SALEM UNITED ORGANIZATION KEEPS ALIVE “NEGRO ELECTION DAY” HISTORY

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[Black History\Negro Election Day\Black Picnic Day]
Doreen Wade: "In the 1740’s, freed black American’s and slaves in Massachusetts gathered on land given to Prince Pompeo, a freed slave. This land was given by his white slave owner and he used it to celebrate a holiday called 'Negro Election Day."
Photo Salem United

Doreen Wade, President of the Salem United organization, is fighting and advocating for the preservation of  "Negro Election Day," also known as "Black Picnic Day."

One of the greatest tombstones sitting silent in Massachusetts is “Negro Election Day.” Its history chronicles the first documented record of Black Self-Governing in this country’s history but is hidden behind a suppressed present.

In the 1740’s, freed Black Americans and slaves in Massachusetts gathered on land given to Prince Pompeo, a freed slave. This land was given by his white slaveowner and he used it to celebrate a holiday called “Negro Election Day." For the first few years of celebration, Prince Pompeo served as the host, guest of honor, and master of ceremonies. His actual address, still being pursued, is documented as being located on the Saugus River. The Saugus River is 13 miles long and passes through Wakefield, Lynnfield, Saugus--and locates Lynn, Massachussets as an important place in the first documented Negro Election Day.

Many people ask about Negro Election Day’s history and after it is explained the response is usually, “Well, I thought it was just a picnic, I know nothing about slaves.” To this Doreen Wade, President of Salem United, responds “Our Massachusetts ancestors were the leaders of Black-Self Governing. Why is this so hard to believe?” With so many doubters, Wade began to gather as many documents as possible, all being verified and recognized by the National Historical Society.

Today, these documents have also been recorded in Salem’s Historical District in the Salem Willows Park Registry. Not understanding its Massachusetts Roots & Wings, people from various locations in Massachusetts question, “Why is Negro Election Day not Boston?”

Wade states, “Slaves were not allowed to congregate on public property, which included the Boston Common which was famous for public meetings. Slaveowners and the white colony government wanted slaves in a more controlled area far away from where white voting was taking place. This was a way of keeping slaves distracted while white men in Massachusetts voted for their leaders.”

Long before Emancipation and Civil Rights, whites came up with, what they thought, was an amusing way to keep Blacks occupied. They stereotyped Blacks as mere children imitating their masters with this annual ritual. The annual ritual was to allow Slaves to hold their own elections once a year. However, slaves saw it as an opportunity to exert some control over public expression and to demonstrate their solidarity as a community. Thus, began the history of Black self-governing.

In this separate outdoor activity, sanctioned by slaveholders, slaves annually elected a Negro (the term used at the time) as their governor. The person elected often either belonged to a wealthy master or came from a family of chiefs or kings in Africa. The elected person was a leader in the local slave community and served as a judge, mediator, and liaison with slaveowners. He was also a negotiator with ancestors, an important role in many African religions.

Slaves and Freed Blacks from all over Massachusetts and some from other New England areas, dressed in their best festive attire. The day-long ceremonies were a blend of African and colonial practices. Slaves were able to maintain some of their African traditions, take part in political activities of their own and enjoy socializing, recreation, and colorful processions.

Before festivities began on Negro Election Day, slaves and Blacks held meetings to listen to candidates' speeches. Over several weeks they debated each other to determine who among them should be chosen Governor. Once the election took place, the winner paraded through town on a horse borrowed from his master, with aides on each side also riding on borrowed horses. After the parade, people gathered for a feast, then competed in athletic contests, dancing, gambling, and drinking.

Interpreting History

The actions of the first Communities of Massachusetts Slaves was an important symbol of sovereignty and unique for the time. Massachusetts lead the way in establishing this custom. It was later launched, in the 1750s, in Connecticut and spread to other New England colonies. The growth of this festival transformed the way slaves and Freed Blacks took more control over election days and coronation festivals. This intimidated white authorities who began to curtail their observance by passing local laws against Black gatherings, such as the Boston Common. It continued into the 1850’s, and in Massachusetts, the foundation is still situated at the location it has been at since 1885--Salem Willows Park, Salem MA. The observance is made on the 3rd Saturday of July.

Today, Negro Election Day, which many call, Black Picnic Day is organized by a collection of nine Massachusetts residents known as “Salem United.” The organization was established in 2015 for several things including:

(1) To PRESERVE this history for the community and to continue to assemble people from all throughout Massachusetts (today a more diverse group) and to convene on the grounds of Salem Willows Park in Salem, MA.

(2) To PROTECT this Legacy established in 1740’s.

(3) To BUILD on its activities from the 1740’s, such as the Negro Election Day Parade (without the horse).

Today, more modern themes relevant to uplifting, educating and inspiring our communities through Vendor education, Voter Education, and Registration have been added.

Decades later, we often remember the work of the slaves as we do many great moments of history. We create Monuments and Memorials and honor the movement’s anniversaries with holidays and heroes. One of the goals Salem United is pursuing is the making of “Negro Election Day” into a State Holiday. In January 2019, we began that process. A Bill to do so was filed by Senator Joan Lovely, a Democratic member of the Massachusetts Senate. Senator Lovely's respect for Salem United’s work, along with her interest in Black History, and interest in the Second Essex district in Massachusetts, is evident. In February, 2020, Salem United awaits the final decision and completion of this initiative.

When Doreen Wade, President of Salem United was asked, why this history is so important to today’s movements, she responded, “We need to develop a new way to remember our people’s movement, movements like Negro Election Day and what its history stands for. We are accustomed to thinking of our history from the perspective of leaders and seminal moments. We need to remember Negro Election Day history in a reorganized way toward empowerment. The power to understand the vote so as to be able to vote. The power to know your value and your worth and make that work for your community and your people.”

Salem United has had its struggles, we have encountered difficulties, we have even encountered racism, but together, political leaders, Organizations and many in the community have worked through our setbacks and continue to work in partnerships, collaborations and more, to make us stronger in Preserving, Protecting and Building on one of the most important events in Black Massachusetts history – Black Self-Governing."

Article written by Salem United President Doreen Wade. For more information on Salem United log on to their website: https://www.salemunitedinc.org/

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