With the Fourth of July holiday upon us, locals will gather for barbecues and fireworks outings. But that hasn’t always been the case.
In the wake of the Civil War, in July 1866, when Macon was still occupied by Union troops, a small group of blacks celebrated America’s independence, a national festivity since 1777.
But many in the city were not so inclined to cheer.
The Telegraph’s archives tell the story of that second Independence Day after the War Between the States.
As the black population, made up mostly of recently freed slaves, came from as far as 10 miles away on foot and horseback to celebrate, white Southerners were apprehensive to join in.
“The Fourth was unenthusiastically celebrated in our little city of Macon,” read a front-page write-up in the July 6, 1866, edition of The Telegraph. “Beyond the colored population, enough excitement to raise a genteel perspiration was not elicited the whole day.”
In Macon, with the exception of riverside salutes from the military, it was the black community that celebrated the holiday “as wholly harmless and apparently full of joy to them.”
Those in attendance ate a “barbecued hog with all the fixins” as they gathered around for religious and political speeches, the newspaper reported.
“Really for the first time ever African-Americans could look at the concept at the Fourth of July and the concept of independence and really internalize it,” said Buckner Melton, professor of history and political science at Middle Georgia State University.
Whites still did not feel that they had a place as American citizens, which probably led them not to celebrate the Fourth, said Thomas Earl Stevens, commander of the Bibb County division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“I would guess in 1866 Reconstruction was kicking in pretty good and (the celebrating) would have been so much of what the Union would have done that they probably took a break from (the celebration),” Stevens said.
A Telegraph reporter at the time went on to note that not celebrating the holiday furthered the apathy whites felt toward the national government.
“Our folks are poor dissemblers and until we are assured that we are indeed Americans and full citizens of the United States,” the reporter wrote in explaining why they would not celebrate Independence Day.
It was not until the late 1890s that some of the former Confederates began to feel like part of the country again, Melton said.
Decades after they’d fought against their adversaries from the North, Confederates joined in the Spanish-American War, part of a burst of “ultra-nationalism,” Melton said.
That divided Fourth back in 1866, though, was not without some fireworks.
As The Telegraph’s correspondent put it in the closing of his holiday dispatch: “At night a few rockets were set off. And these constituted about the only public recognition of the day.”