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.

 

Advertisements

One thought on “February 1: It’s National Freedom Day!

  1. I must admit that although I’ve heard of and heard Max Roach’s Freedom Suite, I hadn’t heard of National Freedom Day. Too bad it didn’t catch on. At that point most survivors of slavery were dead. I know in our family there was no tradition of celebrating any day as Freedom Day, although I’ve heard that Watch Night was such a celebration and we did have that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s