Before there was Juneteenth, there was August 1st.
The first of August is Emancipation Day in the West Indies, commemorating the day (in 1834) when the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 went into full effect across the former British Empire. Caribbean nations from Antigua and Barbados to Trinidad & Tobago continue to celebrate some form of Emancipation Day, but there was a time in the 19th century when it was a thing in the United States.
American abolitionists seized on August 1st in solidarity with an anti-slavery movement that succeeded decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. And what did those abolitionists do on August 1st? That’s right: they had picnics.
As the movement gained momentum in the 1830s, one of the ways they promoted the cause to attract supporters was to hold large community picnics. The painting above, by Susan Torrey Merritt, documents one such picnic in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1845. But the most famous abolitionist picnic happened a year earlier, in nearby Hingham, Massachusetts, to mark the 10th anniversary of Emancipation Day.
Planned for months in advance, it drew a crowd of nearly 10,000 people who came to hear A-list speakers like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Delegations were sent from around the northeast, and the day began with a processional parade. There were speeches, poems, and song, along with a performance by the super-famous Hutchinson Family Singers, which makes it sound kind of like a teetotaling Quaker Woodstock.
As it happens, a recently published local history by Martha Reardon Bewick, entitled Tranquility Grove: The Great Abolitionist Picnic of 1844, recounts the details of the event—starting with the fact that the picnic was rained out on August 1st and so was held the following day. The book gathers primary source material, including broadsides advertising the picnic, lists of attendees, and the speeches, letters, and songs that were shared throughout the day.
Beyond noting that provisions were sent from Boston, the book doesn’t concern itself with the menu. If you’re curious about what they might have fed some 10,000 hungry abolitionists, you can consult Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (like a Victorian Martha Stewart Living). Far more interesting than the food, of course, is the democratic spirit at the heart of the whole thing—the idea that picnics could be purposeful gatherings in pursuit of justice and equality. That’s a tradition worth preserving.