February 1: It’s National Freedom Day!

Freedom Day, performed by the Max Roach Combo. Max Roach, drums; Clifford Jordan, saxophone; Eddie Khan, bass; Coleridge Parkinson, piano; Abbey Lincoln, vocals. Circa 1960s. From the “Freedom Now Suite,” written by drummer Max Roach and writer-singer Oscar Brown Jr. An essay about the “Freedom Now Suite” is here. An alternate take is below.

Freedom Day lyrics

Whisper, listen, whisper, listen. Whispers say we’re free.
Rumors flyin’, must be lyin’. Can it really be?
Can’t conceive it, can’t believe it. But that’s what they say.
Slave no longer, slave no longer, this is Freedom Day.

Freedom Day, it’s Freedom Day. Throw those shacklin’ chains away.
Everybody that I see says it’s really true, we’re free.

Whisper, listen, whisper, listen. Whispers say we’re free.
Rumors flyin’, must be lyin’. Can it really be?
Can’t conceive it, don’t believe it. But that’s what they say.
Slave no longer, slave no longer, this is Freedom Day.

Freedom Day, it’s Freedom Day. Throw those shacklin’ chains away.
Everybody that I see says it’s really true, we’re free.

Freedom Day, it’s Freedom Day. Free to vote and earn my pay.
Dim my path and hide the way. But we’ve made it Freedom Day.

Considering the arc of American memory, why is it no surprise that few people have heard of National Freedom Day – a federal observance of the end of slavery in the United States?

But yes, there is a National Freedom Day. It commemorates the date (February 1, 1865) that Abraham Lincoln signed a joint resolution of the US Congress which proposed the 13th amendment to the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the United States. This amendment passed Congress after a very rancorous debate, as shown in the movie Lincoln. The amendment was ratified by the required number of states in December 1865. National Freedom Day was proclaimed a national day of observance by President Harry Truman in January 1949:

Whereas, near the end of the tragic conflict between the Northern and Southern States, the Congress adopted a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution which would outlaw slavery in the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction; and

Whereas the resolution was signed by President Lincoln on February 1, 1865, and thereafter led to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution; and

Whereas that Amendment is a corner stone in the foundation of our American traditions, and the signing of the resolution is a landmark in the Nation’s effort to fulfill the principles of freedom and justice proclaimed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution; and

Whereas, by a joint resolution approved June 30, 1948 (62 Stat. 1150), the Congress authorized the President to proclaim the first day of February of each year as National Freedom Day in commemoration of the signing of the resolution of February 1, 1865; and

Whereas the Government and people of the United States wholeheartedly support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, which declares that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”:

Now, Therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate February 1, 1949, and each succeeding February 1, as national Freedom Day; and I call upon the people of the United States to pause on that day in solemn contemplation of the glorious blessings of freedom which we humbly and thankfully enjoy.

Truman proclaims National Freedom Day copy
Image source: “A beacon to oppressed peoples everywhere”: Major Richard R. Wright Sr., National Freedom Day, and the Rhetoric of Freedom in the 1940s,”by Mitch Kachun. See also the Library of Congress’s America’s Story from America’s Library website.

National Freedom Day is one of many conflicting, and to some, conflicted celebrations of the end of slavery in the United States. Perhaps the most prominent day designated for commemorating emancipation and abolition is Juneteenth (June 19th), which is celebrated in Texas and several other states. But National Freedom Day is the first and only day that the federal government has established for a nationwide observance of slavery’s end. It is not a national holiday, however.

Historian Mitch Kachun has done excellent work in chronicling the creation of, and the historical context of, National Freedom Day. The driving force behind this commemorative day was Richard Robert Wright, Senior (often called Major Richard Robert Wright, Senior), a former slave and migrant to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He founded the National Freedom Day Association, which organized commemorations of the date in the Philadelphia area. Wright and others successfully lobbied the Congress and the President to give the day national recognition. One of Wright’s sons, E. C. Wright, is in the above photograph featuring Truman signing the National Freedom Day proclamation.

Why hasn’t National Freedom Day caught on with the public? Historian Mitch Kachun has noted several reasons. One is that, there have been several local commemorations of abolition over time, such as Juneteenth; January 1st (date of the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation); in Richmond, VA, April 3rd, the date that Union troops liberated that city; and in Washington, DC, April 16, the date that slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia. These different and even competing local observances have made it difficult for a nation-wide day of observance to gain traction.

Second, many African Americans have been ambivalent about celebrating abolition. Many feel that, although liberated from bondage, the former slaves were subject to a harsh Jim Crow regime that denied them of their rights, brutalized them for seeking equality, and ultimately, made a mockery of their “freedom.” Meanwhile, many find the memory and recognition of slavery distasteful, and avoid observances that bring focus on the institution.

Historian Kachun [1] argues for the observance of National Freedom Day as a nationwide way to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States:

If there were to be a single date for a national holiday which should it be? Should Juneteenth trump all the other local and regional traditions? The Juneteenth movement, in a sense, is quite provincial, and seems to ignore or distort the complex and varied history of African American emancipation celebration traditions. The February 1 National Freedom Day has several things to recommend it. First, it is already on the national calendar. It also makes a nice kickoff for Black History Month. Coincidentally, February 1 is also the date in 1960 when four African American students sat down at a white only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina…

Regardless of how the issue of the date is resolved, the bottom line is that Americans-black, white, and otherwise-can benefit from raising the awareness of the longstanding and ongoing struggle for the nation to live up to the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice that were articulated in its founding documents…

In light of race’s ongoing place in the nation’s public discourse, it would seem that some sort of annual reminder of America’s commitment to the ideals of equality and justice seems both appropriate and useful as long as it does not imply a “mission accomplished” but rather reminds us of a goal towards which we must always continue to strive.

[1] See “Celebrating Freedom: Juneteenth and the Emancipation Festival Tradition”; in the book Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial, edited by Thomas J. Brown.

 

CSA President Jefferson Davis on the Emancipation Proclamation: “millions of the inferior race… are doomed to extermination.”

Abraham Lincoln, then president of the United States of America, issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. What did Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, think of that? Read on.

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and family, circa 1885 (20 years after the end of the Civil War).
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-23869; see here for more details

In the lead-up to the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, there was some concern that it might be interpreted as inciting slaves to engage in bloody insurrection against slaveholders. President Abraham Lincoln sought to address these concerns by placing the following language in the Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863: “And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence.”

Such language did not prevent a predictably outraged reaction from the Confederate States of America. In mid-January 1863, CSA President Jefferson Davis made an infuriated response that was recorded in the Journal Of the Confederate Congress:

The public journals of the North have been received containing…

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New Year’s Day, 1863: Emancipation Barbecue


“Emancipation Day in South Carolina” – the Color-Sergeant of the 1st South Carolina (Colored) addressing the regiment, after having been presented with the Stars and Stripes, at Smith’s plantation, Port Royal, January 1 (1863); from Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, vol. 15, no. 382 (1863 Jan. 24), p. 276.
Image Description Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Image Source: The American Antiquarian Society, from “Visions of Freedmen as Soldiers.” 

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Many people of African descent celebrated. In South Carolina, they had a barbecue. This is from an 1863 New York Times article titled INTERESTING FROM PORT ROYAL.: A Jubilee Among the Negroes on the First– The President’s Emancipation Proclamation–How the Soldiers Enjoyed the Day–Cultivation of the Plantations, &c. The dateline is Port Royal, SC, Jan 2, 1983. Of note is that this excerpt indicates that the slaves were as cautious and circumspect of their new status as they were celebratory. Perhaps being proclaimed free, and feeling free, were not (yet) the same thing:

Yesterday, the first day of the new year, 1863, was an important day to the negroes here, and one of which they will long retain the remembrance as the first dawn of freedom. Upon that day President LINCOLN’S Proclamation of freedom to the negroes went into effect, and in view of this Gen. SAXTON, the Military Governor of South Carolina, issued the following:

A HAPPY NEW-YEAR’S GREETING TO THE COLORED PEOPLE IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE SOUTH.

In accordance, as I believe, with the will of our Heavenly Father, and by direction of your great and good friend, whose name you are all familiar with, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, and Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, on the 1st day of January, 1863, you will be declared “forever free.”

When, in the course of human events, there comes a day which is destined to be an everlasting beacon-light, marking a joyful era in the progress of a nation and the hopes of a people, it seems to be fitting the occasion that it should not pass unnoticed by those whose hopes it comes to brighten and to bless. Such a day to you is January 1, 1863. I therefore call upon all the colored people in this department to assemble on that day at the headquarters of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, there to hear the President’s Proclamation read, and to indulge in such other manifestations of joy as may be called forth by the occasion. It is your duty to carry this good news to your brethren who are still in Slavery. Let all your voices, like merry bells, join loud and clear in the grand chorus of liberty — “We are free,” “We are free,” — until listening, you shall hear its echoes coming back from every cabin in the land — “We are free,” “We are free.”

R. SAXTON, Brig.-Gen. and Military Governor.

In obedience to this call, some 3,000 negroes — men, women and children — assembled at Camp Saxton, the camp of the First South Carolina Volunteers, near Beaufort, to celebrate the day with a barbecue.

The negroes were accommodated at rudely constructed tables, upon which were ranged rows of tin-ware, and were served by the officers of the regiment. The contrabands went right in for enjoyment, and their faces were soon glistening with grease and happiness. Some of them were provident, and what meat they could not eat they crammed into their pockets. They all seemed to enjoy themselves hugely, and evidently enjoyed the roast beef more than the oratory. They understood it better.

In comparison with the number of negroes here this assemblage was not large. The fact is, that most of the negroes do not understand the meaning of this jubilee; they do not realize the occasion; the future is all obscure and uncertain and they would wait before giving way to too much joy. Some of them, too, I am inclined to think, looked upon the whole affair with a shade of suspicion, and preferred to stay away.

From Twelve Years a Slave: Arrival Home (Never take your family for granted)


Solomon Northup, on his arrival home, after twelve years of false imprisonment in the South.
Image Source: Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853. This is from the electronic edition of the book on the DocSouth website.

The book Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 is an autobiography of a free person from New York state who was kidnapped, sold into bondage, and regained his freedom after a dozen years in bondage. The book was made into the movie 12 Years a Slave. As noted in Wikipedia, the movie was “a box office success, earning over $187 million on a production budget of $22 million.”

The following text, which tells of Northup’s return home to his family, is from the end of his book. It reminds us, we should never take our family for granted.

We left Washington on the 20th of January, and proceeding by the way of Philadelphia, New-York, and Albany, reached Sandy Hill in the night of the 21st. My heart overflowed with happiness as I looked around upon old familiar scenes, and found myself in the midst of friends of other days. The following morning I started, in company with several acquaintances, for Glens Falls, the residence of (wife) Anne and our children.

As I entered their comfortable cottage, Margaret was the first that met me. She did not recognize me. When I left her, she was but seven years old, a little prattling girl, playing with her toys. Now she was grown to womanhood—was married, with a bright-eyed boy standing by her side. Not forgetful of her enslaved, unfortunate grand-father, she had named the child Solomon Northup Staunton. When told who I was, she was overcome with emotion, and unable to speak. Presently Elizabeth entered the room, and Anne came running from the hotel, having been informed of my arrival. They embraced me, and with tears flowing down their cheeks, hung upon my neck. But I draw a veil over a scene which can better be imagined than described.

When the violence of our emotions had subsided to a sacred joy—when the household gathered round the fire, that sent out its warm and crackling comfort through the room, we conversed of the thousand events that had occurred—the hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, the trials and troubles we had each experienced during the long separation.

Alonzo was absent in the western part of the State. The boy had written to his mother a short time previous, of the prospect of his obtaining sufficient money to purchase my freedom. From his earliest years, that had been the chief object of his thoughts and his ambition. They knew I was in bondage. The letter written on board the brig, and Clem Ray himself, had given them that information. But where I was, until the arrival of Bass’ letter, was a matter of conjecture. Elizabeth and Margaret once returned from school— so Anne informed me—weeping bitterly. On inquiring the cause of the children’s sorrow, it was found that, while studying geography, their attention had been attracted to the picture of slaves working in the cotton-field, and an overseer following them with his whip. It reminded them of the sufferings father might be, and, as it happened, actually was, enduring in the South. Numerous incidents, such as these, were related—incidents showing they still held me in constant remembrance, but not, perhaps, of sufficient interest to the reader, to be recounted.

My narrative is at an end. I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the “peculiar institution.” What it may be in other States, I do not profess to know; what it is in the region of Red River (in Louisiana), is truly and faithfully delineated in these pages. This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture. I doubt not hundreds have been as unfortunate as myself; that hundreds of free citizens have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and are at this moment wearing out their lives on plantations in Texas and Louisiana. But I forbear.

Chastened and subdued in spirit by the sufferings I have borne, and thankful to that good Being through whose mercy I have been restored to happiness and liberty, I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps.

New Orleans City Council votes to remove Confederate Monuments

From the Louisana Weekly online:

New Orleans City Council votes in favor of removing Confederate monuments

In a six-to-one vote on Dec. 17, New Orleans City Council decided to relocate four Confederate, reconstruction-era monuments. The four “nuisance” monuments—commemorating Robert E. Lee (Lee Circle), Jefferson Davis (Jeff Davis Parkway), P.G.T. Beauregard (outside City Park), and The Battle of Liberty Place (Iberville Street) — will soon be moved from their current positions of reverence into a city-owned warehouse and, eventually, to as-yet-undetermined public places of study.

The atmosphere in City Council chambers both before and after the public comments and the vote, was decidedly intense, with a third of the audience comprised of Black men and women old enough to have lived through legal lynching, segregation, and the tumultuous Civil Rights era. One man handed out t-shirts featuring a Black male urinating on a Confederate flag. A woman distributed “Kiss White Supremacy Goodbye” cookies.

The whole story is here.

My thoughts on where we should go in terms of dealing with these monuments is here: Going beyond the Confederate Flag Controversy: Missing Monuments – The Unfinished Work of Commemorating the African American Experience in the Civil War. From that post:

No state is more significant in the history of African American soldiery during Civil War than Louisiana. Louisiana provided more African American soldiers to the Union than any other state. Three of the first five black Union regiments were formed in the state. And finally, Louisiana probably produced the most black army officers of any state. A portion of these soldiers were free black Creoles, while others were former slaves. Many enlisted in the Louisiana Native Guards regiments that were organized in New Orleans.


Officers of Company C of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard at Fort Macomb, Louisiana, per Wikipedia
Image Source: Harpers Weekly, February 28, 1863, via Wikipedia

Yet, there is no monument or memorial to black soldiers in the city of New Orleans. Per my research, there is only one monument to black soldiers in the entire state — at Donaldsonville, Louisiana (which is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge).

This is an oversight that borders on being shameful. I hate to use such strong language. But it is past due that New Orleans and other places in the state recognize the pivotal role these soldiers played during the Civil War.

The War is Over; We Won; Time to Go Home – Victory and Freedom in Little Rock, Arkansas


African American soldiers mustered out at Little Rock, Arkansas, April 20, 1865; by Alfred Waud; published in Harper’s Weekly, v. 10, 1866 May 19, p. 308.
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-21005 (digital file from original item) LC-DIG-ppmsca-13485 (digital file from original item) 

To some, it seemed that the Civil War would never end. But end it did.

How sweet the taste of victory and freedom must have been, for the Union’s black military men! Perhaps as many as 70% or more of the 200,000 or so African Americans who served in the Union army and navy had been enslaved before the war. They understood the stakes: victory meant freedom; defeat meant the continuation of slavery, perhaps a harsher slavery in light of how many slaves supported the Union war effort.

On April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union Gen Ulysses S. Grant. That surrender ushered in the end of the American Civil War. Union men all over were ecstatic from the news.

Alfred Waud’s drawing captures the exuberance of the Little Rock, Arkansas, African American community as the U. S. Colored Troops returned home from war; over 5,000 men from the state of Arkansas enlisted in the Union army.  The victorious soldiers are joyously greeted by women and children, who no doubt had their own stories of travail to tell, as black civilians in the Civil War South.

An uncertain future awaited them all. But for now, they could finally go about their way, ushered on the wings of a new birth of freedom, ushered on the winds of victory that had earned.

December 18, 1865: It’s official – slavery is dead with the ratification of the 13th Amendment

It was 150 years ago, December 18, 1865, that the United States Secretary of State, William Seward, announced that the 13th Amendment had been ratified and had “become valid, to all intents and purposes, as part of the Constitution of the United States.” Officially and constitutionally, slavery in the United States was dead.

From: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875, pages 774-775:

13th amendment Seward part 1

13th amendment Seward part 2

The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress January 31, 1865, and was ratified by the states at December 6, 1865. The Amendment states:

Amendment XIII

SECTION 1

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

SECTION 2

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Some people ask, why was the 13th Amendment needed, given that Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation (the “EP”)? For one thing, the Proclamation did not abolish slavery. Emancipation and abolition are not the same thing. The EP only applied to a set of people who were enslaved at a point in time, namely, January 1, 1863. Thus, there was nothing to legally prevent children who were born after the EP from being enslaved. The EP forestalled the possibility of the enslavement of future generations.

Additionally, slavery was still legal in Delaware and Kentucky. The EP did not apply to Union slave states; it was only effective for states that were in rebellion, i.e., the Confederate States. The Union slave states of Maryland and Missouri, for example, were exempted from the EP, but they passed laws/amendments in their states which abolished slavery before the end of the Civil War. Delaware and Kentucky, two other Union slave states, did not vote to ratify the 13th Amendment; however,  the Amendment did have the necessary votes for ratification, and so slavery ended in those  two states.

There was also the possibility that the Emancipation Proclamation would face legal challenges after the end of the war. The 13th Amendment made the matter of the legality and constitutionality of the EP moot.

US Colored Troops at the Battle of Nashville

Today marks the second day of the anniversary of the Battle of Nashville, which was fought on December 15–16, 1864. This is a post I wrote about the battle last year:

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

The Battle of Nashville, by Kurz & Allison, created/published circa 1891
An artistic rendering of the US Colored Troops at this key Civil War Battle
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-pga-01886,LC-USZC4-506, LC-USZ62-1289

The Battle of Nashville was a two-day battle fought on December 15–16, 1864. It is considered a major success by the Union army over Confederate forces in the Western Theater of the Civil War. (Western Theater = west of the Appalachian Mountains, but east of the Mississippi River.) African Americans, who as laborers helped to build fortifications for the city, fought as soldiers to protect it in that decisive battle. They, and the Union, won.

The Union entered the battle with a contingent of some 55,000 men, and ended the battle with just over 3000 casualties, including 400 dead and 2,558 wounded. Confederates, from a contingent of 30,000 men, had an estimated 6,000 casualties, with 1,500 killed/wounded…

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Fighting over Freedom in Post-war South Carolina, Part 2: We Want to “to raise up an oppressed and deeply injured people”

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s04415
Freedman’s school, possibly in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1863 – 1865
> In November 1865, a  Colored People’s Convention of the state of South Carolina, meeting in Charleston, asked “that the three great agents of civilized society—the school, the pulpit, the press— be as secure in South Carolina as in Massachusetts or Vermont.”
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-stereo-1s04415 (digital file from original item, front) LC-DIG-stereo-2s04415 (digital file from original item, back)

By the end of 1865, the American Civil War was over, and the United States had defeated the Confederate States. With the Union now “preserved,” it was clear that the wartime goal of emancipating the slaves would be achieved.  But the question remained: how “free” was “free?” Freedom meant different things to different people, and no one, definitive meaning had been determined. And so a contest to determine the scope and extent of the former slaves’ freedom was on.

On one side of this contest was men like South Carolina’s Edmund Rhett, Jr, a former Confederate army officer and editor of a prominent newspaper in Charleston. In correspondence discussing the post-war status of the freedpeople, he recommended a set of laws that would prohibit freedpeople from ever owning land, restrict “the method of (their) movements,” prevent Negroes from “competing with white men,” “control him, and keep him under good discipline,” and otherwise keep negroes “as near to the condition of slavery as possible.” If Negroes could no longer be owned, they would at least be controlled and subjugated.

African Americans had another idea. They were not ignorant of or naive about the intentions of former Confederates. After the war, they assembled at conventions throughout the South and North to discuss their dreams, goals, and action plans for improvement and progress. In November 1865, the Colored People’s Convention of the state of South Carolina met in Charleston and issued a statement (called a “memorial”) to the Congress which: protested so-called  “black codes” legislation that would place the freedmen in a state of virtual enslavement; demanded that their right to bear arms be protected; asked for suffrage rights equivalent to those of white men; and expressed hope that the “great agents of civilized society—the school, the pulpit, the press— be as secure in South Carolina as in Massachusetts or Vermont.” If there was to be a war of words, South Carolina’s black community was more than willing to exchange fire.

And as it turned out, the fight for a truly full-featured freedom would extend far into the future, to the Civil Rights era. Consider this one of the first volleys in the post-war struggle for liberation:

We, the colored people of the state of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, respectfully present for your attention some prominent facts in relation to our present condition, and make a modest yet earnest appeal to your considerate judgment. Continue reading