How will you observe National Freedom Day?

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.

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. Continue reading

Henry Bibb’s Christmas Wedding: Love, Hope and Heartbreak in the Age of Bondage

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The Christmas Week, by Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863.
Philadelphia artist Henry Louis Stephens produced a series of Civil War period cards that “illustrated the journey of a slave from plantation life to the struggle for liberty, for which he gives his life, as a Union soldier during the Civil War.” This card above shows slaves reveling in the Christmas holidays, when many slaves were given time off from labor.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-2527, LC-DIG-ppmsca-05453, LC-USZC4-6677

Henry Bibb, a 19th century African American Abolitionist, was born a Kentucky slave in 1815, and died free at the young age of 39 in 1854. His father might have been James Bibb, a Kentucky state senator; but Henry Bibb never knew his real father. Wikipedia says that “as he was growing up, Henry Bibb saw each of his six younger siblings, all boys, sold away to other slaveholders. (After escaping slavery and becoming an abolitionist he) traveled and lectured throughout the United States. In 1849-50 he published his autobiography Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself which became one of the best known slave narratives of the antebellum years.”

The Christmas holiday figured prominently in Henry Bibb’s life: he was married and escaped bondage during separate Christmas holidays. He tells the story of his 1833 wedding to Malinda Jackson, also a slave, in his autobiography:

Malinda’s mother was free, and lived in Bedford, about a quarter of a mile from her daughter; and we often met and passed off the time pleasantly. Agreeable to promise, on one Saturday evening, I called to see Malinda, at her mother’s residence, with an intention of letting her know my mind upon the subject of marriage. It was a very bright moonlight night; the dear girl was standing in the door, anxiously waiting my arrival. As I approached the door she caught my hand with an affectionate smile, and bid me welcome to her mother’s fireside.

After having broached the subject of marriage, I informed her of the difficulties which I conceived to be in the way of our marriage; and that I could never engage myself to marry any girl only on certain conditions; near as I can recollect the substance of our conversation upon the subject, it was, that I was religiously inclined; that I intended to try to comply with the requisitions of the gospel, both theoretically and practically through life. Also that I was decided on becoming a free man before I died; and that I expected to get free by running away, and going to Canada, under the British Government. Agreement on those two cardinal questions I made my test for marriage.

I said, “I never will give my heart nor hand to any girl in marriage, until I first know her sentiments upon all important subjects of Religion and Liberty. No matter how well I might love her, nor how great the sacrifice in carrying out these God-given principles. And I here pledge myself, from this course never to be shaken while a single pulsation of my heart shall continue to throb for Liberty.” With this idea Malinda appeared to be well pleased, and with a smile she looked me in the face and said, “I have long entertained the same views, and this has been one of the greatest reasons why I have not felt inclined to enter the married state while a slave; I have always felt a desire to be free; I have long cherished a hope that I should yet be free, either by purchase or running away. In regard to the subject of Religion, I have always felt that it was a good thing, and something that I would seek for at some future period.”

After I found that Malinda was right upon these all important questions, and that she truly loved me well enough to make me an affectionate wife, I made proposals for marriage… (eventually we) entered upon a conditional contract of matrimony, viz: that we would marry if our minds should not change within one year; that after marriage we would change our former course and live a pious life; and that we would embrace the earliest opportunity of running away to Canada for our liberty.

Clasping each other by the hand, pledging our sacred honor that we would be true, we called on high heaven to witness the rectitude of our purpose. There was nothing that could be more binding upon us as slaves than this; for marriage among American slaves, is disregarded by the laws of this country. It is counted a mere temporary matter; it is a union which may be continued or broken off with or without the consent of a slaveholder, whether he is a priest or a libertine.

There is no legal marriage among the slaves of the South; I never saw nor heard of such a thing in my life, and I have been through seven of the slave states. A slave marrying according to law, is a thing unknown in the history of American Slavery. And be it known to the disgrace of our country that every slaveholder, who is the keeper of a number of slaves of both sexes, is also the keeper of a house or houses of ill-fame.

Henry_Bibb

Henry Bibb, from his autobiography “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself”

Licentious white men, can and do, enter at night or day the lodging places of slaves; break up the bonds of affection in families; destroy all their domestic and social union for life; and the laws of the country afford them no protection. Will any man count, if they can be counted, the churches of Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia, which have slaves connected with them, living in an open state of adultery, never having been married according to the laws of the State, and yet regular members of these various denominations, but more especially the Baptist and Methodist churches? And I hazard nothing in saying that this state of things exists to a very wide extent in the above states.

I am happy to state that many fugitive slaves, who have been enabled by the aid of an over-ruling providence to escape to the free North with those whom they claim as their wives, notwithstanding all their ignorance and superstition, are not at all disposed to live together like brutes, as they have been compelled to do in slaveholding Churches. But as soon as they got free from slavery they go before some anti-slavery clergyman, and have the solemn ceremony of marriage performed according to the laws of the country. And if they profess religion, and have been baptized by a slaveholding minister, they repudiate it after becoming free, and are re-baptized by a man who is worthy of doing it according to the gospel rule. Continue reading

The Loyal Colored People of Baltimore Give Lincoln a Bible


Bible given to Abraham Lincoln by freemen of Baltimore, Maryland in September, 1864; the “Lincoln Bible” is in the collection of the Fisk University Library
From the New York Times, September 11, 1864: The book in size is imperial quarto, bound in royal purple velvet. On the upper side of the cover is a solid 18 carat gold plate, nine and a half inches in circumference, bearing a design representing the President in the act of removing the shackles from a slave. On the lower side of the cover is a solid 18 carat gold plate, four inches long and two inches wide, bearing the following inscription:
“To ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, from the loyal colored people of Baltimore, as a token of respect and gratitude. Baltimore, 4th July, 1864.”
Accompanying the Bible is a solid black walnut case with a silver plate on the lid, on which is engraved a picture or the Capitol and the words “Holy Bible.”
Photo Source: Historically Black Colleges and Universities Libraries Alliance website

In September 1864, late in the American Civil War, an event occurred that was unthinkable just four years earlier: a group of men of African descent – “colored men” in the parlance of the day – presented Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States, with the gift of the Bible. After the event, Lincoln shook hands with each of those men. With each shake of the hand, history was being made: prior to the War, US presidents did not meet and receive African Americans, much less shake their hands as equals. But by 1864, the world had changed, and this previously unlikely meeting was the result.

The black men who met Lincoln that day were freemen – free men of color – from Baltimore, MD. The event was reported by the New York Times, the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, and other newspapers. Per the Times:

Yesterday afternoon a Bible was presented, on behalf of the loyal colored residents of Baltimore, by Revs. A. W. Wayman, S. W. Chase, and W. H. Brown, and Mr. William H. Francis, to President Lincoln. The members of the committee were introduced by Mr. S. Mathews, of Maryland, and individually welcomed by the President. This ceremony having been concluded, Rev. S. W. Chase addressed the President as follows:

“MR. PRESIDENT: The loyal colored people of Baltimore have entrusted us with authority to present this Bible as a testimonial of their appreciation of your humane conduct towards the people of our race. While all others of this nation are offering their tribute of respect to you, we cannot omit suitable manifestation of ours. Since our incorporation into the American family we have been true and loyal, and we are now ready to aid in defending the country, to be armed and trained in military matters, in order to assist in protecting and defending the star-spangled banner.

“Towards you, sir, our hearts will ever be warm with gratitude. We come to present to you this copy of the Holy Scriptures, as a token of respect for your active participation in furtherance of the cause of the emancipation of our race. This great event will be a matter of history. Hereafter, when our children shall ask what mean these tokens, they will be told of your worthy deeds, and will rise up and call you blessed.

“The loyal colored people of this country everywhere will remember you at the Throne of Divine Grace. May the King Eternal, an all-wise. Providence protect and keep you, and when you pass from this world to that of eternity, may you be borne to the bosom of your Saviour and your God.”

Upon receiving the Bible, Lincoln stated:

This occasion would seem fitting for a lengthy response to the address which you have just made. I would make one, if prepared; but I am not. I would promise to respond in writing, had not experience taught me that business will not allow me to do so. I can only now say, as I have often before said, it has always been a sentiment with me that all mankind should be free. So far as able, within my sphere, I have always acted as I believed to be right and just; and I have done all I could for the good of mankind generally. In letters and documents sent from this office I have expressed myself better than I now can. In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man.

All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it. To you I return my most sincere thanks for the very elegant copy of the great Book of God which you present.

The whole event would have been impossible just several years prior. For one, US presidents were not in the habit of meeting black men or women in the White House. Ten of the presidents who preceded Lincoln were slave owners. Nine out of ten African Americans in 1860 were enslaved, and most whites believed that all African Americans, enslaved or free, were their inferiors. People of African descent had no political power; blacks could vote in only five states, and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision declared that negroes were not citizens of the United States. Simply put, African Americans had no business being in the White House, except as servants.

Meanwhile, the onset of the Civil War had forced the United States government to take a stand, one way or the other, about the issue of slavery; slavery was, after all, the reason that secessionists claimed disunion was necessary. Seeking to preserve the Union without resorting to war, Lincoln said in his 1860 inauguration speech that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Lincoln hoped that this would gain the loyalty of slave owners in the Union slave states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri), and perhaps even cool off secession fever. But many African Americans saw it as an unwillingness to stand-up for the freedom of the enslaved.

And finally, Baltimore had not been a wholly hospitable place for Unionist sentiment. The city, which had gained some infamy for its riotous behavior – hence its nickname “Motown” – earned its reputation with an attack on Union soldiers who had come from the North to go South and fight Confederates. Many of the city’s residents were secessionist sympathizers or anti-war men who did not appreciate northerners coming into their city on their way to fighting against the South. The incident, called the Baltimore riot of 1861 (also called the Pratt Street Riot and the Pratt Street Massacre) left four Union soldiers and a dozen civilians dead. In response, Union military forces entered the city and state to prevent domestic disturbances.


Not so loyal citizens in Baltimore, Maryland, attack Union soldiers during the April 19, 1861 Baltimore riot. The riot, less than two weeks from the attack on Fort Sumter, left over a dozen people dead.
Source: Painting “Massachusetts Militia Passing Through Baltimore (Baltimore Riot of 1861) engraving of F.F. Walker (1861)”, from Wikipedia Commons

One of the military leaders in charge of this seeming occupation of the state was Union general and political appointee Benjamin Butler. Butler threatened “to arrest the state’s legislators if they voted to secede.” But he also told Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks “I have understood within the last hour that some apprehensions were entertained of an insurrection of the negro population of this neighborhood. I am anxious to convince all classes of persons that the forces under my command are not here in any way to interfere with or countenance any interference with the laws of the State. I am therefore ready to co-operate with your excellency in suppressing most promptly and effectively any insurrection against the laws of Maryland.” Ironically, Butler would later become famous for giving asylum to runaway or “contraband” slaves in Virginia and for enlisting black men into the army in Louisiana.

So, the state of war, race relations, and slavery did not portend well for a meeting of colored men and the US president in early 1861. But in that year, Lincoln and many Union men had anticipated the Civil War would last but 6-12 months, with a Union victory the inevitable result. Instead, the war lasted over four years, with deaths on both sides amounting to over 620,000. Faced with the staggering loss of life, and home front morale that rose and fell like the sea tides, the Union established a policy of emancipation and black enlistment. The Union’s black enlistees included the 4th Infantry of the United State Colored Troops, an African descent regiment that was raised in Maryland. One member of that regiment was Christian Fleetwood. He was one of over a dozen black men who was awarded the US Medal of Honor for his bravery during the war.


Medal of Honor awardee Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood, 4th Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops
Fleetwood was born a freeman in Baltimore.
Continue reading

April 16, 2014 – Emancipation Day, Washington DC

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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.
Source:
Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-33937

Today marks the 152nd 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. A listing of 2014 Emancipation Day activities by Rachael Cooper in About.com Washington, DC is here. Enjoy.

The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

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Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran, 1862

The Great Dismal Swamp is a huge marshy area that stretches from the city of Norfolk in southeastern Virginia to Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina. The swamp was infamous (to white slaveholders) in the pre-Civil War era as a refuge for freedom seeking African Americans. Communities of so-called Great Dismal Swamp maroons, along with a number of Native Americans, made it their home. Wikipedia provides this description of the maroons:

In his 1939 article “Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States”, (historian) Herbert Aptheker stated that likely “about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives” lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp. Results of a study published in 2007, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp”, say that thousands of people lived in the swamp between 1630 and 1865, Native Americans, maroons and enslaved laborers on the canal (being built in the Swamp). A 2011 study speculated that thousands may have lived in the swamp between the 1600s and 1860.

While the precise number of maroons who lived in the swamp at that time is unknown, it is believed to have been one of the largest maroon colonies in the United States. It is established that “several thousand” were living there by the 19th century. Fear of slave unrest and fugitive slaves living among maroon population caused concern amongst local whites.

A militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped. In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp.However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.

The theme of the Swamp as a place of escape and refuge was seen in several 19th Century works of art. One of the more well-known is the painting Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran. The picture, shown above, is centered around a slave family – father, mother, and child – that is on the run from slave catchers. The father holds a bloody knife, having killed a chasing dog. But two other dogs are shown in pursuit, and two slave-catchers loom in the dark background. The family seems frozen in time, as they look up at the on-coming dogs; freedom will not come easy, if it comes at all. The only thing we know for sure is that this family will put up a fight.

The painting was completed in 1862, in the early years of the Civil War. According to the book The Civil War in American Art, edited by Eleanor James Harvey, the picture was commissioned by an abolitionist, and may be based in part on a literary work by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Partially at the request of the ardent abolitionist Charles Sumner, Longfellow wrote a group of pieces in a collection called  Poems on Slavery. One of those works, The Slave in the Dismal Swamp, talks of the harsh life in the marsh:

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

Many historians today situate the Dismal Swamp maroon communities as part of the larger Underground Railroad network and African American anti-slavery resistance. There is a lot of material about the maroons in books and on the Web. I found this document, which is a general/pictorial history of the Swamp, quite interesting and it spurred me to do further reading on the subject.

Osman, a Great Dismal Swamp Maroon, by David Hunter Strother, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1856; image of an escaped slave in the North Carolina part of the Great Dismal Swamp
Source: Wikipedia Commons

President Kennedy Unveils Stamp to Commemorate the Emanicpation Proclamation, 1963

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President John Kennedy unveils the commemorative stamp for the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The picture was taken in the White House in May 1963. The persons in the photo are, L-R, Berl Bernhard, Staff Director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; Georg Olden, designer of the stamp and Vice President of McCann-Erickson advertising firm; Postmaster General J. Edward Day; and President Kennedy.
Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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President John Kennedy, right, makes remarks after unveiling the stamp. The photo includes Georg Olden, designer of the stamp, and Postmaster General J. Edward Day.
Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

In the preceding blog post, I displayed images of two stamps commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation: the 1963 stamp that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Proclamation, and the 2013 stamp that commemorates the Proclamation’s 150th anniversary.

The 1963 stamp was unveiled on May 1, 1963, in an Oval Office ceremony held with then president John F. Kennedy. This is the draft press release for the unveiling ceremony, which is from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum:

President Kennedy today unveiled the design of an Emancipation Proclamation commemorative postage stamp that marks the 100th anniversary of President Lincoln’s executive action that brought freedom to three million Negro slaves.

The new stamp will first be issued in Chicago next August 16, opening day of the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in that city.

In a proclamation calling for national observance of the centennial, Mr. Kennedy had earlier noted that “the goal of securing equal rights for all our citizens is still unreached, and the securing of these rights is one of the great unfinished tasks of our democracy.”

Georg Olden, of New York City, designer of the stamp, was present as Mr. Kennedy and Postmaster General J. Edward Day drew aside the drapes to display an illuminated color reproduction of the new stamp. Mr. Olden in the first of his race to design a U. S. postage stamp. (Emphasis added.) He is Vice President of the New York advertising firm McKann-Erickson.

Also participating in the ceremony in the President’s office was Ashby G. Smith, president of the National Alliance of Postal Employees and Berl I. Bernhard, Staff Director, Civil Rights Commission.

The 5-cent Emancipation Proclamation commemorative stamp depicts a severed link in a massive black chain, placed against a blue background. The inscription “United States” in red appears top center of the stamp, flanked by “1863-1963″ in blue. At the bottom, also in blue, is “Emancipation Proclamation.”

The designer of the stamp, graphics designer Georg Olden, was an African American pioneer in white corporate America, as an executive at CBS and at the ad agency McCann-Erickson. Olden, who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, was the grandson of a slave; I wonder what emotions he had at that moment, and if he pondered that he himself was a living symbol of how great a distance people of African descent had traveled since the time of the Civil War?

US Postal Service Stamps Commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation

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1963 stamp, commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation-Proclamation-2013
2013 stamp, commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

These are postage stamps commemorating the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s hard to imagine there was a time when stamps only cost 5¢. And I say that as someone who is over 55 years old.

The blog for the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Pushing the Envelope, has details of the First-Day Ceremony for the Emancipation Proclamation Commemorative Stamp. It also has some interesting stories and images about Postal Service commemorations of the Emancipation Proclamation, such as this one:

http://postalmuseum.typepad.com/.a/6a01157147ecba970c017ee7726ba2970d-popup