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.
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￼￼, 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?
￼￼ 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.