Day of Jubilee, Athens slaves remembered: From Online Athens/Athens Banner-Herald: “Visiors pray during the Day of Jubilee remembrance at Baldwin Hall at the University of Georgia in Athens Georgia, Thursday, May 4 2017. On May 4, 1865 Union soldiers road into the city and freed the slaves. The Athens Anti-Discrimination movement was also remembering the slaves that were recently moved from their original resting place near Baldwin Hall and removed to the Oconee Hill Cemetery Photo/John Roark, Athens-Banner Herald.” More here.
You shall count off seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years; and there shall be to you the days of seven Sabbaths of years, even forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. You shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.
It shall be a jubilee to you; and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee to you. In it you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself, nor gather from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat of its increase out of the field. In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his property.
– Leviticus 25:8-13, the Bible
On January 1, 1866, Emancipation Day celebrations unfolded throughout the nation as they had since 1863. Near Fort Monroe, Virginia, where Jefferson Davis remained imprisoned, thousands of African Americans gathered at the schoolhouse for a procession composed of local organizations, men, women, and children. Banners with inscriptions such as “Abraham Lincoln, The Liberator and Friend of Our Race,” were are festooned in red, white, and blue along the schoolhouse walls as the crowd listened attentively to the various speakers.
In Petersburg, Virginia, several thousand freed men and women joined in a procession that extended for a nearly a mile before the crowd gathered for songs and general jubilation. In Richmond, 4,000 African Americans Assembled at a local church where the 24th Massachusetts (a regiment of black soldiers) supplied the music. The services opened with the singing of a poem:
Oh! Praise and tanks, the Lord he come
To get the people free,
And massa tink it day of doom
And we of Jubilee
– From Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation, by Caroline E Janney, pages 87– 88
For many African Americans, the end of the Civil War represented a religious reckoning. They believed that the combination of war and emancipation reflected the will of God. Like the Israelites of old, God had used his power to free men and women from harsh times. These persons, referencing their sacred text, interpreted their emancipation as the time of Jubilee that had been discusses in Leviticus, Chapter 5, of the Old testament.
This notion of the war and freedom as divinely inspired was quite common at the time, but is not well known to modern Americans. African Americans’ religious beliefs gave them a context and perspective in which to understand these momentous events, to reflect that God really was good, despite all that they endured, and gave them faith that better days were ahead.
Two other book passages further illustrate how African Americans place the war and their freedom into a religious context, one that references the idea of ‘Jubilee.’ Charles Royster’s 1991 book The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans talks about the fall of Columbia, SC, to the United States, and how various residents reacted:
War had changed Columbia. The city had never been large, numbering about 8,000 people in peacetime; but the war had more than tripled its population. Some people were forced into Columbia: slaveholders moved their human property. The number of black people in Columbia, usually about one third of the population, swelled with the influx of slaves. Some blacks had escaped during the relocation, had hidden in swamps, and were greeting the approaching Federal soldiers with the descriptions of the roads ahead. Blacks in the city felt sure of Sherman’s destination sooner than his own men did. On January 29, a white man who heard them noted: “The niggers sing hallelujah’s for him every day.”
Some of the slaves concentrated in Columbia grew restive, and white people reacted harshly. They set up a whipping post near the market in the Assembly Street. A black man caught smuggling News to Federal prisoners in the city received 100 lashes and a promise that if he repeated the offense, he would be killed. Afterward, he told the prisoners, “Dey may kill dis nigger, but dey cain’t make him hate de Yankees.” The daily whippings aroused bitter resentment among young Black men. Some of them called the Market post “Hell” and agreed among themselves to make a hell of the city once the Yankees came.
The book goes on to note that the slaves communicated with and aided Federal prisoners held in Columbia and also Union soldiers who came into the city and the surrounding area; and also how the slaves used the Union occupation to gain vengance against whites whom they believed had mistreated them.
Later in chapter 1, Royster writes
[Sometime after Union soldiers had entered the city, and there had been fires and some looting] …in Main Street, crowded with hurrying people and lit by burning stores, a [Union] lieutenant asked an old black man: “What do you think of the night, sir?” The man replied; ‘Wall I’ll tell you what I dinks I dinks de day of Jubilee for me hab come.’
In his book The End of Days: African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation, historian Matthew Harper discusses the religious meaning of the war to black Southerners in the late stages of the war. He writes
On February 22, 1865, the 4th and the 37th U.S. Colored Troops, among others, occupied the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina. As the soldiers marched through the streets, they sang, “Christ died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Slaves and free blacks lined the streets to cheer, dance, and celebrate. One African-American woman spotted her son among the soldiers. Young men who had left home as slaves now returned as liberators. Their presence meant the end of slavery.
White civilians stood aghast as black soldiers secured the city. For local whites, the control of Wilmington by armed black men was apocalyptic, a doomsday. One elderly white man heard a “shouting mass of ex-slaves” marching behind the lines a black Union soldiers, and in disgust, he called out,”Blow Gabriel, blow, for God’s sake blow.” He thought the world was ending, and he wanted it over quickly.
For local blacks, too, this day held eschatological meaning, though in a much different sense. Emancipation was the key moment in African American eschatology. That eschatology was on display the following Sunday when local African Americans gathered, as they usually did, for a sunrise prayer meeting at the Methodist church on Front Street. The church, a congregation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, had white and black members; it had a white pastor, even though the 800 black members easily outnumbered the 200 white members. Many of the church’s services were biracial with segregated seating, but the sunrise prayer service, a long-standing tradition, was attended only by the church’s African American members. On that Sunday it was no ordinary prayer service.
“The whole congregation was wild with excitement,” observed the church’s white pastor, “with shouts, groans, amens, and unseemly demonstrations.” A black leader named Charles chose the scripture lesson from the ninth Psalm: “Thou hast rebuked the heathen, thou hast destroyed the wicked, thou has put out their name for ever and ever.” Charles told the people to “study over this morning lesson on this day of Jubilee.”
After the scripture reading, a black US Army chaplain, Rev. William H Hunter, stood up to speak. Born a slave in North Carolina, Hunter was freed at an early age and moved to New York. He later attended Wilberforce University and was ordained an African Methodist Episcopal minister. Chaplin Hunter had arrived with his regiment only days before, and he brought with him news that the world now looked very different. When he spoke, an observer noted Hunter stretching “himself to his full-size and displaying to the best advantage for a profound impression his fine uniform.”
[Hunter] proclaimed, “One week ago you were all slaves; now you are all free.” The congregation responded with “uproarious screamings.” Hunter continued, “Thank God the armies of the Lord and Gideon has triumphed and the Rebels have been driven back in confusion and scattered like chaff before the wind.”
For the freedpeople, the war was an affirmation that they were God’s children, that they were blessed, and that they could have a future as bright as that of any believer. God had not merely freed them, he changed them, and made them a way into a new future. For that, they freely and joyously gave thanks. Our tradition of celebrating emancipation and the Jubilee is long forgotten; perhaps this is something we should dust off and consider making anew.