Reminisce: Lima celebrates Emancipation Day

It was, the Lima Morning Star & Republican-Gazette wrote, a “holiday of colored residents at Hover Park given over to fun, frolic and feasting with good music and large attendance.”

It was September 22, 1911, and blacks in Lima and across the country were celebrating the 49th anniversary of Emancipation Day, the day in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be free.

In 1911, it was also a day for speeches, and the main address was given by Rev. Gilliam, of Columbus, “whose services as a speaker are much sought by members of his race,” the Republican-Gazette wrote. Gilliam delivered a doozy, criticizing the use of black face by white performers in minstrel shows as well as the blacks who paid to see the shows.

“We are the only race in the world that pays our money to go to see and hear our misfortunes made fun of,” Gilliam told the crowd. “If a young man came and asked to take one of my daughters to a make-up negro minstrel show, I would not dignify him by showing him the front door but would kick him bodily out of the rear door. I would consider this a strong hint for him to remember that the main aim of our race is not to stand as the laughingstock for the public, but to take an active part in all that makes for good citizenship.”

The Republican-Gazette noted that many blacks from surrounding towns “as well as a good sprinkling of white faces” attended the event, which, it declared, as local newspapers nearly always declared about local events, “was one of the biggest of the kind” ever held in Lima. In addition to speeches, there was dancing, roller skating, boating, sporting events, an ox roast, and concerts, with music provided by the Maus band and the Rothlisberger orchestra.

By 1911, Emancipation Day had been celebrated sporadically in Lima since the 1870s. One of the first was held in 1875. “At a little after 11 o’clock a.m., a procession was formed, and headed by the Knights Templar Band and the colored Masonic Lodge of Lima, marched to the grove of T.K. Jacobs, where a sumptuous collation was served,” the Allen County Democrat wrote September 30, 1875. At the grove, the Emancipation Proclamation was read to the crowd, which included delegations from Toledo, Dayton, Piqua, Sidney, Troy, and other places. “Owing to the coldness of the weather,” the Democrat noted, “the affair was not so pleasant as it otherwise would have been. The ‘young folks’ concluded the celebration by a grand ball at the City Hall in the evening.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was often delegations from Lima attending Emancipation Day events in other nearby cities. “The colored people of Lima will celebrate Emancipation Day at St. Marys on the 22nd day of September,” the Lima’s Democratic Times reported in August 1881. “A big time is anticipated.” Two years later, the celebration was held in Spencerville.

Railroads offered special fares for the trips. “For the Emancipation Day celebration to be held at Findlay, Sept. 22, the L.E.&W. will sell excursion tickets at the low rate of 95 center for the round trip, good returning until September 23,” the Allen County Democrat wrote September 19, 1890. According to a Lima Daily Times article written several days after the trip, four “young converts of the A.M.E. Church” would “have a trial at the church” for apparently having too much fun in Findlay. “They are charged with having forgotten their religion at the recent celebration at Findlay, and participated in a dance,” the newspaper wrote.

With a celebration in Lima off the schedule in 1897 because of a shortage of money, local blacks again took to the rails. “A large number of the colored people of Lima went to DeGraff this morning over the Ohio Southern to take part in a celebration at that place,” the Times-Democrat wrote September 22, 1897. “Today is the 34th anniversary of the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. This day to the colored race is held as an important one. Last year, the day was celebrated in this city. Today the colored people of this section of Ohio are enjoying themselves at DeGraff.”

In 1903, the destination was Wapakoneta, where, in addition to the annual reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, “one of the prominent features is a baseball game between the Giants, of Lima (a black baseball team), and the team selected from the Auglaize County town,” the Lima News wrote, adding that “a good attendance is reported from Lima. The C.H.&D. is selling tickets to fifty passengers this morning in addition to those who went down on the Western Ohio.”

Around the turn of the century, Emancipation Day celebrations often featured another of America’s pastimes – partisan politics. Because Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” was a Republican, Lima’s Democrat-leaning newspapers (the Democrat, Times-Democrat, Daily Times, etc.), realizing the party had been on the wrong side of racial issues during the Civil War, annually complained that Republicans were turning Emancipation Day into a Republican campaign rally. And they never missed a chance to take a shot at Republicans.

On September 22, 1891, a day after Republican William McKinley, future president, and candidate for Ohio governor, visited Lima, the Emancipation Day parade featured bands and a float bedecked with “the national colors” and crowned by a large group of children. The following day the Daily Times sniped that “everybody admits that the parade of the colored people yesterday beat that of the Republicans the day before.”

There also was some truth in the Democrats’ complaints. On Emancipation Day in 1900, a day which, the Republican-Gazette enthused, “would undoubtedly have been the greatest time the colored folks of Lima have ever had if it had not been for rain,” the celebration was moved into the opera house. There, the featured speaker, Bishop B.W. Arnett, of the A.M.E. church, told the crowd he had survived “the antebellum days when it was dark and there was no star of hope” to see “the day when a change occurred, when a party arose which gave freedom to the black man, free schools, free speech, and a free ballot. I belong to that party; it is easy to tell which one it is,” he said.

Although speeches occasionally strayed into the partisan, almost everything else about Emancipation Day was non-partisan Americana. “Emancipation Day was celebrated in Lima today on a big scale, delegations from Toledo, Columbus and points on the other railroads coming in during the morning to enjoy the speeches, music and sporting events at McBeth’s park,” the Times-Democrat wrote September 22, 1902.

The Emancipation Day celebrations, the News wrote in September 2004, “continued to be well-attended through the years: 1,000 people turned out in 1915 at McBeth Park for a picnic dinner; a large group came in 1917 to the Lima Driving Park for the program; and in 1918 there were 500 people who came to the Driving Park in remembrance. At that time, they were urged to ‘keep alive the appreciation of their release from slavery.’”

Although the organized annual celebration of Emancipation Day eventually died out, it has been replaced in recent years by the Juneteenth celebration. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger ordered the final enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas.





This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].