Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Excellent Barbecue": Celebration of the 4th of July in Jackson County during Reconstruction

During the Reconstruction years, the commemoration of the Fourth of July in Jackson County reflected not just the turmoil of the era, but also hinted at the possibility of racial and community reconciliation. There is no record of celebration of the nation’s birthday in 1865 when the county was still recovering from the shock of both defeat and emancipation while under military occupation. The next year, however, after the arrival of Freedman’s Bureau’s agents Charles Hamilton and William Purman, dramatic developments ensued.

In late June, 1866, Hamilton was approached by a delegation of African Americans who sought permission to organize a parade through Marianna to be followed by a barbecue to celebrate the Fourth of July. The marchers intended to carry the stars and stripes and portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Hamilton gave his tentative approval, but immediately dispatched a message to Tallahassee requesting the consent of Florida's Governor David S. Walker and Maj. Gen. John G. Foster, commander of both the Bureau and the military Department of Florida. The general and governor approved, but warned Hamilton to take precautions to avoid disorder and ensure that no arms were carried at the parade. Meanwhile, Jackson County whites, learning of the proposed event, angrily objected, insisting that the freedmen had no right to celebrate. The sheriff asked General Foster to reconsider his approval. Dr. Ethelred Philips reflected the suspicions of many when he remarked in a letter to his brother that the "pest" of a Bureau agent had "put up the negroes to celebrate the 4th." Anger was inflamed by rumors that Hamilton had ordered the freedmen to attend the event bearing arms. With more than one thousand freedmen expected to take part, Philips admitted that whites felt "a little uneasy." It was now hinted that some white men were ready to stop the celebration by force and shoot anyone who dared carry the banners and United States flag in Marianna.
Hamilton next consulted attorney William H. Milton, who served as Marianna's mayor and judge of the county court. Milton did not object to the celebration on principle but advised that it was not a wise idea. Parading Lincoln's portrait would appear, he warned, as though the blacks were "flaunting defiance in our faces." Hamilton took it upon himself to bargain terms and agreed to persuade the freedmen to abandon the plan of bearing the portraits. Hamilton insisted, however, that the stars and stripes must be carried. "The time had passed," he declared "when the American flag could not be unfurled anywhere within the National domains."
Hamilton became increasingly anxious and confessed that he feared for his personal safety. He requested that General Foster dispatch U.S. troops, but the response from Tallahassee was less than reassuring. Because of illness, the only soldiers available to send to Marianna were the 82nd U.S. Colored Troops. Instead of sending in black soldiers, Foster advised that it would be better to let "matters take their natural test the feeling prevailing" in Jackson County.
In a welcome anticlimax, the Fourth of July celebration of 1866 was a complete success. The event passed "with remarkable quietness and good feeling on all sides." Not only did they not interfere, but most white males of the area came to partake of the "excellent barbecue." At first, Hamilton was at a loss to explain this surprising outcome. He surmised that the approvals of General Foster and Governor Walker had proved decisive in persuading the whites to relent. After further thought, he supposed that the threats had been mere bluster and that he and the freedmen had called their opponents' bluff by insisting on holding the celebration regardless of intimidation.

The following year’s festivities were not preceded by the same tension and near hysteria. More than 5,000 people, including many local whites and visitors from neighboring counties and states, attended a peaceful celebration that was even more successful than the previous year's event. The day began with a long procession through Marianna led by the Stars and Stripes and, this time, the parade included portraits of Washington and Lincoln. A speaker’s stand was erected by the Chipola River, and the barbecue was opened with a prayer and a recitation of the Declaration of Independence. Resolutions venerating the memory of fallen patriots were read along with addresses advocating the Republican party. The speeches were followed by an "excellent & abundant barbecue."

The murder of Dr. John Finlayson and the other killings and shootings early in 1869 did not discourage Jackson County blacks from continuing their new tradition of hosting a mass Fourth of July celebration. Once again bringing together both races, the 1869 event was a success. The day was beautiful as was the setting "upon the slope of an extensive hill that was covered with grand and massive oaks." The festivities were presided over by Jesse Robinson, one of Jackson County’s African American state assemblymen. Robinson was followed by a diverse list of speakers, including Democrats William H. Milton, William E. Anderson, Dr. West, and Republicans Calvin Rogers and Purman, who had returned to Marianna for the occasion despite narrowly escaping assassination just over three months earlier. All orators were met with "the ringing applause of the large assemblage."

With this triumphant celebration, however, ends the record of grand Fourth of July barbecues organized by the black community for the enjoyment of both races. It may well be that such events continued to occur but became so routine that they did not merit reports in newspapers. It is more likely that as the Republican Party weakened and collapsed under the pressure of white resistance and redemption during Reconstruction, the capability and willingness of African Americans to sponsor such celebrations faded along with their freedoms.

This account is adapted from my forthcoming narrative history, “The Jackson County War,” to be published shortly.

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