, 1865. In many states, this date continued to be celebrated annually as “Juneteenth,” to mark the end of slavery in the United States.

Parades through the city streets of Richmond, Virginia, in celebration of Emancipation began on April 3, 1866, and continued through the post-Civil War era and into the 20th century. By 1905, the date of this photograph, the reaction of white southerners against the gains made by black people after the Civil War continued to challenge the freedom—and very existence of— these former slaves and their descendants, particularly the proliferation of negative stereotypes, increasingly restrictive "Jim Crow" laws, and enforced segregation.

This particular parade, documented by photography and made into picture postcards by the Detroit Publishing Company, represents more than celebrating a paramount event. It shows the everyday extraordinary courage of African Americans living in repressive conditions in early 20th century Richmond. And it publicly proclaimed their right to equality and the freedom to determine their own destiny.

Cynthia Read Miller is Curator of Photographs and Prints at The Henry Ford.

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