Emancipation Day

Family & friends of Robert H. Hannah on his homestead. “Picture taken by William H. Meehan at annual Emancipation picnic – 1st Sunday in August at Daddy Hannah’s homestead. 1921 or 1922.”

Emancipation Day, marking Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 proclamation abolishing slavery, was a significant holiday for Black Nebraskans. For former slaves and their descendants, September 22 was the real Independence Day. Although the Emancipation Proclamation signed on that date only affected slaves in Confederate states, and didn’t go into effect until January 1, 1863, Emancipation Day came to symbolize Black hopes for equality and justice.

Celebrations were organized in a number of Nebraska communities. One of the earliest was the 1878 fete held in Lincoln. There were parades to and from the special railroad coaches bringing speakers and celebrants to the city, a Lincoln brass band concert, a picnic, and a ball at the “Academy of Music.” Featured orators included Horace G. Newsom of Hastings, publisher of the state’s first Negro newspaper.

Nebraska City’s 1902 affair was even grander. A large contingent accompanied by a cornet band arrived from Omaha on the Missouri Pacific. They feasted at an ox roast at Morton’s Grove, and then tripped the light fantastic at a dance and cake walk at the Nebraska City Armory.

Valentine hosted its first Emancipation Day celebration the same year. Black soldiers and officers stationed at Fort Niobrara invited local citizens to join them in the observance. The local paper reported, “Emancipation Day was publicly celebrated in Valentine Monday afternoon for the first time. There was a misunderstanding about arrangements and the program, but order finally came out of chaos and the people listened to short interesting addresses by Chaplain Steward of Ft. Niobrara and our fellow townsmen Judge Walcott and Colonel Towle.”

The festivities helped to further good relations between townspeople and the troopers. The newspaper commented, “A more gentlemanly or better behaved lot of men never garrisoned at Fort Niobrara. If they could know the many compliments paid them on their conduct by Valentine citizens, they certainly would feel proud.”

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