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September 07, 2017

Emancipation Day in Hamilton County

Emancipation Day in Hamilton County

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

In 1926, African American historian Carter G. Woodson proposed a “Negro History Week” in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.  This evolved into African American History Month which we celebrate today.  However, African Americans in Hamilton County and around the United States had already been celebrating another event for many years.  Although it’s nearly unknown today, at one time, Emancipation Day  was an important part of the calendar and it fell at this time of year.

There is actually more than one Emancipation Day.  The first one was being celebrated even before slavery ended in America.  On August 1, 1834, the British government ended slavery throughout the empire.  This was noticed in the United States and was celebrated by abolitionists in the 1840’s.  In 1853, a large celebration was held in Glendale, Ohio, which included many citizens of Indiana.

In Hamilton County, the first known celebrations were after the Civil War. There was a picnic near Arcadia on August 3, 1869, which wasn’t specifically designated as celebrating emancipation, but the timing seems auspicious.  In 1877, there was another event at Arcadia that was clearly stated to be an emancipation celebration.  The location of Arcadia is significant as it probably relates to the Roberts Settlement.  Since the Roberts family had been free long before official emancipation, it would be interesting to know why they were involved.

The 1884 celebration was held on August 1st in Noblesville and had speakers from Richmond and Indianapolis.  Since that was an election year, politicians and political groups made appearances.  The Republican nominee for governor was invited and “Plumed Knights” – supporters of James G. Blaine for president – were there.  A Noblesville man named Willis Venable organized the 1887 event, which happened on August 2nd of that year.  It was very successful and had speakers who came from around the state.  One of the local speakers was Thomas E. Boyd who talked about the Underground Railroad.  Since many of the local participants in the UGRR were still alive at that time, it would be very interesting to know what he said.

There were two other dates that emancipation was celebrated in the United States.  The first was September 22, the date in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln announced that he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation.  The other date was January 1, when the Proclamation went into effect in 1863.  There were also regional celebrations such as Washington, D. C.’s in April and “Juneteenth” in Texas.  However, Hamilton County seems to have focused on the Proclamation dates.

The September event in 1914 was sparsely attended because of weather, but people were pleased by the fact that Blacks and whites were in the audience.  The M.C. for the event was the Reverend Barney Stone who, as a former slave, could speak directly on the subject.  One of the white speakers, E. E. Cloe, talked about the Underground Railroad again.  This was probably added to by one of the African American speakers, Fred J. Hord, whose family had come to Indiana via the UGRR.  The other African American speaker was James Colter, a local civil rights leader.

The event in 1932 was a service at the Baptist Church.  Barney Stone again introduced the speaker, Lyman Cloe, who spoke on history and education.  The Emancipation Proclamation was then read out loud.  The newspaper account doesn’t mention if there was much of the white community at the service.  This was just after the peak era of the Klan in Indiana and, around the state, Emancipation Day seems to have become an African American event.