On July 4th 1799 New York State began gradual emancipation for those enslaved in the State. It was a complicated process based on date of birth (after 1799) and gender of those born to enslaved mothers, and required service to the mothers’s owners for years although these children were technically “free”.
In 1817 another emancipation law was enacted; it too still required service to owners for some, but set the date of July 4th 1827 for final emancipation, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence.
Planning the Celebration in Albany
When the time came to plan how to celebrate the end of slavery the free Black men of Albany gathered in the African Baptist Church on Hamilton St. (between Grand and Fulton) on March 27, 1827.
The planners included Benjamin Lattimore, Sr. (who had served as a soldier in the Revolution) and his son Benjamin Jr. and Lewis Topp.
(Within the next decade Lattimore Jr. and Topp’s son William would become fast friends, despite a difference in age. By 1840 they were both heavily engaged in the Black anti-slavery movement, attending Colored Conventions and would be members of the Albany Underground Railroad.)
Topp proposed that, although the official date for emancipation was July 4th, the Albany community celebrate Abolition on July 5th. Historians have debated the reasons. Was selection of another date merely practical, to avoid the potential for violence from drunk Whites celebrating the historic 4th, or was it something else? Did they object to celebrating this momentous occasion at the same time as the Declaration of Independence, a document that belied the truth of the lives of most Black Americans.
Other committee members included Thomas Alcott, Richard Thompson, William Hyres, Robert Harrison, John Jackson (husband of the daughter of Ben Lattimore Sr. ), Asher Root, Anthony Olcott, Daniel Maynard, Peter Hallenbeck (who would later own a business with Lewis Topp), Henry Jackson and Adam Blake. Blake had been enslaved by Stephen Van Rensselaer III ( the “Good Patroon”) who only freed Blake after the end of the War of 1812 (probably about 1815).
Whatever the reasons July 5th was selected. There was a parade through the streets of Albany, singing and other celebration. A highlight of the day was a sermon delivered by the Rev. Nathaniel Paul on the Abolition of Slavery in the Church.
Paul’s sermon reminded his audience that abolition was a “holy cause”. He urged them to enter into it with a “fixed determination”. Put quite simply his message was – don’t be content with your freedom when millions of your sisters and brothers remain enslaved in the North and South. None of us are free until we are all free.
His sermon was printed in the “Freedom’s Journal” newspaper published in NYC (the first African American paper in the country), and became a call to action for free Blacks.
Within 5 years the first Colored Convention was held in Philadelphia. Although it started out small, the Colored Convention movement would grow, and become a powerful political force for free Blacks for decades. It would focus on abolition (and later Civil Rights after the War) , but also education of adults and children, and re-inforce the need for the Black community across nation to remain as one. The attendees at the first Convention included Albany’s Benjamin Lattimore Jr, and Captains Schuyler and March, sloop owners who sailed the Hudson River.
And so in Albany Blacks would continue to celebrate Abolition on July 5th for decades. That is not to stay that the 4th of July wasn’t important for some, especially the Lattimores and Nathaniel Paul whose father had been a Revolutionary War veteran from New Hampshire.
(Twenty-five years later Frrderick Douglass would give a speech “What to the Slave is Fourth of July? It’s still read today; but it was the Rev. Nathaniel Paul in Albany who issued the first call. )
After Civil War the tradition of celebration of abolition in Albany finally fell away, as the Constitution was amended to abolish slavery and to give Black men the right to vote. The Black community in Albany would celebrate July 4th.