“1st of August” Emancipation Day Celebrations

Excerpt from Preston E Pierce’s A Tour Guide to Black History Sites in Canandaigua, NY.

Some years, “1st of August” Emancipation Day celebrations were hosted by Black residents of the Canandaigua area. They included picnics with baseball and other games held on the county fairgrounds, at the end of Fort Hill Avenue and at earlier fair sites near the end of Gorham Street; and on Public Square. Many Black families lived in the Granger Street – Fort Hill Avenue – Park Street area near these fairgrounds. Other years, the Emancipation Day celebrations were held at popular parks and sites in other Western New York communities, including Seneca Point Hotel after a steamboat ride up the Canandaigua Lake. Those celebrations drew thousands of people from all around Upstate New York.


The “1st of August” celebration commemorated the end of slavery in the British Empire on August 1st, 1834. Before the Civil War, it was considered by many to be a shining example of what the United States should do. There were close ties between American and British abolitionists and men like Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown toured Britain several times Emancipation Day celebrations continued for decades after the Civil War.

While these fairgrounds hosted the Emancipation Day celebrations, they were also a place where racism was sometimes actually promoted as entertainment. The brief article below was published in the Ontario County Times on Sep. 14, 1921:


The officials of the Agricultural Society yesterday afternoon closed a deal for another top notcher in the way of a free attraction for the County Fair. They have arranged for a so-called Darktown Derby, a running race in which four mules, ridden by four darkies, will be contestants. Two of these races will be pulled off every afternoon during the three days of the fair. This is said to be the most exciting and side-splitting performance ever show on a track.

At the time, it was considered good publicity that would attract crowds to the fair. While it is blatantly racist, it is also an artifact of its time. During the 1920s, there was also a rising tide of anti-immigrant; anti-Jewish; anti-Catholic sentiment marked by openly held meetings of a new version of the Ku Klux Klan in Ontario County and throughout the nation.