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Norfolk Blacks Started “Freedom Day” in 1863—Ahead of Juneteenth



By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

    During the month of June, along with celebrating African American music, Gay Pride, and other cultural observances,  Juneteenth is observed on the 19th.

    Once a fixture only in Texas, where it became an official state holiday in 1980, it is now a federal holiday and observed around the nation.

Juneteenth has its origin in 1865 when Black slaves in Galveston were told by members of the Union Army that the Civil War had ended two months before and they were free.

         The Blacks in Texas did not know the Emancipation Proclamation issued three years earlier in September of 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves as of January 1, 1863. The Proclamation had not actually freed all of the four million men, women, and children held in slavery. Only the southern  states of the Confederacy in rebellion against the United States government were declared free which included Norfolk, Virginia.    


    The Texans freed in 1865 dated their emancipation as of June 19, which eventually was named Juneteenth, also called Freedom Day by some.

    Today while the national holiday of Black freedom from slavery is centered historically on Texas and Juneteenth, Dr. Tommy Bogger and other local historians are curious as to why Hampton Roads and specifically Norfolk are not acknowledged.

    According to historic evidence, the first Emancipation Celebration was organized and held by Blacks freed and protected by the Union Army in Norfolk  on January 1, 1863, under martial law.

        Other parts of the state controlled by the Confederacy, did not offer Blacks such freedom.

    Dr. Bogger is now the director of the Norfolk State University Library, an author, and a history professional at the HBCU.


    Even before the Civil War, according to Bogger’s book “Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia 1790-1860: The Darker Side of Freedom” (1997), there was a large population of free Blacks living in the city and Hampton Roads region, along with enslaved Blacks.

    Many were freed by their masters or they bought their freedom. They were skilled craftsmen; some held property and were allowed to even own some form of business.

According to other history books detailing the region’s history, when Union forces won the battle of Hampton Roads, the Black population, did not wait to appreciate their emancipation.

    The war would not end until 1865. But Union forces had secured Hampton proper and other portions of the Peninsula making  it possible.

    Two Norfolk male slaves stole their master’s boat and made their way to Fortress Monroe in Hampton where the Yankees had set up a garrison.


    Following  them, thousands of others fled to the fort’s front gate.

    The Commander of the fort, Gen. Benjamin Butler, and other Union leaders did not know what to do with the Blacks initially.

    But to deter the confederates from using them to support their cause, Butler defined them, like canons and other tools, as “contraband ” or confiscated property.

       The confederates were fighting to retain their right to own slaves as human property.

       Bogger said there were so many Blacks that  Union forces exported  many to Craney Island where rebel forces could not gain access to them because it was surrounded by water.


“Also there were many camps of former  Black slaves in the outlying areas,” he continued.

Confederate forces from North Carolina often raided them and reclaimed land and slaves.  Then Union soldiers would retake the  camps, he said.

    Union forces took Norfolk and Portsmouth, and portions of Princess Anne County in 1862.

  In cities, such as Norfolk,  when government leaders did  not agree to swear allegiance to the Union, the Union Army imposed martial law and took control.

    “Blacks then began to exert their freedom by establishing makeshift schools with the help of missionaries and soldiers,” said Bogger. “They


also sought to take over churches and some plantations.”

    With the Emancipation Proclamation in place, Lincoln opened the door  for  186,097 Black men to enlist in the Union Army. Black men were recruited to the ranks of the Union army, thus illustrating their will to fight the confederacy and secure their freedom.

      But a striking  symbol  of  how Blacks showed

appreciation of their freedom took place in Norfolk on January 1, 1863, according to a February 20, 1926 Edition of the GUIDE.

In an article headlined “Aged Record of First Emancipation Parade in Norfolk Uncovered.”


According to the article “5,000 “Freed Men” (and women) took part in the Great event of 1863 procession assembled on Queen Street.”

The article said that “out of the obscurity of 63 years, there came to the Journal and Guide this week through the kindness of James M. Harrison, prominent local citizens, what is believed to be a genuine original record of the first Emancipation Celebration held by colored people of Norfolk.”

    “According to the musty and yellowing record,” a printed story of the event first appeared in the New York Times on April 23, 1863.

   It was drawn up from notes taken by Rev. George N. Greene, the first missionary to the “freedmen” of Norfolk who witnessed the celebration,” which was initially called the “Freedman’s Celebration.”

    The story noted, “The venerable paper, yellowed with the accumulation of the years…was well preserved being torn and tattered only where creases and around the outer edges.” 


“The type was entirely legible…the body type is surrounded with a flashy border, but not a great deal unlike many seeds on later day printing.”

    “The whole sheet is about seven inches wide and a foot long. It mentions the organizing committee of “Freedmen of the city of Norfolk”.

They were William Killing, William Sparrow, William Miller, William Jacobs, William Oliver, Edward Eichelberg, Samuel Boekin, Edward Langley, and Robert Cross, all of whom were aides to John Milton, the chief marshal of the celebration.

    They met on December 21, 1862. Prayer was offered by Willing Killing, whereupon the chair stated the object of the meeting to be to make suitable arrangements for the celebration in Norfolk on the first day of January 1863.

      According to the news article, the first celebration was rousing celebrations, as Blacks marched, burned


the confederate flag and President Jefferson Davis in effigy at a nearby cemetery.

    “Their speeches and prayer according to the old record were in good English, which indicates that there were some fairly well educated Negroes in Norfolk ‘fo de war.”

   “The mammoth parade assembled on Queen Street and was accompanied by two brass bands, which shows that Queen Street always has been the center of the colored section of Norfolk and they always have had their brass bands,” the article said.

    According to the article, the event shows it was held the very day (January 1) that Lincoln’s final proclamation was issued. It shows that the “event which the colored citizens celebrated here on the first day of the first year the Negroes became free.”

   The writer of the article asked the question “What …. was it that these people were about to make such elaborate preparations for the celebration of their liberation on the first day of January when their freedom did not actually come until on the very day the event took place?”


      Organized by the Emancipation Association, time showed the celebration was held up until the late 1950s. During WWII it was suspended for several years.

        As time moved forward,   the parade, various programs at churches, lodges and  civic organizations were held all day.

  Although the initial one started along Queen Street, according to a GUIDE article in January 1917, that year, the parade ran a story saying  the procession started along Princess Anne Road, to Church Street, Avenue A, O’Keefe Street, Washington Avenue, Chapel to Bute

Streets and then disbanded by the Marshal.

   Soon after 1863 event in Norfolk, Portsmouth  and locales on the Peninsula,  and  northern parts of the country where Blacks were freed, followed suit and organized Emancipation Days until the late 1950s.


    According to a March 29, 2000 edition of the GUIDE, there was an effort to revive the celebration by Charles Allen the Vice-mayor of Newport News at the time.

        “This area  was the first,” said Dr. Bogger. “The celebrations were huge events..  Not until 1970s during the freedom movement did Blacks out West, especially in Texas  rediscover the observance with Juneteenth.”

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