Experiencing Black Joy through Federal Records

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist in Augmented Processing at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

Joy is defined as an emotion of great delight or happiness that is often caused by a positive or an extraordinary experience. Joy can be good for one’s health and wellness. Scientists and psychologists have studied the effects of joy on people, and determined that joy can prevent stress, improve heart health, reduce pain, and boost the immune system. Joy can also increase one’s life longevity and enhance one’s overall mental and physical health.

What’s a better way to experience joy, then enjoying a snow cone on a hot summer day?

close up of a child holding a snow cone, her face partially hidden by the cone as she takes a bite

Over the years, African Americans have managed to find some joy in the hopes of a better world, even if those moments were short-lived. The African American experience has been challenging, complex, and filled with triumphs and disappointments. There were considerable significant events throughout US history that provided African Americans with optimism, and possible joy towards the dream deferred. The opening words of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence gave a sense of joy that all men are created equal, as well as the ratification of the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments. Below are just a few select examples of where federal agencies provided a moment of joy for Black people.

What’s a better way to experience joy then floating in outer space?

Mae Jemison working abroad the International Space Station (NAID 219775105)

On June 19, 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned of their emancipation. After centuries of forced unpaid labor, African Americans were able to experience the joy of freedom. However, with the demise of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, this joy did not last long. Nonetheless, African Americans still celebrated Juneteenth across the country into the 20th and 21st centuries. The day is commemorated with parades, festivals, educational programs, and backyard cookouts. In 2021, Juneteenth officially became a Federal holiday. For more on Juneteenth, check out Juneteenth: The Celebration of a New Freedom in America.

This order represents the Federal Government’s final execution and fulfillment of the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation. The people to whom this order was addressed were the last group of Americans to be informed that all formerly enslaved persons were now free.
General Order 3, June 19, 1865 (NAID 182778372)

What’s a better way to experience joy, then a bike ride with friends?

3 women in uniform and caps standing with bicycles, looking off camera waving and smiling
2nd Lt. Beulah Baldwin, 2nd Lt. Alberta S. Smith, and 2nd Lt. Joan S. Hamilton, nurses try bicycle riding near their quarters in Camp Columbia, Wacol, Brisbane. They are stationed at the 268th Station Hospital in Australia (NAID 178140880)

Smiling is a sign of joy. This action releases endorphins that can make one feel happier and more positive. Various scientific studies have found that smiling can improve one’s mood and increase positive thoughts. Federal and freelance photographers have managed to capture moments of Black joy throughout the years. They’ve photographed joyous images of African Americans receiving military promotions, supporting the American goals toward democracy, meeting Civil Rights icons, or just enjoying the sunshine.

What’s a better way to experience joy, then hanging out with friends?

5 women sitting and standing in a round, most are clapping, one is posing and dancing
Group of Women Clapping at a Fountain Square in Cincinnati, Ohio (NAID 553205)

African Americans constantly fought for their freedom. During the twentieth century, they launched a coordinated series of boycotts, marches, sit-ins, and direct protests to demand an end to segregation, racial violence, and unequal opportunities, as well as the ability to gain access to the ballot. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the hope of dismantling a century of Jim Crow and voter suppression offered another moment of joy. For more on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, check out Striving Towards the Great Society: Remembering LBJ, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Momentous Year that Encompassed it, and for more on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, check out 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

What’s a better way to experience joy, then a baby smiling at you?

man holding baby in arms with baby looking up at his father and smiling

Children can find joy in almost anything. They use their innocence and creativity for play, learning, and sometimes just for entertainment. During the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documented various forms of American life in an attempt to highlight environmental issues across the country. Although many of the photographs in the RG 412 DOCUMERICA: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972 – 1977 (National Archives Identifier 542493), focused on environmental hazards, it also managed to capture moments of Black children experiencing joy within their community. For more about the DOCUMERICA series and Black life in Chicago during the 1970s, check out Photographed: Summertime in 1970s Chicago.

Also, as part of the Documerica Series, photographers took pictures of the annual Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) Black Expo in the fall of 1973. This event was organized by Rev. Jesse Jackson to highlight the joy of Black art, music, education, and innovation. The expo included performances by R&B singers Johnny Taylor and Isaac Hayes. Hayes, who was known by his fans as Black Moses, probably sang songs from his newly released album titled “Joy.”

What’s a better way to experience joy, then a sing-along with friends?

2 men and women gathered around an upright piano. one of the women is playing it
 Cpl. Robert Barttow, Pvt. James Montgomery, Jeannette C. Dorsey, and Willie Lee Johnson, G.I.s and Red Cross workers at Assam, India (NAID 531351)

Dancing is an expression of joy. Moving to your favorite song can minimize stress, reduce depression, increase energy, and improve overall self-esteem. Dancing, whether on beat or off beat, is an active and fun way to exercise, positively express yourself, entertain others, or get closer to that special person. Several federal photographers have managed to capture moments of African Americans experiencing joy through various forms of dance in a range of settings.

On the night of November 4, 2008, history was made. Illinois Senator Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected President of the United States. As millions celebrated this joyous moment, his election ushered in short-lived feelings of joy and hope for a post-racial America, where all can achieve the American dream. In addition, many also found joy in watching the tender interactions, and expressions of Black love between President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, during the eight years they were in the White House. The First Lady, on her own, became a source of inspiration and joy to millions, who were drawn to her intelligence, style, and lively personality. For more on President Barack Obama, check out Thanks, Obama.

The Obamas held several joyous educational and musical events at the White House. Each February, they would host a Black History Month reception that included celebrities, politicians and community leaders, such as Representative John Lewis, actress Phylicia Rashad, actor/activist Harry Belafonte, and singer Stevie Wonder. Other events held at the White House that brought joy to its invited guests involved music. One was the “I’m Every Woman: The History of Women in Soul,” which was hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. The performers included the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, and Janelle Monae. President Barack Obama also hosted the “A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement,” which included performances by Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole, Jennifer Hudson, and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

What’s a better way to experience joy, then having a great day fishing?

man standing up in a dinghy, holding up a catch of 4 fish
Man Fishing, Decatur, AL (NAID 214437690)

In October 2016, African Americans were able to share their history, contributions, struggles, pain, and joy with the rest of the world, when the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened on the National Mall. Through the work of its first Director Lonnie Bunch, the museum features artifacts, photographs, historical documents, and other items to tell the complex and exciting story of Black Americans from the time of arrival to the present. For more on the National Museum of African American History, check out An Act to Establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Finally, what’s a better way to experience joy, then taking a nap under a shade tree on a hot summer day?

man stretched out in lounge chair with his hat pulled down over his eyes

This year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) has chosen Black Health and Wellness as the theme. We hope you enjoy blogs that reveal stories of Black health and wellness from the records of the National Archives.

Leave a Reply