by Shannon Butler

By now, you have most certainly heard of Juneteenth, our new federal holiday that celebrates the emancipation of African American slaves here in the United States. However, did you know that before there was ever a Juneteenth, there was another holiday based on the same idea, only for a different nation? Emancipation Day is a holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the British Empire, which took place on August 1, 1833. It is still celebrated today all over the Caribbean, as slavery was such a large part of that area’s history. For abolitionists in 19th century America, they celebrated this holiday as a beacon of hope, no doubt convinced that if the British could do it, so could we.

On August 2, 1858, Poughkeepsie was the site of a massive celebration and a speech by one of the greatest lecturers that the abolitionists had on their side, Frederick Douglass. Douglass had seen the evils of slavery firsthand. Who better to discuss the importance of emancipation than he? This was not the first time that Douglass would appear in the City of Poughkeepsie. His first visit and public lecture came in October of 1847, when he spoke at the Congregational Church. At that early date the local papers referred to him as “the fugitive slave.” However, by the time he came to deliver his speech in 1858, the papers described him as “the greatest orator of the day, Frederick Douglass Esq.”

Boats and trains filled with people from all over the state arrived at the city, and thousands poured onto Main Street to make the procession to the stage at College Grove (the west side of College Hill). Members of the Zion church on Catherine Street and the United Benevolent Temperance Society, along with the help of Flockton’s brass band lead the march to the site where speeches and music could be heard. The Poughkeepsie Journal praised Douglass for his passionate words, as he went on to speak for two hours and captivated the crowd of over 4,000. That evening, the meeting had moved into the Universalist Church where Douglass spoke again.

If you would like to see a reenactment of this speech, you are in luck! On August 1, 2021, the folks from Celebrating the African Spirit will be offering a special program at College Hill Park to pay tribute to this historic event. Paul Oakley Stovall (of the Broadway hit Hamilton) will perform the words of Frederick Douglass and there will be musical performances by Souls United of Hudson Valley, an interfaith gospel choir, and the Center for Creative Education’s Percussion Orchestra of Kingston, a multicultural youth ensemble. This event runs from 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM and is free to all.

Poughkeepsie Journal – 09 Oct 1847, 07 Aug 1858 by Bill Jeffway

01 – Image of Frederick Douglass from the Library of Congress.
02 – Engraving, based on a daguerreotype by S.L. Walker, of the view of Poughkeepsie, as seen from the top of College Hill. 4V14LD24 – LH Collections
03 – Snipping of the Poughkeepsie Journal article 7 Aug 1858.