Decades before the country’s founding, some Black Americans in Massachusetts could participate in a limited form of self-governance. And on Thursday, Massachusetts lawmakers backed a new state holiday to honor that long tradition of civic power.
The bill, which still needs Governor Charlie Baker’s approval, would set aside the third Saturday in July as Negro Election Day, recognizing the adoption of the first Black voting system in Massachusetts in 1741 — when Black people could still be held in bondage by white slaveholders.
The legislation comes as Salem held its annual celebration of the tradition Saturday at Salem Willows Park, where members of the region’s Black community have gathered for generations to commemorate their rights as Americans with parades, music, and festivities.
And that longstanding experience with political expression must have broader recognition, advocates said Saturday.
“Black Election Day should be more widely known and celebrated in the state of Massachusetts because it raises awareness of Black people’s quest for equality, for full and equal participation, and the long struggle for justice,” said Northeastern University’s Kabria Baumgartner in an e-mail. “It shows that African Americans have enriched Massachusetts for centuries.”
Kibibi V. Mack-Shelton, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston, hailed the legislation and the community celebration.
“Today, acknowledging this history of Negro Election Day celebrates both an era of early Black participation in politics and an era showing the willingness Blacks had to select and choose their own spokesperson or leader” by voting, she told the Globe in an e-mail Saturday.
The Baker administration is reviewing the bill, which reached the governor’s desk Thursday, spokesman Terry MacCormack said in an e-mail Saturday.
The measure was sponsored by state Representative Paul F. Tucker and state Senator Joan B. Lovely, and was approved by lawmakers Thursday.
Lovely pointed to the Salem celebration in a statement about the legislation’s passage.
During World War II in Salem, the holiday was held on the third Saturday in July to ensure that Black people could attend while participating in the nation’s war effort, according to the statement.
“This annual celebration demonstrates that our communities of color have always been engaged in our Commonwealth’s civic process,” said Lovely in the statement.
Katie Hallett, a spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters — Salem, which also helped advocate for the legislation, said it showed that efforts to support voting rights must continue.
The measure honoring Black self-governance comes amid a rising white supremacist movement, and while states across the country restrict voting rights. Hallett said there must be recognition that all citizens have a right to vote.
“This fight is long, and the fight is not over,” Hallett said in a phone interview.
Doreen Wade, the president of Salem United, who helped advocate for the legislation, hailed the Legislature’s approval in the same statement.
“I am honored and proud that Negro Election Day, which was once a holiday in 1741, has now returned to its holiday status in 2022,” Wade said.
Wade, in a separate statement on Salem United’s website, said the group used the word “Negro” in the holiday’s name because West Africans who were brought to the American colonies called their governing system “Negro Election Day.”
She said she must honor those men and their decision to use the word “Negro” in the name.
“I do not believe, as Black Americans, we must always be the group who change their name whenever people decide it is not relevant to their lifestyle,” Wade said.
Mack-Shelton, who has taught a course in African American history up to 1865 for nearly three decades, said the traditions around Negro Election Day were “certainly not a norm” anywhere in antebellum America, according to Mack-Shelton.
Free Black people living in the New England colonies had access to literacy that led to more economic opportunities, and limited legal rights, such as the ability to petition courts, she said.
“While there is little to no evidence of restricted voting rights for qualified Black males, there were present in the northern colonies opportunities for Blacks to express themselves in their unique cultural ways,” she said.
White slaveholders in Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England allowed a practice that allowed slaves to choose a “Negro Governor” to serve as their leader, according to Mack-Shelton, followed with a big parade in celebration.
Similar festivities were also held in other places, including Louisiana, Cuba, and Brazil, she said.
This tradition “continued the African cultural practice of having their own community leaders to guide them, as they once did in freedom in their West African villages before enslavement,” she said.
“Having a semblance of their native life and a sense of cultural freedom was an anomaly during this era, but the liberalism of New England’s milder slavery coupled with the region’s minuscule Black population allowed such personal contact and ceremonies to occur,” she said.
While white slaveholders controlled such elections, which allowed them to manipulate the Black community, the experience of choosing a leader became a learned experience for Black people and benefited them during emancipation and the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which guaranteed Black men the right to vote, according to Mack-Shelton.
The history of Negro Election Day is clear in its message about “people who wanted to determine their own destiny even if controlled by their masters,” she said. “This remains a largely unknown unique occurrence in early African American history.”
Massachusetts courts finally ended slavery as a legal practice after a series of court cases, but it could still be found in the state through the end of the 18th century, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Baumgartner, who is dean’s associate professor of history and Africana studies and associate director of public history at Northeastern, said she has found records of election day celebrations by Black people in six Essex County towns from the mid-18th to early 19th centuries — in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, along with other locations in the Americas.
But there is a distinct tradition of the holiday in Massachusetts, she said.
The earliest Massachusetts event she has found so far was recorded by a white lawyer on May 27, 1741. According to Baumgartner, the entry read, “Fair weather, Election; Negro’s hallowday here at Salem.”
She said Black Election Day was an “ode” to a West African past.
It’s “an expression of Black joy amid the horrors of enslavement and oppression, and, most importantly, it became an alternative way for Black people to exercise civic power,” she said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.