Introduction

Two hundred years ago in the United States, with the promise of an actual end to the slave trade at midnight on December 31, 1807, the mood in the African-American community was one of optimistic anticipation. The celebrations of the event, which took place in some northern cities, were far from cheerful, though. They were restrained, primarily religious in nature and were attended by Free Blacks and some whites.

For about twenty years thereafter, free people of color continued to commemorate the day that was supposed to have ended the deportation of Africans to the United States. Sermons and exhortations praised the abolitionists and the government, and enjoined African Americans to be respectful, law-abiding citizens, whose dignified behavior would help the cause of those still in bondage.

But as time passed, slavers continued to bring young men, women, and children to the cotton fields of the Gulf States in secrecy; slavery showed no signs of abating; and the mood started to change. The flowery and pious orators, who had saluted the day of freedom in the early years, had to reckon with a grim reality. Their perspectives started to evolve and their sermons tackled issues of pressing concern, such as racism, rebellion, and the Haitian Revolution.

The January 1st celebrations were not without controversy within the black community, but they were important milestones in the appropriation of history and memory by African Americans.

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