As the nation celebrates Independence Day some Virginia Tech students are focusing on the history of the holiday for African Americans.
This past fall semester 37 students researched the perspectives people of color had about the Fourth of July from post Civil war, to the Jim Crow era and up until the Civil Rights movement.
The professor of the class and chair of the history department Brett Shadle says the perspective has changed and shaped the way the holiday is viewed.
Shadle got the idea after reading a speech from Frederick Douglas about the Fourth of July before slavery was abolished. In the speech, Douglas said the holiday didn’t mean the same thing for slaves because they weren’t free. So the professor wanted to take a look at how that feeling had evolved.
“By looking at this we can see that this is an issue that’s been discussed and fought over for many years and isn’t finished yet,” said Shadle.
Shadle had his students look through historic newspapers, and catalog articles about the 4th of July holiday on this website. The website shows the topics that came up the most.
“The most common themes throughout all of the newspapers is the fear that people were going to injure themselves with firecrackers.”
He says in articles before Jim Crow laws, newly freed slaves had a lot of hope. But when segregation laws came they noticed a shift.
“A real sense of what are we celebrating when we’re talking about freedom, we’re talking about equality, and yet there’s lynching, yet there’s the Klan and people can’t vote,” said Shadle.
He says many also believe because African Americans fought in wars they deserve to celebrate the country’s independence.
“These ideals, these freedoms, we have earned them as much as anyone else. So the sense in which we need to celebrate these ideas but continue fighting to make sure that we receive all of them.”
Some of the articles also revealed an idea that African Americans should celebrate another freedom milestone, Juneteenth, the day slaves in the south learned they were free.
This year the Roanoke Valley Southern Christian Leadership Conference organization put on their 15th annual Juneteenth celebration. Vice president for SCLC says both holidays are important.
“Because this is a celebration of a nation. The birth of the nation. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom that came to this nation.”
The professor says looking at this data helps show how current perspectives today were shaped, such as black lives movements. He hopes it’s something other professors will pick up and continue with other time periods and other newspapers.