Thanksgiving is a time-honored tradition among American families that was once used to celebrate the nation’s victory over the British in Saratoga during the Revolutionary War in 1777.
Across the 13 colonies, enslaved Blacks also joined in celebration by expressing their thankfulness for the victory at their churches.
In October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation to officially celebrate the holiday, months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation earlier in the year. Thanksgiving was also a period where slaves would often try to escape due to the ending of crop season, but with the new law, it morphed into a time where newly freed Blacks could come together.
Rev. Benjamin W. Arnett, a well-known minister at Urbana Ohio’s St. Paul A.M.E. Church, gave a stirring sermon on November 30, 1876 that addressed the importance of Thanksgiving but also called on America to treat its free Black citizens with fairness and dignity in the coming years.
“And in America, the battle-field of modern thought, we can trace the foot-prints of the one and the tracks of the other. So let us use all of our available forces, and especially our young men, and throw them into the conflict of the Right against the Wrong.
Then let the grand Centennial Thanksgiving song be heard and sung in every house of God; and in every home may thanksgiving sounds be heard, for our race has been emancipated, enfranchised and are now educating, and have the gospel preached to them!”
Arnett was an active civil rights proponent and a member of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League. He was also a member of the National Convention of Colored Men, and in 1872, he became the first Black man to serve as a foreman for an all-white jury.
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