This broadside, published in 1818, satirizes the African Society of Boston's annual celebration of the abolition of the slave trade, a tradition that began in 1808. It is one example of a genre of broadsides mocking free blacks in the early years of the nineteenth century. Although the imprint at the foot of the page reads "Printed at Greenfield" in Western Massachusetts, this could well be a spurious imprint designed to further disguise the anonymous publisher of the sheet.
In June of 1797, Prince Hall addressed his fellow Masons at the African Lodge at Menotomy (present-day Arlington, Massachusetts), referring to violence against them and urging "Patience I say, for were we not possess'd of a great measure of it you could not bear up under the daily insults you meet with in the streets of Boston; much more on public days of recreation, how are you shamfully abus'd, and that at such a degree, that you may truly be said to carry your lives in your hands." Clearly, although Boston's blacks were "free" by law, they were far from being equal, on days of public celebration, or even on the Fourth of July in the "Cradle of Liberty."
According to historian Len Travers, the dawn of the nineteenth century found Northern blacks "on the margins of their society, physically and figuratively." In Boston, they lived in close quarters on the back side of Beacon Hill, but seem to have had a strong sense of community and were not without resources. In 1776, a Masonic African Lodge under Prince Hall had been sponsored by occupying British troops; in 1796, city blacks organized the African Society of Boston, with an eye toward mutual aid; and in 1805, the First African Baptist Church in Boston began. Shane White observed in "'It was a Proud Day': African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741-1834," that, as the city grew and the black community became more literate and upwardly mobile, the same urban environment that "gave blacks a chance … also brought them face to face with a white population who nourished a deep-seated and intensifying racism and resented any sign of African-American achievement."
Although early Independence Day celebrations were open to all, as tensions between the races increased, blacks were discouraged, or outright chased from Independence Day and other public celebrations. "Negro Election Day," usually held in May or June in conjunction with white celebrations of election week, was the one day on the calendar that blacks in Boston could enjoy the Common unmolested. Yet, whites even treated that celebration as a source of entertainment and derision eventually changing the day to winter, further oppressing and marginalizing the community.
Denied the opportunity to celebrate public holidays, free Northern blacks created their own holiday commemorating the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The first Boston celebration, held on 14 July 1808, was favorably described in detail in the Independent Chronicle of 18 July as regular, decent, devout and solemn. The editors went on to add, however, that although the "events celebrated by these people [emphasis added] are certainly of great interest to the cause of humanity and religion … we think, however, one celebration of this kind sufficient." Undissuaded, the African Society continued its annual July 14th observance. While the 1818 address noted that 14 July had been chosen "for convenience merely," Abolition Day shares the date with Bastille Day—whether coincidence or not is lost to history.
Abolition day began with a dignified, yet celebratory, procession to the African Meeting House, where a sermon was presented to the crowd, followed by a dinner. When newspapers took note of the event at all, it was generally in positive terms. Newspapers reported that 1818's anniversary "would have done honour to any assemblage, whatever" and that 1819’s procession had its "usual spirit and magnificence," but in 1820, hints of the persecution Boston’s blacks faced were hinted at in the Boston Daily Advertiser
The blacks of this town yesterday observed their annual festival … A crowd of persons assembled to witness their procession in State-street, and the neighboring streets, but were disappointed. The celebraters very judiciously adopted a different and shorter route, and thus avoided much of the ridicule which they usually encounter.
A correspondent in the Liberator in 1847 recalled that Abolition Day processions "were followed by the rabble; hissed, hooted and groaned at every turn; and one would suppose that Bedlam had broken loose." William Cooper Nell's Colored Patriots of the American Revolution goes further, reporting a violent holiday melee that nearly ended in gunfire.
It is in this milleu that "Bobolition" broadsides like the two held by the Society fit. Written in stereotypical "black dialect" and occasionally featuring grotesque caricatures, these broadsides mocked African Americans and what whites considered black pretensions to literacy, respectability, and upward mobility. Clearly intended to provoke whites, especially those whom Prince Hall called out years earlier as "shameless, low-lived, envious, spiteful persons, some of them not long since servants in gentlemen's kitchings, scouring knives, tending horses and driving chaise," these broadsides would have been, according to Shane White, "plastered all over Boston in advance of the event."
While the popularity of these broadsides proved short lived, they quickly morphed into minstrel shows and Jim Crow characterizations on an endless variety of advertisements, featuring "watermelon-eating negroes" and relentless buffoonery, that would only grow and reach ever greater proportions at the turn of the twentieth century.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis and Donald Yacovone, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Carlsbad, Calif.: SmileyBooks, 2013.
Gray, Thomas. A Sermon, Delivered in Boston, Before the African Society, on the 14th day of July, 1818; the Anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Boston: Parmenter and Norton, 1818.
Hall, Prince. A Charge, Delivered to the African Lodge, June 24, 1797 at Menotomy. [Mass].: Published by the Desire of the Members of said Lodge, 1797.
Nell, William C. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. Boston: R.F. Wallcut, 1855.
Reply to Bobalition of Slavery! Dialogue between Scipio and Cato, and Sambo and Phillis, occasioned by reading the account of to bobalition proceedings, as detailed in aletter from Cesar Gobbo, to his friend Marco Mushy, residing in the country … [Boston, 1819]
Sweet, John Wood. Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
Travers, Len. Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
White, Shane, "'It was a Proud Day': African Americans, Festivals, and Parades in the North, 1741-1834", Journal of American History, 81:1 (June 1994), p. 13-50.