While the Fourth of July celebrates the passage of the Declaration of Independence by Congress on July 4, 1776, Black Washingtonians were enslaved. Ironically, as America gained its freedom, Black people were still considered property– Black Washingtonians weren’t freed until April 16, 1862 and the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t signed until January 1, 1863. Further, the last enslaved Black people in Texas wouldn’t learn of their freedom until June 1865.
So on July 4, 1776, freedom was far from afforded to Black people living in America.
When Frederick Douglass delivered his Independence Address in 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, he emphasized the challenges of celebrating freedom while people were still enslaved.
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” said Douglass. “I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies.”
Douglass criticized the contradictory ideals of the U.S. and slavery.
“The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism a sham, your humanity a base pretense, and your Christianity a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home,” said Douglass. “It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes.”
As Douglass begged the question 171 years ago, this Fourth of July, ask, ‘What is the Fourth of July to the Black Washingtonian?’
Black Americans still fight for equity and justice, and while the nation’s capital was once touted as “Chocolate City,” disparities remain.
According to a 2022 Brookings article, Black people had the lowest per capita annual median income and a great disparity income in D.C.. The article reported that the median income for Black residents, per research in 2019, came at $29,927, while white residents made $92,758 and Latinx $41,151.
Further, in 2019, Black D.C. residents had the highest unemployment rates at 4.8% and the largest percentage of residents living below the poverty line at 21.6%.
Such numbers show the major difference in lifestyle and access afforded to Black Washingtonians.
Further, all Washingtonians still aren’t afforded the rights of all other U.S. citizens: full voting representation in the House and Senate.
Without full rights and equity, Black Washingtonians still aren’t fully free.