How will you observe National Freedom Day?

Considering the arc of American memory, why is it no surprise that few people have heard of National Freedom Day – a day observing 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. 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.

The driving force behind National Freedom 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 local commemorations of the date. Wright and others successfully lobbied the Congress and the President to give the day national recognition.

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.

Even with those issues, and others – such as the apathetic or even negative attitudes of some white Americans toward such observances – Richard Robert Wright, Sr and his associates were able to make National Freedom day a reality. That story is chronicled in “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.

In another essay[1], Kichun argues for the observance of American abolition, and the use of National Freedom Day to do so:

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.

What do you think? Will you observe National Freedom Day next time… assuming it doesn’t fall on Super Bowl Sunday again?

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

6 thoughts on “How will you observe National Freedom Day?

  1. February 1 is a hollow meaningless date, because Lincoln signing the thirteenth amendment was a hollow and meaningless act. The Presdient has no role in the amendment process; amending the constitution is a matter between the States and the Congress. I did watch the Super bowl though. Can you believe that call at the end of the game?! I thought surely the Seahawks would run it in for the win!!

    • You are correct that the president has no Constitutional role in the amendment process. The amendment would have gone to the states whether he signed it or not. But that does not mean he had no political role. His actions earlier in the war set the stage for the 13th amendment, and he interacted with various politicians as the amendment was getting through Congress.

      Lincoln’s signature appears now as a symbolic gesture. But symbols, by definition, are not meaningless. It does represent that he was an agent in the process of ending slavery in general and of amending the Constitution via the 13th Amendment.

      To use an imperfect football analogy, he was not on the football field, but he did provide input from the sidelines. I wouldn’t say he called all the plays, but he did provide some coaching.

      Of course there is some debate over the size of Lincoln’s role, but to say he had none would be wrong. I think we can give Lincoln some credit, while acknowledging the fact that he wasn’t the only player in all of this.

      And of course the key event is that there was a 13th Amendment which was sent to the states.

  2. Reasonable reply, but still, as of February 1, slavery was still legal in the United States. December 6 is a date that makes sense, becasue that is when Georgia’s ratification made slavery unconstitutional.

    • First a minor technicality: slavery was not “still legal” in the “United States” as of Feb 1. It had been abolished in the so-called “free states” before the war. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia on Apr 16, 1862, was abolished in Maryland on Nov 1, 1864, was abolished in Missouri on Jan 11, 1865. Under interpretations of the Constitution that were effective at the time, each state had the power to render the institution illegal within its borders, and many had done so.

      But any way: is Dec 6 better than Feb 1? Maybe. There are a lot of dates one can use, that is one.

      I will mention this. The historian Eric Foner has said that emancipation (and abolition) were a process, not a one time event. Different people became free at different times in different ways in different places. Many historians say that on a de facto basis, most enslaved people were free months before the 13th Amendment was ratified, and that the 13th made things official. Of course, emancipation and abolition are not the same, and it was essential for slavery to be constitutionally abolished… the people who were emancipated could possibly have been re-enlaved (or their children might have been enslaved) without abolition.

      So, the ratification of the 13th Amendment passage was vital, but Congressional passage of the Amendment could be seen as the climactic moment in the process to end slavery. Or maybe not. Your mileage may vary.

      Practically speaking, I like the fact that this date occurs within Black History Month. And I like the focus on the actions of the Congress and president; to me, the actions of the states were part of an anti-climax. But I would agree that, my position is debatable.

  3. Permit me to observe that both Kentucky and Delaware were (and remain) States within the United States, and that slavery was perfectly legal in both States. By definition, therefore, that means slavery was perfectly legal in the United States. Your reply would be correct only if I had asserted that slavery was legal in all the States, which I did not. As you correctly observe, until Georgia ratified the13th, the legality of slavery was entirely a state matter. So once again, as of “Juneteenth”, slavery was “still legal” in the United States.

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