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The Black Community: Once Barred from Easter Celebrations

By Dr. Sharon Michael-Chadwell

Growing up, I remember the excitement my siblings and I had, knowing that our parents were taking us to get our brand-new Easter outfits, shoes, and baskets for the big day!

After church, it was customary for all of us to participate in the “Easter Parade” at North Star Mall, showing off our new clothes! And yes, our parents looked on with pride! They expressed pride with their acclamation that they had worked hard to purchase those outfits. Historically, for Black Americans, the new Easter outfit was a representation of their economic and social status.  

Then, there was the Easter egg hunt in our backyard or some communal function, whereby neighbors or family friends would entice us to find Easter eggs and candy hidden behind trees and within bushes. Years later, and after having a child of my own, there was no Easter Parade; however, at our church…the children who participated in the annual Easter program recited poems, read Scripture about the Resurrection, sang songs, or did an interpretive dance. And, of course, the Easter egg hunt continued.

But there was a time when Black Americans were turned away from Easter activities, such as starting in 1878 when the White House began its Easter Egg Roll event. Beginning in 1891, Black families began gathering at the “Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo the Monday after Easter. The practice, known as Easter Monday, started as a pseudo-holiday for Black domestic workers who were barred from attending the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll due to segregation and many of whom typically had to work during the holiday weekend,” according to Essence magazine.

Easter Monday at the National Zoo became popular, and in 1919, attendance reached nearly 55,000 people. The event continues today. 

Little did the White House know that the Easter celebration became popular thanks to an African pope. The Institute of the Black World 21st Century noted: “It was during the reign of the 15th pope, Saint Victor I, that the day of Easter celebrations was universalized to be celebrated on Sunday. Victor was a native of northern Africa and served as pope from 189 to 199 A.D. He was the first pope native to Africa.”

Other African American influences have also been documented. The Institute of the Black World 21st Century collected stories from several individuals about their Easter experiences, and those experiences were not so different from the ones my siblings and I experienced. For many women, Easter was the day to wear the perfect hat: “Easter Sunday was the day. And all of these women spent hours getting the perfect hat to coordinate with the perfect suit…” The Easter speech was a coming-of-age tradition in the Black church and families. Theoretically, the speech became a means to help children become public speakers even if the speech was three words… “Happy Easter Day!” 

Finally, Easter cannot be celebrated without food. One traditional meat served at dinners was ham, which could be prepared to serve a large number of guests. In the past, pigs were slaughtered for food, making it the first meat available after long winters when fresh meat was scarce. While Easter was a day of celebration, pre-Easter events occurred, especially if you had a television in the house, even today. My family watched four movies that are still televised today: The Ten Commandments, The Robe, Ben Hur, and The Passion of the Christ. Sometimes, these movies are shown on Sundays; however, collectively, they help frame why Easter is celebrated on Sunday morning. For Christians, Easter is the time to celebrate the most important part of our faith: the “Resurrection of our Lord.”

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