The August Quarterly festival, the oldest African American religious festival in the country that celebrates freedom of speech and the right to free assembly, continues a proud tradition in Wilmington’s Harriet Tubman Riverfront Park. The first unofficial gathering was organized in Wilmington in August 1813 by Peter Spencer (1782-1843), a freed slave and charismatic religious leader, shortly before the incorporation of the Union Church of Africans, which he founded.
Spencer’s church, the first independent African American church in the country, was a great success, and the August Quarterly festival officially began in 1814 in connection with the church’s annual conference. It was a time to conduct official church business, but also to celebrate African American faith, history, and culture through singing, dancing, preaching, prayer meetings, and other forms of worship. Since the festival drew crowds, not just from Delaware, but also from surrounding states, it also provided an important forum for both slaves and free blacks to mix, and discuss and protest issues of slavery and segregation affecting their communities.
In 2013, August Quarterly celebrated its 200th birthday and we celebrated right along with them when we acquired this commemorative T-shirt for our collections. The front of the T-shirt has yellow text, “Bound for Freedom, Celebrating 200 Years of Religious Freedom, August Quarterly Festival” surrounding a central pair of letters “AQ,” with the Q taking the form of a crown of thorns. The back of the shirt has a quote from Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” This item is a great memento that celebrates both the festival’s deep religious roots and the enduring community pride in the central nature of freedom to the celebration.