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Midlands Independence Day: The Fourth of July Through the Years

The Lexington Courthouse lawn, ca. 1960 (photo provided)

When we think of the Fourth of July, most of us think of cookouts, fireworks, boat rides on Lake Murray, and Independence Day sales at stores. Despite the fact that some of our July Fourth traditions are more recent inventions, some of these traditions could be found throughout much of the history of the Columbia region.

Independence Day started out in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a small holiday where people could assert themselves as Americans. Businesses usually didn’t close and certainly didn’t hold Independence Day sales.

It is hard to pin down exactly when Independence Day celebrations began in the Midlands region, but it is likely that they came about as a result of the patriotism stirred up by the War of 1812, which was fought against the British. The celebration of the Fourth in the first half of the nineteenth century was almost always marked by the celebratory firing of weapons, especially in Lexington County (then known as Lexington District).

Edwin Scott, a chronicler of regional history in the 19th century, stated that around 1820, there was an Irish immigrant on Columbia’s Main Street who owned a grocery store and “a huge blunderbuss, which he always fired off at Christmas and Fourth of July.” Children usually did not have school around the Fourth in the antebellum period. Children also made an effort to not wear yellow breeches for fear they would be labeled as British.

In addition, speeches were given by local leaders and politicians on Independence Day. Enslaved African-Americans recognized the importance of the Fourth of July as well. Several slave revolts either occurred on or were planned for the Fourth of July. This caused some concerns among whites over whether slaves should be allowed to attend Fourth of July festivities.

The coming of the Civil War brought many changes to the daily lives of Southerners but didn’t really change the celebration of July Fourth. Many citizens still recognized the holiday despite wanting their independence from the United States. However, this began to change after the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox. White Southerners, including those in Richland and Lexington, began to see July Fourth as not their holiday.

Southern African-Americans continued to celebrate the holiday, however, leading to some white commentators, including the famous diarist Mary Chesnut, to label the holiday “Black Fourth.” Whites’ aversion to celebrating the Fourth continued throughout Reconstruction and, in some places such as Charleston, throughout the rest of the 19th century. This aversion to the Fourth didn’t last in the Midlands of SC and by the 1890s, many white citizens resumed celebrating the Fourth.

Just like today, Midlands residents would celebrate together with fireworks (or gunshots) and community cook-outs. Politicians would often give speeches at these “barbecues” as well. Baseball games and races were common in the late 19th and 20th centuries too.

The July 7, 1917 edition of the Lexington Dispatch newspaper even mentions that local youths took part in a “straw ride” through Lexington. Although the traditions surrounding July 4th have become somewhat different over the years, the holiday continues to be a day when Americans can celebrate their freedom and have fun with friends and family.

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