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Thanksgiving celebration for Blacks leaves both warm, regrettable memories

Began as church-oriented festival

Merdies Hayes Managing Editor | 11/27/2019, 11:16 a.m.
African-Americans have strongly embraced..

With slavery having been officially abolished since 1863, those captives prior to the Emancipation Proclamation often viewed Thanksgiving Day as a time to escape. They took advantage of relaxed work schedules and the holiday travels of slaveholders who were often too far away to stop them.

While some slaveholders treated the holiday as any other workday, history has revealed a number of traditions that Black people would adhere to including the infrequent suspension of work for celebration and family visits. Because many slaves had spouses, children and family who were owned by different masters—and lived on other properties—many slaves often requested passes to travel and visit relatives and acquaintances.

Reference to scripture

In the North, before the Civil War, Blacks celebrated their own Thanksgiving Day. It was usually held on Jan. 1—the first occasion in 1808—as a day of commemoration with sermons and song about the greatness of the African past and the evils of slavery. The elders within the Black community would traditionally tell stories about their lives in slavery and the promise of freedom, based partly on Old Testament narratives found in the Book of Exodus.

After the deliverance from American chattel slavery, by 1876 more African-Americans had realized that the United States was their true home. This may have inspired Arnett’s aforementioned sermon as he pressed for continued, unyielding faith while instilling a willingness to endure even more hardship with utmost courage and hope.

For some Black people, obviously, the transformation of the historic day into a traditional celebration of “thanks” is yet another way that America hoped to sweep its ugly history under the rug. The day’s history can be traced back to a tale that sounds all too familiar to many people of color—White conquerors invading a land, claiming it as their own, and engaging in wanton slaughter of the land’s indigenous people for their own gain.

Slaughter of Pequot people

A few years ago, the Atlanta Blackstar conducted a random survey of 130 Black people and discovered that more than 60 did not celebrate Thanksgiving because they felt it would be a celebration of what some referred to as the “genocide” of Native Indians. But for some families, however, the holiday was about “redefining” its dark past and turning it into something more positive. Out of the 62 participants who said they did not celebrate Thanksgiving, more than 40 admitted they still gather each holiday for the traditional family dinner.

As well, many participants said they had no problem referring to the holiday as Thanksgiving, as long as they knew they were not commemorating the Pilgrim’s 1621 slaughter of the Pequot men, women and children near Plymouth, Mass. More than 90 persons within the survey admitted that the holiday’s bloody history does cross their mind at least some point during the day.

To some, according to Pilgrim Hall Museum, the “First Thanksgiving” may present a distorted picture of history of relations between the European colonists and their descendants, and the Native Indian population in the New World. When Gov. John Winthrop (Massachusetts Bay Colony) proclaimed a “thanksgiving” for the successful massacre of the Native Indian tribe, it was essentially part of a long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern repeated itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of the original Native Indian population had been exterminated and the remainder were left to assimilate into White society—or die off on reservations—supposedly out of the view of “polite society.”