When President Abraham Lincoln abolished the practice of slavery in the United States, he brought America closer to the ideals of “liberty and justice for all” that this country stands for. Emancipation – the guaranteed freedom of everyone living in America – is an important milestone to celebrate.

Different dates have been chosen to commemorate emancipation in different parts of the country. Though President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, it didn’t immediately break all chains that enslaved African Americans. It required a Union victory in the Civil War to insure that emancipation would remain the law.

News of the emancipation was slow to travel through a country torn by war, so Emancipation Day was often celebrated at different times in different regions. One of the best known dates comes from Texas history. Juneteenth celebrates the day that news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, after the Civil War had ended.

In Indian Territory, persons held as slaves by members of the Five Tribes were not freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. For many decades, freedmen in Oklahoma celebrated Aug. 4 as Emancipation Day.

This date relates to the ratification of the Reconstruction Treaties signed by the Five Tribes in 1866. It was these treaties that provided for emancipation in Indian Territory.

Grant Foreman reported that Muskogee was one gathering place for freedmen to join together for the celebration. Much preparation went into the event, and freedmen would gather from far and near for a joyful camp meeting on the north edge of town. Similar celebrations have been recorded in Tahlequah, Okmulgee and other towns among the Five Tribes.

The celebration was a time for reunions of family and friends, much food, music and dancing and plenty of speech-making. Food vendors offered their wares throughout the camp, and a big picnic was always part of the event. Those who played instruments would bring out their fiddles, guitars and banjos to gather at a makeshift platform. Dancing and song were enjoyed by all who had come for the celebration.

The event usually lasted for more than one day, and sometimes would continue for a week or so as more people would arrive each day. Of course, the work of the farm or factory or business eventually would call them all back to their everyday lives and the week-long celebration would come to a satisfactory end.

Though the celebration of Aug. 4 as Emancipation Day continued well past statehood, the crowds who gathered grew smaller year by year. As the older generation passed on, the significance of Aug. 4 was forgotten. Perhaps Oklahomans should revive a celebration of this important moment of our past – the Fourth of August – as our state’s Emancipation Day.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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