I learned about Juneteenth ridiculously late, from a student! It was about five or six years ago (only!) and I was talking about Salem’s Black Picnic, an old tradition recently revived, with a brilliant African-American student and she said “that sounds like Juneteenth” and that was that. I don’t remember whether I feigned acknowledgement out of embarrassment or not but inwardly I was mortified by my ignorance. Yes, I was trained in European history, but I’m an American too! Since that time, I’ve used my focus on local history here to learn more about African-American history in Salem: I’m still lacking the big picture but fortunately I have wonderful colleagues at Salem State who help me with context and filling in the blanks. I started putting together my own African-American history tour of Salem about three years ago, and it began (and ended) with Hamilton Hall, where the Remond family lived and worked for decades. This was more familiar territory for me, and the Hall remains my main window/entry/initiation and orientation point for Salem’s African-American history; its centrality is particularly marked this year because of a special exhibition on view all summer long: Unmasking & Evolution of Negro Election Day and the Black Vote. The creation of Salem United, Inc., the organization that revived the Black Picnic at Salem Willows in 2014, the exhibition draws connections between the colonial traditions of Negro Election Day, nineteenth-century African-American parades and picnics, and the Civil Rights struggles of the twentieth century. Salem, United Inc. President Doreen Wade’s enthusiasm for this history is so infectious that her history is transformed into ours.
Scenes from the exhibition: our host and guide Doreen Wade, reproduction dress for Negro Election Day royalty & the jelly bean test for voting from the 1960s, the Brick Hearth Room, very much the center of the Remonds’ activity in the Hall.
For me, this exhibition was about the power of place: I was really moved by the exhibits in the Brick Hearth Room (last photo above), where the Remonds, who struggled for personal, professional, racial, and citizenship recognition for so long, worked, adjacent to where they first lived. The connection between past and present also felt appropriate to me: the distinguished historian of slavery Ira Berlin asserted that Negro Election Day “established a framework for the development of black politics” and who am I to argue with that? It was a special day at the end of May, recognized in twenty or more cities throughout the northeast from the mid-eighteenth century, on which resident African-Americans celebrated, made merry and wore dress clothes (sometimes belonging to their masters), elected notable “kings” or “governors” from among their own, and enjoyed a brief interlude of freedom and agency. To me, it looks like the medieval and early modern festivals of Europe, where everything was turned upside down for a day and peasants elected a “Lord of Misrule,” but it had African roots: I guess the drive for those on the bottom to live like those on the top for just a brief spell is universal. Negro Election Day is well-documented in Salem by most of its famous diarists. In 1741 Judge Benjamin Lynde identified May 27 as a day of “fair weather” and “Election: Negro’s hallowday here at Salem; gave Scip 5s. and Wm 2s. 6d.” indicating both recognition and a form of engagement, and William Pynchon seems to have had a similar attitude in 1788 when he went “to election at Primus’s flag,” indulged in the ale and pies offered at the festivities, and watched the dances. In 1817, the Reverend William Bentley noted “the still bewitching influence of what they call election” in his diary, but by the nineteenth century Election Day seems on the wane, replaced by more formal organizations like the Sons of the African Society in Salem with its dignified meetings and parades, and eventually by the Black Picnic at Salem Willows from 1880. While eighteenth-century white observers seem to be bemused by Negro Election Day, the nineteenth-century perspective seems more mocking, as you can see in the political commentary below: like a negro election King to-day but back again to-morrow. Besides the juxtaposition of objects in the Remond space, the most poignant exhibit in the Unmasking & Evolution exhibit for me was a photograph of a minstrel show at Salem Willows: apparently while the Black Picnic was happening, white Salem residents actually organized a performance with children in blackface to mock them. It’s quite an image on its own, but I think we need a bit more information about it. I can’t unsee it, and it reproduces badly here, so you should see it for yourself.
A minstrel show at Salem Willows—the exhibit caption says 1885 but it looks quite a bit later than that?
Obviously there is some rich history—American and African-American, both, together— encased in Hamilton Hall, in general and in particular this summer, so it’s the perfect place to start a Juneteenth tour. Some other suggestions: 8 High Street, where Clarissa Lawrence, fierce educator and abolitionist, lived among a small community of African-Americans, Aborn Street, where Salem’s first African-American teacher, Charlotte Forten, taught, at the former Epes School at number 21R, Oak Street, where Charlotte lived with Caroline Remond Putnam, daughter of John and Nancy Remond and an extremely active entrepreneur, abolitionist, and later suffragist, Higginson/Derby Squares, where the Remonds and other African-Americans had a succession of profitable businesses, and finally Harmony Grove Cemetery, where you can see the very striking and solitary grave of John Remond. And then to the Willows, of course.
Mrs. Nancy Remond was known for her Election Day cakes, which she offered not only during election week (last week of May) but all year long, Salem Gazette; John Remond’s grave stone in Harmony Grove Cemetery; more information about Salem United and the Black Picnic in Salem Willows is here.