By Bill Jeffway
A version of this article was published in the Northern/Southern Dutchess News/ Beacon Free Press, August 7, 2019 edition.
4,000 people attended Emancipation Day cermonies in Poughkeepsie in 1858
“Emancipation Day.” This was the name of the holiday recognizing the date of August 1, 1834, as the date that the British Slavery Emancipation Act began the graduated process of freeing slaves in the British Empire. The greatest impact was in the Caribbean, or British West Indies, where the holiday is still celebrated in some parts.
New York State had abolished slavery a few years earlier, in 1827. But it was not until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln, on January 1, 1863, that the graduated process of freeing millions enslaved in the US began. Consequently, there was a mix of celebration of what was achieved, and profound determination to “finish the job” in the United States.
One of the largest gatherings for the holiday, was the Emancipation Day celebration of 161 years ago in Poughkeepsie, taking place on Monday, August 2, 1858. The main highlight was the nationally renowned thought leader, abolitionist, author, publisher and speaker, Frederick Douglass. People came from across the whole Hudson Valley. A formal procession from the AME Zion Church (then on Catharine Street) went to the dock to greet arriving guests at the Hudson River, and formed a group procession across Main, Catharine, Mill, Hamilton, Mansion, and Clinton Streets. Their destination was “College Grove,” on the west of College Hill at Clinton Street, where a platform had been raised for the speakers. Along with chairs, tables and non-alcoholic refreshment.
Above left: It is easy to image a "Grove Meeting" on the west side of College Hill, Poughkeepsie, at North Clinton Street. Contemporary view courtesy of Google maps. Above right: A photograph from the period shows a typical grove, there were many. This is Chestnut Grove, frequented by locals but just across the Hudson River in Ulster County. DCHS Collections.
Frederick Douglass was the main speaker
Frederick Douglass gave a two-hour speech to a crowd of approximately 4,000 individuals. Although we do not have reports of exactly what Douglass said, we can get some idea by looking at earlier talks he gave.
This was not Douglass’ first time in Poughkeepsie. Just six months earlier, in January, he spent several days giving a series of lectures. We get some very specific insight to Douglass’ thoughts through the diaries of Edmund Platt in the DCHS Collections. He would have been just 15 years old at the time when he sat in the audience and listened to Douglass on January of 1858 at the Universalist Church. Platt would go on to found what would become the retail giant Luckey, Platt & Co., which operated on Main St. until 1981. He authored a landmark history of Poughkeepsie in 1905. He was also involved in the business of his brother and father, who were publishers of the local newspaper, the Poughkeepsie Eagle. From the Platt diaries:
The Edmund Platt diaries give us a sense of what Douglass might have said, notes from a talk 6 months earlier
Tuesday, January 12, 1858. “In the evening I went to hear a lecture by Frederick Douglass, it was very good. He used to be a slave. He told how he learned to read and write and [do math]. In the first place he was given to a boy named Tomas Hall who was kind to him ,and when Tom's mother [taught Tom] his letters, she forgot to put Fred out of the room. Until by and by, he knew all the letters , he learned to spell and read a little. He then went into the shipyard, and when the carpenters wrote on the timbers, he asked what that meant and they told him. And pretty soon he could write the letters in those words himself. Then on the street corners, he told the white boys he could write. He made a few letters. And as they wanted to show their skill, they wrote down the whole alphabet so he had a copy. He learned by picking up a little at a time. And at last he ran away and has not been back since.”
Thursday, January 14, 1858. “In the evening I went to hear Mr. Douglas again. His subject was the effects of slavery. First, he said the same winter the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock another Landing was made in Virginia. It was a shipload of slaves.”
“He said they had gone on until they had stopped freedom of speech in the southern states. They tried to stop freedom of speech in the Senate when Brooks cained Sumner [On May 22, 1856, after anti-slavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner made a stinging verbal attack on pro-slavery Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler, South Carolina's congressional representative entered the Senate chamber and beat Sumner with a stick until he was unconscious and bleeding and had to be carried out]. And they want to stop free speech in the northern states and to establish the slave trade.”
“He said they had gone so far now as to make a lot against the law of God that in the fugitive slave law that says, ‘You must not feed the hungry, clothe the naked.’ He said when he was running away he would rather come in contact with a nest of rattlesnakes than a Democratic prayer meeting.”
“He preached a short sermon on the text ‘servants obey your masters.’ He said he had heard preaching on this subject till his head ached. I forgot the first of the sermon, but some of it was the white men have braved the perils of the ocean and snatched the Negroes from Africa like brands from the burning. The Negro should obey the white because they had soft skin, white hands, etc. I cannot remember all the lecture and cannot put down here all I remembered.”
Platt did not attend the Wednesday, January 13 lecture. Newspapers reported that Douglass was speaking that night on the topic of “respecting the different races of man, showing that they had originally a common origin, that under like circumstances, and with the proper opportunities, the Africans had shown themselves equal to others as was proved by the history and character of the ancient Egyptians the Carthaginians, etc. In this he displayed great research and much skill in answering the argument against his position strengthening his own doctrines by facts and illustrations.”
Of course, a shift in emphasis happened after the Civil War. By 1868, an “Emancipation Celebration” took place on September 16. The route, from the AME Zion Church then at Catharine Street, to the river, and back was similar to the route taken in 1858. Bells rang. Cannons fired. Bands played. A sign read, “We celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. Proclaimed September 22, 1862. Enacted January 1, 1863.” Washington D.C.’s official “Emancipation Day” holiday is April 16, recognizing the date in 1862 the enslaved in the District of Columbia were freed.