April 16, 2016 – Emancipation Day, Washington DC

Celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia by the colored people, in Washington, April 19, 1866 / Harper’s Weekly, v. 10, no. 489 (1866 May 12), p. 300 / sketched by F. Dielman.
Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-33937

Today marks the 154th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC. Hallelujah, hallelujah!

The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, passed by the 37th Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862, abolished slavery in Washington, D.C. by paying slave owners for freeing their bondsmen. Some 3100 slaves were freed at a cost of just under $1 million in 1862 dollars. The Act represented one of many steps the Union government took toward an active antislavery policy during the war.

Emancipation Day is now an official holiday in Washington, DC. Celebratory, commemorative and educational events have been held in Washington, DC and environs for the past two weeks. Below is a partial list of events planned for today; click this link to discover other events:

DC Emancipation Day Events

> I wonder what the Emancipation Day Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon (scheduled for 9 PM) is about.

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. Continue reading

Fighting over Freedom in Post-war South Carolina, Part 2: We Want to “to raise up an oppressed and deeply injured people”

Freedman’s school, possibly in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1863 – 1865
> In November 1865, a  Colored People’s Convention of the state of South Carolina, meeting in Charleston, asked “that the three great agents of civilized society—the school, the pulpit, the press— be as secure in South Carolina as in Massachusetts or Vermont.”
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-stereo-1s04415 (digital file from original item, front) LC-DIG-stereo-2s04415 (digital file from original item, back)

By the end of 1865, the American Civil War was over, and the United States had defeated the Confederate States. With the Union now “preserved,” it was clear that the wartime goal of emancipating the slaves would be achieved.  But the question remained: how “free” was “free?” Freedom meant different things to different people, and no one, definitive meaning had been determined. And so a contest to determine the scope and extent of the former slaves’ freedom was on.

On one side of this contest was men like South Carolina’s Edmund Rhett, Jr, a former Confederate army officer and editor of a prominent newspaper in Charleston. In correspondence discussing the post-war status of the freedpeople, he recommended a set of laws that would prohibit freedpeople from ever owning land, restrict “the method of (their) movements,” prevent Negroes from “competing with white men,” “control him, and keep him under good discipline,” and otherwise keep negroes “as near to the condition of slavery as possible.” If Negroes could no longer be owned, they would at least be controlled and subjugated.

African Americans had another idea. They were not ignorant of or naive about the intentions of former Confederates. After the war, they assembled at conventions throughout the South and North to discuss their dreams, goals, and action plans for improvement and progress. In November 1865, the Colored People’s Convention of the state of South Carolina met in Charleston and issued a statement (called a “memorial”) to the Congress which: protested so-called  “black codes” legislation that would place the freedmen in a state of virtual enslavement; demanded that their right to bear arms be protected; asked for suffrage rights equivalent to those of white men; and expressed hope that the “great agents of civilized society—the school, the pulpit, the press— be as secure in South Carolina as in Massachusetts or Vermont.” If there was to be a war of words, South Carolina’s black community was more than willing to exchange fire.

And as it turned out, the fight for a truly full-featured freedom would extend far into the future, to the Civil Rights era. Consider this one of the first volleys in the post-war struggle for liberation:

We, the colored people of the state of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, respectfully present for your attention some prominent facts in relation to our present condition, and make a modest yet earnest appeal to your considerate judgment. Continue reading

Soldiers and Spirituals: South Carolina US Colored Troops

Photo Exhibit: The Black South of Dorothea Lange
• These Depression-era images are by the renowned American photographer Dorothea Lange. During the 1930s she and other photographers were part of a Farm Security Administration project that documented the effects of the Great Depression on the American people. These pictures were taken in Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas during the mid to late 1930s.
Image Source: The photographs can be found in the Library of Congress  Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
• The music is from a traditional spiritual performed by Texas gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson (vocal and guitar) and Willie B. Harris (vocal) in 1927. The song is titled “Keep Your Light Trimmed and Burning.” As noted in the text below, a version of this song (under the title “THIS WORLD ALMOST DONE”) was sung by African American soldiers in Civil War South Carolina, as follows:
“Brudder, keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
For dis world most done.”
Audio Source: From Wikipedia.com


As both a man of God and a man of letters, Union army colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson had an ear for spiritual music. He got earfuls of it listening to the black southern soldiers under his command during the Civil War.

As noted by Wikipedia, Higginson (1823 – 1911), born and raised in Massachusetts, “was an American Unitarian minister, author, abolitionist, and soldier. He was active in the American Abolitionism movement during the 1840s and 1850s, identifying himself with disunion and militant abolitionism. He was a member of the Secret Six who supported John Brown. During the Civil War, he served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized black regiment, from 1862–1864. Following the war, Higginson devoted much of the rest of his life to fighting for the rights of freed slaves, women and other disfranchised peoples.” The 1st South Carolina Volunteers were later reorganized as the 33rd Infantry regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT).

In literary circles, Higginson is known as “a prolific writer; his most highly regarded work was a memoir of his war years, Army Life in a Black Regiment… (He was the) co-editor of the first two collections of Emily Dickinson’s poems…” (per the online site for the The Emily Dickinson Museum)

In his book Army Life in a Black Regiment, first published in 1869, Higginson recounted army life among the former South Carolina slaves who made the stunning transformation into Union soldiers. One aspect of black soldier life that touched him greatly was their singing of spirituals. Higgins devotes a whole chapter of his book to those songs, and to describing the spirit in which they were sung. A partial excerpt from the book follows.

Of note is that, the spirituals were revised by the black soldiers to reflect their status as soldiers and participants in war. One song speaks of “One more valiant soldier here”; another says “We’re marching through Virginny fields, old Secesh done come and gone!” In their spirit, the soldiers seem to be saying, we are not just soldiers of the Union, or even soldiers of freedom; we are soldiers in God’s army.

Higginosn and Black Veterans
Left: Army Col Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Right: Unidentified veterans of the 33rd Infantry Regiment, USCT
Image Source: Dr. Bronson’s St. Augustine History

FROM: Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment, chapter 9, “Negro Spirituals”:

The war brought to some of us, besides its direct experiences, many a strange fulfilment of dreams of other days. For instance, the present writer had been a faithful student of the Scottish ballads, and had always envied Sir Walter the delight of tracing them out amid their own heather, and of writing them down piecemeal from the lips of aged crones. It was a strange enjoyment, therefore, to be suddenly brought into the midst of a kindred world of unwritten songs, as simple and indigenous as the Border Minstrelsy, more uniformly plaintive, almost always more quaint, and often as essentially poetic.

This interest was rather increased by the fact that I had for many years heard of this class of songs under the name of “Negro Spirituals,” and had even heard some of them sung by friends from South Carolina. I could now gather on their own soil these strange plants, which I had before seen as in museums alone. True, the individual songs rarely coincided; there was a line here, a chorus there,—just enough to fix the class, but this was unmistakable. It was not strange that they differed, for the range seemed almost endless, and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida seemed to have nothing but the generic character in common, until all were mingled in the united stock of camp-melodies.

Often in the starlit evening, I have returned from some lonely ride by the swift river, or on the plover-haunted barrens, and, entering the camp, have silently approached some glimmering fire, round which the dusky figures moved in the rhythmical barbaric dance the negroes call a “shout,” chanting, often harshly, but always in the most perfect time, some monotonous refrain.

Writing down in the darkness, as I best could,—perhaps with my hand in the safe covert of my pocket,—the words of the song, I have afterwards carried it to my tent, like some captured bird or insect, and then, after examination, put it by… The music I could only retain by ear, and though the more common strains were repeated often enough to fix their impression, there were others that occurred only once or twice. The words will be here given, as nearly as possible, in the original dialect; and if the spelling seems sometimes inconsistent, or the misspelling insufficient, it is because I could get no nearer.

The favorite song in camp was the following, sung with no accompaniment but the measured clapping of hands and the clatter of many feet. It was sung perhaps twice as often as any other. This was partly due to the fact that it properly consisted of a chorus alone, with which the verses of other songs might be combined at random.

"Hold your light, Brudder Robert,
Hold your light,
Hold your light on Canaan's shore.
"What make ole Satan for follow me so?
Satan ain't got notin' for do wid me.
Hold your light,
Hold your light,
Hold your light on Canaan's shore."

Continue reading

Tragic Mulatto: Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s The Price of Blood

The Price of Blood, by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835–1907); 1868; Oil on canvas
Image Source: Morris Museum of Art

This is how these men, born in the 19th century, remembered their fathers:

Frederick Douglass wrote, “My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.” [1]

William Wells Brown wrote “I was born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose. My mother’s name was Elizabeth. She had seven children, viz.: Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Millford, Elizabeth, and myself. No two of us were children of the same father. My father’s name, as I learned from my mother, was George Higgins. He was a white man, a relative of my master, and connected with some of the first families in Kentucky.” [2]

• Henry Bibb wrote

I was born May 1815, of a slave mother, in Shelby County, Kentucky, and was claimed as the property of David White Esq. He came into possession of my mother long before I was born. I was brought up in the Counties of Shelby, Henry, Oldham, and Trimble. Or, more correctly speaking, in the above counties, I may safely say, I was flogged up; for where I should have received moral, mental, and religious instruction, I received stripes without number, the object of which was to degrade and keep me in subordination. I can truly say, that I drank deeply of the bitter cup of suffering and woe. I have been dragged down to the lowest depths of human degradation and wretchedness, by Slaveholders.

My mother was known by the name of Milldred Jackson. She is the mother of seven slaves only, all being sons, of whom I am the eldest. She was also so fortunate or unfortunate, as to have some of what is called the slaveholding blood flowing in her veins. I know not how much; but not enough to prevent her children though fathered by slaveholders, from being bought and sold in the slave markets of the South. It is almost impossible for slaves to give a correct account of their male parentage. All that I know about it is, that my mother informed me that my fathers name was James Bibb. He was doubtless one of the present Bibb family of Kentucky; but I have no personal knowledge of him at all, for he, died before my recollection. [3]

Henry Bibb’s father was Kentucky state senator James Bibb.

3 Abolitionists Douglass Brown Bibb
African American Abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Henry Bibb
Image Source: From their Narratives; see book citations at the bottom of this post
Continue reading

William Wells Brown’s Fugitive Slave Lament: “Where art thou, mother?”

“The author and his mother arrested and carried back into slavery.” From Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself., first edition published 1847, in London, England. The image shows the capture of Brown and his mother after their unsuccessful escape from bondage in 1833.
Image Source: from the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself. The book is online at Docsouth.org and is available for all users.

by William Wells Brown, from the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself.

I’ve wandered out beneath the moonlit heaven,
Lost mother! loved and dear,
To every beam a magic power seems given
To bring thy spirit near;
For though the breeze of freedom fans my brow,
My soul still turns to thee! oh, where art thou?

Where art thou, mother? I am weary thinking;
A heritage of pain and woe
Was thine, — beneath it art thou slowly sinking,
Or hast thou perished long ago?
And doth thy spirit ‘mid the quivering leaves above me,
Hover, dear mother, to guard and love me?

I murmur at my lot: in the white man’s dwelling
The mother there is found;
Or he may tell where spring-buds first are swelling
Above her lowly mound;
But thou, — lost mother, every trace of thee
In the vast sepulchre of Slavery!

Long years have fled, since sad, faint-hearted,
I stood on Freedom’s shore,
And knew, dear mother, from thee I was parted,
To meet thee never more;
And deemed the tyrant’s chain with thee were better
Than stranger hearts and limbs without a fetter.

Yet blessings on thy Roman-mother spirit;
Could I forget it, then,
The parting scene, and struggle not to inherit
A freeman’s birth-right once again?
O noble words! O holy love, which gave
Thee strength to utter them, a poor, heart-broken slave!

Be near me, mother, be thy spirit near me,
Wherever thou may’st be;
In hours like this bend near that I may hear thee,
And know that thou art free;
Summoned at length from bondage, toil and pain,
To God’s free world, a world without a chain!

“My child, we must soon part, to meet no more this side of the grave. You have ever said that you would not die a slave; that you would be a free man. Now try to get your liberty!” — William Wells Brown’s Narrative

William Wells Brown may never have forgiven himself. All he could was lament.

Wells, enslaved in Missouri in 1833, had just lost his sister to the slave trade. Perhaps angered by this loss, he convinced his mother to join him in fleeing north to “liberty.” An escape party of two would make things more difficult than if he had fled alone, but he did not want to leave his mother behind. But Brown and his mother were captured; and as a consequence, she too was “sold down the river.” That was when Brown was 19 or 20; he lived to be 70, and never saw his mother again. Continue reading

“It” can speak!: Frederick Douglass and the “brand new fact” of the articulate slave

Frederick Douglass at Age 29
Frederick Douglass, perhaps at age 29.
Image Source: By Unidentified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) is well-known as a 19th century runaway slave, abolitionist, author, publisher, orator, and civil servant. After escaping from bondage in Maryland at the age of 20, he gained early fame in the 1840s as a speaker for the abolition movement, working with abolitionist luminaries such as William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, and John Collins of the Massachusetts anti-slavery society.

Writing in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) – one of his three autobiographies – Douglass recalled his early experiences as a speaker for the abolitionist movement in the northern states. It’s useful to note that large portions of the North had few if any African American residents, much less enslaved African Americans; but white northerners were aware of all kinds of (stereotypical) representations of slaves and negroes in the media of the day.

In that environment, Douglass felt himself something of an oddity in front of white audiences. In the book Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, Maurice Wallace suggests that Douglass was seen as “circus curiosity” by white audiences.

Douglass observes that many whites simply refused to believe that an articulate person like himself could be of “very low origin”; perhaps to them, enslavement meant that the man or woman was culturally irredeemable. Eventually, Douglass felt the need to establish his bona fides as a former slave; in doing so, his status as a runaway slave was exposed, and he left the country to avoid re-enslavement. But Douglass was driven to prove that the slave could yet be a man; or perhaps, his honor demanded that he put to rest any rumors about the facts of his life. (While in exile in Britain, enough money was raised so that Douglass could buy his legal freedom, and return to the Unites States.)

This is Frederick Douglass, from My Bondage and My Freedom, from the website Documenting the American South (DocSouth):

Among the first duties assigned me, on entering the ranks (of the abolitionists), was to travel, in company with Mr. George Foster, to secure subscribers to the “Anti-slavery Standard” and the “Liberator.” With him I traveled and lectured through the eastern counties of Massachusetts.

Much interest was awakened–large meetings assembled. Many came, no doubt, from curiosity to hear what a negro could say in his own cause. I was generally introduced as a “chattel”–a “thing”–a piece of southern “property”–the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak. Continue reading

Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Big Stage

We commonly think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a literary phenomenon. But it was on the big stage that this story had some of its greatest impact.

Uncle Tom at the whipping post
Scene from the stage production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
All photos in this post are by Joseph Byron, N.Y., circa 1901
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

In 1860, at the eve of the Civil War, there were 18 free states, where slavery was prohibited. Those states had roughly 18.5 million whites, and 225,000 free blacks. So, only 1% of the free state population was African American. 168,000 of those free blacks lived in just four states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. Millions of northern whites saw ‘real live’ black people only a handful of times in their entire lives, if at all. And as unlikely as it was for them to see a black person, it was even less likely that they would ever see a slave.

There was, of course, no radio, television, telephones or Internet. The kind of immediate, in your face journalism that’s enabled by today’s technology did not exist. Slavery was certainly not an uncommon subject for the press, or other forms of paper communication. But for many northerners, the horrors of slavery were out of sight, and would have been out of mind – if not for people like Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The isolation of northern whites from slavery helps to explain the interest in Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly. The book was published in 1852, following a serialized version in an antislavery newspaper. It opened a window to a world, hidden by distance, that many northern whites never saw or knew.

The book’s negative portrayal of slavery was filled with melodrama and overt religious symbolism and appeals. It was not just a story about the grace and love of little Eva; the abuse of the devout Uncle Tom; the salvation by love of the slave girl Topsy; and the preservation of Eliza’s family. It was, as historian David Goldfield put, “a book about family, God, and redemption-surefire topics to attract a broad audience in mid-nineteenth century America.”

The Auction Scene
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

For several years, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a huge best-seller, second in popularity only to the Bible. It would become an international best-seller as well. Historian James McPherson noted that “within a decade [of its 1852 release] it sold more than two million copies in the United States, making it the best seller of all time in relation to population.”

But Uncle Tom’s Cabin was more than just a literary phenomenon. As mentioned in Wiki,

“Given the lax copyright laws of the time, stage plays based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin—”Tom shows”—began to appear while the story itself was still being serialized… Even though Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, far more Americans of that time saw the story as a stage play or musical than read the book. Eric Lott, in his book Uncle Tomitudes: Racial Melodrama and Modes of Production, estimates that at least three million people saw these plays, ten times the book’s first-year sales… The many stage variants of Uncle Tom’s Cabin “dominated northern popular culture… for several years” during the 19th century and the plays were still being performed in the early 20th century.”

These stage productions allowed the book to be visualized and dramatized, and touched theater patrons in a way that the written word could not. Now the horrors of slavery had a human face that northern people could see. The resulting ire led Abraham Lincoln to tell Stowe in 1863 – apocryphally, it turns out – “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

Little Eva’s death scene
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

Continue reading

“The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you”: Leviticus 25: 10-12

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

Leviticus 25: 10-12, New International Version