New York, NY - In October 1863, months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation earlier in the year, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official holiday. Before the Emancipation, Thanksgiving was when slaves often tried to escape due to the end of the crop season. However, with the new law, Thanksgiving became a time when newly freed Blacks could unite. For many in the Black community, Thanksgiving began as a church-based celebration wherein pastors often preached about our struggles, hopes, fears, and triumphs.
On November 30, 1876, Rev. Benjamin W. Arnett*, a well-known minister at Urbana, Ohio’s St. Paul A.M.E. Church, gave a stirring sermon 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 battlefield of modern thought, we can trace the footprints 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!”
The tradition continues today. On “Thanksgiving Sunday,” Black ministers are still preaching sermons about our struggles, our hopes, our fears, and our triumphs. Black ministers preach sermons about the goodness of God and ask congregants to share the bountifulness of God with others. Sunday School children perform and, in some cases, write skits about what Thanksgiving means to them. Many churches serve dinner to members and community residents on Thanksgiving Day.
I grew up in building 60 at the Abraham Lincoln Housing Projects in Harlem, New York City. Naming housing projects after dead presidents was popular in the 50s -- Jefferson, Wilson, and Taft, to name a few. On Thanksgiving morning, the kids in building 60 would run up and down the steps, floor to floor, and pop in for an early morning sweet treat at the Jones’ in apartment 9A and sample the pan drippings from Miss Mary’s baked ham in apartment 7F. It was a 14-story “high-rise,” and we made the rounds. Of course, we were admonished to save some room for dinner. It was an elevated building, but it was more fun racing up and down the stairs. And, back in the day, it was safe to race up and down the stairs. In fact, on Thanksgiving, everyone left their doors open, and you could smell the aroma of sweet potato and apple pie wafting throughout the entire building. Around 5 o’clock, after romping around with my friends, I sat down at the dining table in my parents’ apartment to eat Thanksgiving dinner with the grown-ups.
I don’t live in the Lincoln Projects anymore, and I can’t race up and down the steps anymore, but I still smile when I think of those times and thank God for another day to say thanks.
*Arnett was an active civil rights proponent and a Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League member. 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. Reference: Like BlackAmericaWeb.com on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
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