Negro Election Days and Coronation Festivals

Negro Election Days and Coronation Festivals

Date Observed: May or June
Location: New England

During 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.

Historical Background

Some historians contend that slaves in the New England colonies had relatively more freedom than bondspeople in the South. Slave owners allowed various holidays for recreation, and one was election or coronation day in May or June, when masters and slaves alike gathered in the towns to vote. 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. For example, in Connecticut, the grandson of an African prince was elected governor, and his son, said to be physically well built and a witty speaker, was elected after him.

The elected person was a leader in the local slave community and served as a judge, mediator, and liaison with slaveowners. He was also an intermediary with ancestors, an important role in many African religions. It is not clear how much power the governor had, but he could mete out punishment - sometimes flogging or even execution - and in general attempted to control morals and manners among slaves.

Creation of the Observance

Negro Election Day festivities began as early as the 1740s and continued in New England for almost a century. 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.

Observance

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.

Contacts and Web Sites

"Connecticut's 'Black Governors'" History and Genealogy Unit Connecticut State Library 231 Capitol Ave. Hartford, CT 06106 860-757-6500

Seacoast New Hampshire Black History P.O. Box 4458 Portsmouth, NH 03802 603-427-2020

Further Reading

Lawrence, Lee. "Chronicling Black Lives in Colonial New England." Christian Science Monitor , October 29, 1997. /1997/10/29/feat/feat.1.html. Piersen, William. Black Legacy: America's Hidden Heritage. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993. ---. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Sub-Culture in Eighteenth-Century New England . Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. White, Shane. "'It Was a Proud Day': African American Festivals and Parades in the North, 1741-1834." Journal of American History, June 1994. Nicodemus Emancipation and Homecoming Celebration
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007