Why New Year’s Day Is So Important For Black History
New Year’s Day has been a moment of significant change for Black people.
December 30, 2021 at 1:27 pm
This Saturday is New Year's Day, and after the extremely tumultuous 2020 and 2021, many of us are cautiously optimistic that Jan. 1 will bring a better year for our community, country and world. While looking toward the future, it is also helpful to remember the past and to reflect on how the beginning of the year has been an important day for Black people in America and around the world. Here are five of the most important events that have happened on New Year's Day.
1. Haiti was established as the world’s first Independent Black republic in 1804.
The independent nation of Haiti arose from the French colony Saint-Domingue, which existed as a society built on slavery. Over time, the island colony developed a diversified society, with some free Black and mixed-raced people achieving significant financial success and even social standing. Racial tensions were always high, however, and the white colonists — backed by the French government — were focused on maintaining the slave-based economy and preventing the free Black and mixed-raced residents from gaining too much political or social power.
Eventually, tensions within the colony were brought to a head by several factors, including resistance from enslaved people and attempts by white colonists to strip away rights from free Black and mixed-race residents. The influence of the French Revolution overthrew the king in the name of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” and many enslaved people began to seek the same freedoms. The Haitian Revolution was largely led by individuals who had escaped from slavery, including Toussaint L’Ouverture, who was eventually captured by the French and became a martyr for the cause and a revered father figure for the newly emerging nation. The revolution eventually defeated the forces of French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte. After conducting the world’s first and only successful slave revolt, the leaders of the revolution declared the independence of the world’s first Black republic, now named Haiti, on New Year’s Day 1804. This momentous achievement not only freed the island nation’s population but also inspired Black people in the U.S. and around the world to believe that they too could throw off the chains of slavery and oppression.
2. Congress banned the international slave trade in 1808.
As documented in works like The 1619 Project, slavery in the United States existed long before the U.S. was an independent country, and Black oppression has played a large role in the country since its beginning. Nevertheless, the U.S. and its leaders have often been ambivalent about slavery in the country. For instance, as Blavity previously reported, Thomas Jefferson, himself a notorious slaveholder, originally wrote an anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence but was forced to remove it because it offended white Southern slaveholders and Northern slave traders. When the U.S. became independent, the divide over slavery, which generally pitted the slaveholding South against the non-slaveholding North, grew more intense.
To maintain peace between the states, a series of compromises were placed in the new Constitution, such as the provision that counted enslaved persons as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating taxes and representatives to Congress. Another compromise involved the importation of enslaved people from Africa — slaveholders and slave traders wanted to maintain the profitable international slave trade, while opponents of slavery wanted to abolish it. As a compromise, the Constitution allowed for the importation of enslaved people to be outlawed, but not until 1808 — 20 years after the Constitution was ratified. As historian Eric Foner noted, banning the international slave trade in 1808 did not end slavery in the U.S. By that point, enough enslaved people were being born in states like Virginia to meet the demand for slaves throughout the South. But, the ban was the first major victory for the abolitionist movement, and it was eventually followed by greater achievements and the emancipation of enslaved people through the Civil War and its aftermath.
3. Hiring Day, or Heartbreak Day, broke apart Black families.
As slavery endured in the United States for the first half of the 1800s, New Year’s Day became a time of particular anguish and fear for enslaved people. In addition to being a holiday, New Year’s Day was also a time when businesses and entrepreneurs would settle their debts — and because enslaved people were considered valuable property in the South, Black bodies were often used to pay white debts. New Year’s Day, therefore, became known as Hiring Day, the day that white slaveholders would rent or hire enslaved folks to other slaveholders or simply sell them outright, splitting up families in the process.
For enslaved people anxiously waiting to find out if their families would be broken apart, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day was the worst time of the year. The beginning of the year was referred to as “Heartbreak Day” by those who had to endure this cruel practice. Several formerly enslaved people wrote about the day in later memoirs. “Of all the days in the year, the slaves dread New Year’s Day the worst of any,” wrote Lewis Clark, who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist.
4. The Emancipation Proclamation takes effect in 1863.
As Blavity previously reported, President Abraham Lincoln did not see the end of slavery or the equality of Black people as the goal of the Civil War. Nevertheless, as the Confederate states continued to rebel against even the possibility of slavery being ended, Lincoln grew more willing to try radical measures to win the conflict. This included issuing a declaration that all enslaved people in the rebelling states were free, a move that Lincoln said was done to help the North win the war. Regardless of his motives, however, the Emancipation Proclamation was a huge deal, legally abolishing slavery in most of the country (it did not apply to slave states like Delaware that remained in the Union). The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on Sept. 22, 1862, but went into effect on New Year’s Day 1863.
Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke of the importance of this moment in a speech he gave at Spring Street AME Zion Church in Rochester, New York, on the Sunday before emancipation. “It surpasses our most enthusiastic hopes that we live at such a time and are likely to witness the downfall, at least the legal downfall, of slavery in America,” he said. Describing the emotions that he and Black people around the country felt, Douglass declared, “It is a moment for joy, thanksgiving and praise.” Black people around the country gathered in churches on New Year’s Eve to praise, pray and celebrate the coming emancipation, creating a tradition of Watch Night services that presently continues in Black churches across the U.S. Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately end the war or even prevent slavery from continuing in the South, as noted in the tradition of Juneteenth, it did in many ways strike the death blow against American slavery — on New Year’s Day 1863, Black people across the South finally woke up free, whether they knew it yet or not.
5. David Dinkins takes office as the first Black mayor of New York City in 1990.
New York City is home to the largest Black population in the United States, but this has not always been reflected in the city’s leadership. That all changed on New Year’s Day 1990, when David Dinkins was sworn in as the city’s first Black mayor. As the New York Times reported, Dinkins himself noted the historic moment of being “the first Black to head the nation’s largest city.” Mayor Dinkins expressed to the crowd gathered in front of City Hall that "I stand before you today as the elected leader of the greatest city of a great nation, to which my ancestors were brought, chained and whipped in the hold of a slave ship." Referencing his election, he added that ''we have not finished the journey toward liberty and justice, but surely we have come a long way.''
Dinkins, the son of a barber, graduated from Howard University and Brooklyn Law School before entering politics, and was chosen to lead the city at a time of intense racial strife, with incidents like the arrest and wrongful conviction of the Exonerated Five fresh in voters’ minds. As the New York Times reported, Dinkins was ultimately unable to tone down racial tensions that spilled over during his term as mayor. Nevertheless, his achievements as mayor included appointing diverse leaders to top positions in the city and remaining a calm and upstanding example of leadership even in the face of racial attacks within the city and against him personally. As Blavity previously reported, Dinkins died last November, less than two months after the passing of his wife, Joyce. New York City is now poised to have only its second Black mayor, former police captain and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who was elected earlier this year and is set to be sworn in during the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration.
Beyond the start of the Adams administration in New York, it remains to be seen what the new year will ring in for Black Americans and the country as a whole. And with the COVID-19 pandemic resurging, many of this year’s Watch Night services and New Year’s Eve celebrations will be conducted from home. But Black Americans remain hopeful that this New Year’s Day will bring some much-needed relief and positive changes for our community and the world.