January 17, 2010

Negro Election Day

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, and on Tuesday in Massachusetts we have a special election to fill the Senate seat left empty when Ted Kennedy passed away. Here's a post that addresses both black history and elections. I like it when I can be topical!

Before the Civil War, blacks were not allowed to vote. But in Puritan-influenced New England one of the few public holidays was Election Day, which was celebrated with parades, parties and general revelry. This posed a problem for black New Englanders. If they weren't allowed to vote, how were they supposed to celebrate Election Day?

They held their own holiday, called Negro Election Day. (Negro isn't a popular word these days, but it was commonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries). Slaves were given the day off by their owners, and joined with free blacks for parades, athletic contests, dances and dinners. Freemen paid for parts of the celebration, as did slaves, who often earned their own money in their spare time. Strangely, slave owners contributed as well, making sure their slaves were dressed in good clothing. If their slaves looked bad it reflected poorly on them.

Negro Election Days were held throughout New England, in both large cities and smaller towns. The black communities would elect an official, called either a king, sheriff or governor, who rode through town after his election wearing a crown or sash and mounted on a horse. Although he was not legally recognized, this official often served as a liaison between the blacks and whites in his area and ensured that the law was upheld. Sometimes, though, the king was elected simply as a way to mock white leaders and served more as a Lord of Misrule, presiding over the day's festivities.

Negro Election Day was strongly influenced by African traditions, and the it began to wane as the black community lost its connections with Africa over time. By the time of the Civil War the tradition had nearly died out. You can find information about it here, here and here.

If you live in Massachusetts, don't forget to vote on Tuesday!

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