American History Through an African American Lens

Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Complexities of Independence Day for African Americans


Image: On parade, the 41st Engineers at Ft. Bragg, NC in color guard ceremony. N.D. 208-NP-4HHH-2. National Archives. 

African Americans have a long and complicated history with Independence Day. Early in our nation’s history, as white Americans celebrated their freedom from the British Crown, millions of African Americans were still enslaved in the United States.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a keynote address at an Independence Day celebration and asked “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

He first addressed the crowd by encouraging them to think about the day’s hypocrisy:

“Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”


Image: Frederick Douglas, 1866, Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

He continued with this charge:  

"This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn … What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? … a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings … hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."

The response to Douglass’ speech was mixed and many people were angered or admired his courage.

Certainly much has changed since Douglas’ speech. Yet the opportunity to remember and examine the important impact of America’s racial history is very much a part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Douglass’ words remind us that many have struggled to ensure that the promise of liberty be applied equally to all Americans — regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. And that the struggle for equality is never over.

Today as we celebrate the Fourth of July, let us remember those, like Frederick Douglass, who fought and sacrificed to help America live up to its ideals of equality, fair play and justice for all.

You can view the full text of Douglass’ speech here:

Post compiled by Lanae S., Digital Content Specialist, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. 


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