The 4th of July, Juneteenth, and Pennsylvania’s own history of ending slavery (July 3)

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

A Black woman told me she stopped celebrating the 4th of July for two reasons. 1). She didn’t want her kids to pay tribute to White supremacy. 2). She didn’t want to participate in honoring enslavement and genocide.

Fair enough.

Then she said, Black people in America have their own Independence Day to celebrate—Juneteenth. On June 19, 1865, the end of slavery was announced in Texas. Juneteenth commemorates that event. But, if one were to critique the Black woman’s logic, one might mention the following…

First, referring to Juneteenth as an “Independence Day” is an unnecessary attempt to replace the 4th of July. The two events aren’t in competition. They’re not even similar. The abolishment of a particular practice within a nation’s borders is not the same as colonies declaring independence from their mother country and going to war to become autonomous. These events are completely different and their individual significance requires its own celebration, without one diminishing the other.

Second, celebrating the 4th of July doesn’t have to be equated with White supremacy, enslavement, or genocide. One could just pay tribute to the Blacks that participated in the war, there were Blacks that sided with the colonists and there were Blacks that sided with the British, and replacing the 4th of July with Juneteenth would send these Black facts into further obscurity.

Recently, Pennsylvania’s governor, Tom Wolf, declared Juneteenth a state holiday. Pennsylvania joined 45 other states and the District of Columbia to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday.

Great.

Now, I’m going to pose a question using the very same logic as the Black woman from the beginning. (Remember, she didn’t celebrate the 4th because Black people had their own Independence Day.) Why should Pennsylvania have a state holiday honoring the Texas announcement about the end of slavery, when Pennsylvania has its own history of ending the practice?

Pennsylvania was established in 1681. By 1684 Philadelphia was a huge slave port, but in 1688 The Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery was signed. It was the first protest against slavery in the English colonies, and the first document written on American soil to champion equal rights. By the French and Indian War (1754-1763) Pennsylvania had its highest number of slaves, but by the time of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) slavery decreased as a source of labor due to a new wave of Scots-Irish immigrants who couldn’t afford to purchase slaves.

On March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania legislator passed The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. This was the first act ending slavery to be adopted by a democracy. The act was a compromise. It allowed slaveholders to keep the slaves they held, but changed the legal status of future children born to the enslaved. Pennsylvania’s “gradual abolition” became a model for other Northern States.

By using the Black woman’s logic for not celebrating the 4th of July, Pennsylvania should not have made the announcement in Texas, a state holiday, Pennsylvania should have made March 1st its official holiday, but the Quakers won’t mind the slight because the last shall be first.

(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)

 

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