1741 - 2017
NEGRO ELECTION DAY HISTORY
In the 18th century, slaves in New England were allowed to elect their own governors or kings while their owners voted in colonial elections. Slaves held a day long festival known as Negro Election Day, or in the case of an elected king, a coronation festival. The title of the elected office depended on whether the colony was self-governing or closely tied to Britain.
Slaves could not vote for the colony's governor, but in separate outdoor activities sanctioned by slaveholders, slaves annually elected a Negro (the term used at the time) as their governor or king. The person elected often either belonged to a wealthy master or came from a family of chiefs or kings in Africa.
The elected person was a leader in the local slave community and served as a judge, mediator, and liaison with slave owners. He was also an intermediary with ancestors, an important role in many African religions.
Creation of the Observance
Negro Election Day also known as Hallowday was held in colonial Boston on the Common, in Salem and in Lynn, Mass and in at least a dozen other cities and towns around New England recorded as early as the 1740s first location being Massachusetts and continued in New England for almost a century. Nero was one of at least 31 elected black kings and governors identified by historians throughout New England from about 1750 to 1850. Even before the Negro Election began in Lynn, African immigrants honored a prince of Africa named Pompey. He had been captured and sold, but freed when he grew too old to work. Pompey moved to a little glade near the Saugus River, where every year he hosted a holiday for the African bondsmen from nearby towns. He was the host, guest of honor and master of ceremonies. Women picked flowers to crown old King Pompey, and the men would sit and talk about happier times on the Gambia River in West Africa.
The day-long ceremonies varied somewhat among different communities, but they were generally a blend of African and colonial practices. Slaves were able to maintain some of their African traditions, take part in political activities of their own, and also enjoy socializing, recreation, and colorful processions.
Before festivities began on election day, slaves held meetings to listen to candidates' speeches. Over several weeks they debated each other to determine who among them should be chosen governor or king. Once the election took place, the winner paraded through town on a horse borrowed from his master, with aides on each side also riding on borrowed horses. The parade included the entire slave community (or at least all who were able),dressed in their best festive attire. Some played fifes, fiddles, drums, and horns. After the parade, people gathered for a feast, then competed in athletic contests, dancing, gambling, and drinking.
For many whites, the election festivities were "amusing" and reinforced their stereotypical view that slaves were mere children imitating their masters. But for slaves, the elections were opportunities to exert some control over public expression and to demonstrate their solidarity as a community. These events also paved the way for political engagement of emancipated African Americans in later years.
As African Americans took more control over election days and coronation festivals - as they did with other early festivals, such as Pinkster white authorities began to curtail their observance by passing local laws against black gatherings. In addition, the abolition of slavery contributed to the festivals' demise, after which observances such as Emancipation Day and Juneteenth held more importance but in Massachusetts some of the traditions remained and it was called, “the Colored People’s”.
In 1885, Negro Election Day was relocated to Salem Willows Park and because the word Negro was no longer acceptable, its name became “the “Colored People’s Picnic”. The tradition continued throughout the 18th century, and dovetailed with another celebration started by clergy.
By the 1920’s the “colored people’s picnic” became more of a “Sunday School picnic” sponsored by black churches from Lynn, Malden, Everett, Cambridge, and Boston on the third Sunday of July.
In the early 20th century, the “Colored People’s Picnic” had church choirs performing, and track and field events were held. Dances were held with wonderful jazz performers, such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
During World War II, the picnic was switched to the third Saturday of July because Black American’s were working in factories and defense plants and weekends were the only option. Churches began to take a less active role after World War II.
The name the “Colored People’s Picnic” was changed in the 1968, due to the civil rights movement. Black Power was recognized and people refused to be called “Colored”, so the picnic was renamed the “Black Picnic”.
In 1990’s the Black Picnic brought larger crowds, corporate sponsors and much more.
In the 2000’s Black-Americans with roots from the North Shore and Boston still come from all over the United States to Salem Willows Park for an annual family-centric picnic on the third Saturday of July.