You’ve probably heard of Juneteenth, but have you ever heard of Emancipation Day? Emancipation Day has been celebrated on different dates in the U.S. since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The tradition of Watch Night is still sometimes celebrated in Black churches on December 31st to commemorate the night that abolitionists waited up for word of whether Lincoln had signed the proclamation. For many, continuing to celebrate Watch Night and Emancipation Day on January 1st was also a way to commemorate another new year of freedom each
As you have probably noticed, January 1st coincides with another big holiday, so other dates were also used over the year but the federal government now officially recognizes Emancipation Day on April 16th, the day Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act. Juneteenth is an iteration Emancipation Day, first celebrated in 1865 and now widely recognized in the U.S., which commemorates the day enslaved people in Texas were notified of their freedom two and a half years after it had been signed into law.
At Cheyenne’s Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in the 1960s, Emancipation Day was recognized in January. The Allen Chapel AME is the oldest Black church in Wyoming. It was founded in 1878 by Reverend Whitlock and continues to operate more than 140 years later.
The American Heritage Center has a small collection of the Allen Chapel AME church’s records covering mainly the years 1967-1969. From these records, we can get a glimpse into what was important to the pastors and the congregation, including drives to raise funds for Christian educational and missionary work, annual conferences, Sunday school, and other special projects. For instance, Robert “Buck” Rhone included a letter to the congregation in the church service packet of 3 December 1968 appealing for funds for the church’s organ.
Robert “Buck” Rhone and his wife, Sudie, were active members of the congregation. Also active was their daughter Harriett Elizabeth Rhone, later known to Wyomingites as a dedicated teacher and the first Black woman to serve in the state Legislature, Liz Byrd.
In January of 1969, congregation member Casper Leroy Jordan included a multi-part history of Emancipation titled “Our African Methodist Heritage” in the church service packet. Jordan gave special emphasis to the role of various church leaders played in convincing Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, like that of AME bishop Daniel Alexander Payne. Meeting with Lincoln just days before he signed, the “ascetic prelate knew the evils of slavery, and sought, along with other communicats (sic) of his church to persuade the President to free the black man.” Like many other churches, the Allen Chapel AME took the opportunity in January remember the roles that both abolitionists and churches played in the emancipation of enslaved Black people in the United States.
Both the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Cheyenne, Wyo.) Records and the Harriett Elizabeth Byrd Family Papers are digitized and available to browse in the AHC’s digital records on Luna.
Post contributed by AHC Public History Educator Brigida “Brie” Blasi.