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.

 

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.

Mississippi Blue Flood Blues

The Colored Volunteer Marching Into Dixie
The Colored Soldier, Marching into Dixie; 1863; hand-colored lithograph; from New York: Published by Currier & Ives, New York; Originally part of a McAllister, Hart, Phillips Civil War scrapbook
Description: Portrait of an earnest African American Union soldier dressed in his blue uniform, a “U.S.” belt buckle, and a cap. He holds his rifle over his shoulder and carries a sleeping mat on his back.
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, African Americana Collection – African American Graphics Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

The Mississippi Blue Flood Blues
By Alan Skerrett

There’s a blue flood in Mississippi
That’s where my baby be
There’s a blue flood in Mississippi
That’s where my baby be
They’re wearin’ eagles on their buttons [1]
Tellin’ us it’s Jubilee [2]

There’s a dark cloud over Vicksburg [3]
I hope my baby found a cave
There’s a dark cloud over Vicksburg
Sure hope my baby’s in a cave
But that blue flood is surely coming’
And I know my baby will be saved

There’s thunder and lighting in Natchez
Where there used to be crying on the block [4]
There’s thunder and lighting in Natchez
Where my baby was crying on the block
But when that blue flood comes to Natchez
We’ll take the keys and break the locks

There’s a horn blown’ in Jackson [5]
Blowing just like Jericho
Lord, there’s a horn blowin’ in Jackson
Strong and loud like Jericho
When you hear that horn a wailing,
Pack your bags, child, time to go!
—————

[1] African Americans soldiers were a vital part of the Union forces in the Mississippi Valley. Almost 18,000 black men from Mississippi enlisted in the Union army; only Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee provided more African descent troops to the Union cause. During the war, Frederick Douglass famously said “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Earnest McBride, in his essay “Black Mississippi troops in the Civil War,” writes that “the most noteworthy battles fought by Mississippi black troops to liberate themselves, their families and the entire nation are the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863, as part of the Vicksburg Campaign; two battles in or near Yazoo City, February and March, 1864; Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864; Brownsville, MS, April, 1864; Brice’s Crossroads, June 1-13, 1864; Tupelo, July 5-1864.”
Continue reading

Is it time for a national monument to slavery?

Professors Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle of California State University, Fresno, writing in the New York Times, argue that “America Needs a National Slavery Monument.”

I agree. Such a project would have to be financed by private contributions, and that might be a daunting task in the current economy. But it can be done.

I would add that, the creation of a national monument does not eliminate the need for such monuments on the local level. It would be great to see these all throughout the country, wherever there was presence of enslaved people.

One monuments to enslaved people is the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan, New York. It provides a useful model to other localities. Note that, this is a “national” monument in that it is maintained by the National Park Service, and is intended for a national audience; but it is not intended to commemorate the entire national experience with regard to slavery.


African Burial Ground National Monument, Exterior View; Manhattan, New York
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons


Renewal, by Tomie Aria; silkscreen on canvas mural; in the lobby of the Ted Weiss Federal Building, 290 Broadway, NY (This is where the interior portion of the African Burial Ground monument site is located). From here: “The mural pays tribute to the first enslaved Africans whose labor helped to build colonial New York, spanning the period of time which covers the recorded existence of the African Burial Ground, from 1712 to 1792.”
Image Source: Tomie Arai.com

“De Regreso Del Infierno” (“Back from Hell”): Bearing the flag at Ft. Wagner; and an ode to Medal of Honor winner Sgt. William H. Carney


Figure 1: This is an awesome 1/6 figurine depicting an African American soldier from the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, after the Battle of Fort Wagner. The piece is titled “De Regreso Del Inferno” (“Back from Hell”). This is from the Spanish language site Acción Uno Seis: foro español di figuras de acción a escala 1/6 (Action One Six: A Spanish Forum for 1/6 scale action figures). It shows a Union sergeant who holds the tattered, but surviving, United States flag in the wake of the battle.
From the site Acción Uno Seis (translated from Spanish): “The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment won international fame on July 18, 1863 for leading the assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina. In this battle, Colonel Shaw died along with 116 of his men. 156 others were wounded or captured.
“Although the Union was not able to take the fort, the 54th Massachusetts was widely hailed for his courage, and the event it helped spur enlistment and mobilization of African-Americans to join the Union Army. This was a key factor in the conflict. President Abraham Lincoln said the support of African-American troops had facilitated the final victory.
“In the figure, all is dirty and worn, especially the flag. As the focus of the Confederate fire, it was expected that after the attack the flag would be in bad shape!”
Created by: “egonzinc.” His full name is not indicated, although he is shown as being from Puerto Rico.
=> For more images of this figure (10 in all), please go to the website Acción Uno Seis.

Boys the Old Flag Never Touched The Ground (chorus)
by Henry Mather and George E. Lathrop, 1908

‘Twas the Blue against the Gray, Boys,
And he said to all around,
“I’ve only done my duty boys,
The old Flag never touch’d the ground.
“I’ve only done my duty boys,”
He said to all around,
“I’ve only done my duty boys,
It never touched the ground.

Per WikipediaBoys the Old Flag Never Touched The Ground is a patriotic song that celebrates the heroism of Civil War Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. William H. Carney of the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the Battle of Fort Wagner. The song was written by Henry Mather and George E. Lothrop after Carney’s death in 1908.


Cover for the sheet music to the song “Boys the Old Flag Never Touched The Ground,” 1909, with a photo of William H. Carney
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

In the Civil War era army, no duty was more honorable, or more dangerous, than that of the color, or flag, bearer. As noted here at About.com,

The regimental flags were critical in Civil War battles as they marked the position of the regiment on the battlefield, which could often be a very confused place. In the noise and smoke of battle, regiments could become scattered, and vocal commands, or even bugle calls, could not be heard. So a visual rallying point was essential, and soldiers were trained to follow the flag.

Because the regimental flags had genuine strategic importance in battle, designated teams of soldiers, known as the color guard, carried them. A typical regimental color guard would consist of two color bearers, one carrying the national flag (the U.S. flag or a Confederate flag) and one carrying the regimental flag. Often two other soldiers were assigned to guard the color bearers.

Being a color bearer was considered a mark of great distinction and it required a soldier of extraordinary bravery. The job was to carry the flag where the regimental officers directed, while unarmed and under fire. Most importantly, color bearers had to face the enemy and never break and run in retreat, or the entire regiment might follow. As the regimental flags were so conspicuous in battle, they were often used as a target for rifle and artillery fire. And, of course, the mortality rate of color bearers was high.


Figure 2: Alternate view “De Regreso Del Inferno” (“Back from Hell”).  Continue reading

Nov 13-15, 2015: 150th Anniversary of the Grand Review of United States Colored Troops (USCT), Harrisburg PA

2015 Grand Review Harrisburg, PA USCT copy

The 150th Anniversary of the Grand Review of United States Colored Troops (USCT) will be commemorated in Harrisburg, PA, on November 13-15, 2015. The original Grand Review, in November 1865, featured a military parade of USCT soldiers who were recognized and celebrated for their role in winning the Civil War. The Grand Review website is here; this is from the site:

The place to be on November 13-15, 2015 is Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the 150th anniversary of the Grand Review. You can be part of these history-making events that will take place each day with the actual Grand Review precession on November 14. United States Colored Troops (USCT) re-enactors from several states will be part of the Grand Procession taking place and many of the other events connected to it. In fact, the USCT re-enactors are conducting their national annual meeting here in Harrisburg in conjunction with the Grand Review.

On Friday and Saturday Strawberry Square, the urban mall at Third and Market streets, will be transformed into a “chautauqua showcase” where history buffs, educators, visitors, and locals can enjoy the various displays from the USCT regiment re-enactors and living history actors. We encourage you to bring your children to this family event.

The US Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA) will hold its Annual Meeting during the weekend. Go here (USCTLHA Facebook page) for more information.

There was a Grand Review Event in 2010; pictures therefrom are here.

Harrisburg Grand Review 3
Scene from the 2010 Grand Review of the USCT Parade in Harrisburg, PA

Drunk History: Harriet Tubman leads slaves to freedom during the Civil War

Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, was a spy for the Union during the Civil War, eventually leading raids on plantations in South Carolina that freed over 700 slaves.

Comedy Central’s Drunk History show does a hilarious take on her wartime heroics:

While it is hilarious, it is based on a true story. Much of this seems based in part on the book Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: How Daring Slaves and Free Blacks Spied for the Union During the Civil War, by Thomas B. Allen, which is a good read.

Crissle West of The Read does most of the voice-over for this video.

Links of Interest, October 16, 2015

These are some items on the Web that might be of interest to our readers:

From the Gettysburg Compiler: Tributes to Terror: The Mis-Monumentation of the Colfax Massacre.  This essay looks at monuments to the so-called Colfax Massacre. On Easter Day, 1873, an armed white militia attacked a group of freedmen who had gathered at the Colfax, Louisiana courthouse to protect a recently elected black sheriff. Although some of the African Americans were armed and initially defended themselves, estimates are that between 100-280 of them were killed, many (most?) of them following their surrender. Historians call this event the Colfax Massacre.

As explained at the link, the event is commemorated by monuments which celebrate the victory of “white supremacy” over the “carpetbaggers.”


From the Gettysburg Compiler: This stone obelisk in Colfax, Louisiana pays homage to the three white perpetrators “who fell… fighting for white supremacy” during the Colfax Massacre. Source: The Root.

********

From Vox.com: I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery. Writer Margaret Biser remarks that “(I) worked at a historic site in the South that included an old house and a nearby plantation. My job was to lead tours and tell guests about the people who made plantations possible: the slaves.” She discusses visitors’ questions and comments concerning the peculiar institution.

********

Dr. Dick Sommers, of the Army Heritage and Education Center, presents “How Black Soldiers Helped Win the Civil War” at the Army War College; lecture was given in February 2013:

********

This lecture, titled “Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War,” by Margaret Humphreys, MD, PhD, Josiah C. Trent Professor of the History of Medicine, Duke University, was given in April 2013:

********

From Vox.com: The myth of race, debunked in 3 minutes: As noted at the link, “the fact is, race is a social and political construct that has evolved in fascinating and often confusing ways over the centuries.” A brief but engaging video presentation explains it all in less than 5 minutes.

Really?

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but this is for sale on the Internet:

Dirt - Soldier - Union Negro copy
Image Source: From the 
VodouStore.com

Umm, what… graveyard dirt from Union Negroes? Yuck…

No, this is not satire. Somebody is selling this dirt. In fact, today, it’s on sale.

Dirt Union negro soldier vodou edit
Image Source: From the VodouStore.com

All I could think when I saw the ad was, these soldiers must be… dare I say it?… turning in their graves at the very thought of this.

I’ll get back to serious business in the next post.