Black Election Day in New England
Black Election Day in 18th Century New England
In New England, election day was not just a special day to white citizens,
but to the slave population as well. Depending on the location within New
England, slaves in the mid-18th century elected their own governors and
kings. While the position of governor or king did not entitle them to
official power, it gave the winner status among slaves.
The first elections of black kings and governors began in the early 18th
century in New England capital cities and charter colonies. Elections were
held in Newport, Rhode Island in 1756, in Hartford, Connecticut in 1766, and
by the 1770s, in Norwich, Connecticut and Salem, Massachusetts. By the end
of the 18th century, similar elections took place in Portsmouth, New
Hampshire and in Danvers, Lynn, and North Bridgewater in Massachusetts.
Black elections took place over the course of a week and occurred at the
same time as white elections.
The title of king or governor depended upon whether a slave lived in a
colony or royal colony. In colonies where whites chose their own governors,
such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, elected black officials were called
governors. In royal colonies, such as New Hampshire, where whites governors
were appointed, black elected officials were called kings.
Food, activities, socializing, lobbying, and clothing were important to the
celebration. Most slaves borrowed clothing from their masters and
mistresses. The most popular attire were uniforms because they were
considered dignified. A slave master was also aware of the importance of
his slave's attire. Slaves had the same status as their master, so a poorly
dressed slave was a reflection on the master. Therefore, masters did not
hesitate to provide appropriate attire.
Election day activities were also central to the celebration. They were a
combination of African American and Euro-American traditions. For instance,
from white traditions came pitching pennies and quoits and from black
traditions came wrestling, stick fighting, and dancing. Other activities
common to both cultures were running races and jumping activities.
Like in white elections, only men were allowed to vote, but women lobbied
for the candidate they supported. Candidates also lobbied on their own
behalf. Voting differed depending on the location. Some used voice vote,
while in other places, voters stood in line behind the candidate they
supported. After the results were tallied, candidates were honored in an
inaugural parade. Gunfire and music accompanied participants as they
marched to the post-election party. The parade ended at the home of the
master of the slave governor or king. Slaves then enjoyed the
post-election celebration given by the winner's master. The master of the
elected official provided the food, alcohol, and decorations for the
celebration. The festivities included dancing, drinking, and socializing.
While the black governor or king did not have official power, whites
supported black elections. Whites thought that the elections were amusing
but not a threat. It was also beneficial to them because they wanted to use
black governors and kings as enforcers of social propriety. But for slaves,
it was a time to freely socialize and take part in the festivities. And for
the newly elected official, he was able to enjoy the status of his position
as king or governor.
Piersen, William D., Black Yankees, (University of Massachusetts Press,
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