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

American Esoterica: The Negro Lawn Jockey, George Washington, Christmas, and the Underground Railroad

Negro Lawn Jockey
1935 Christmas card featuring a Lawn Jockey.
Photo Source: History Of the Lawn Jockey, at LawnJock.com

The website LawnJock.com advertisers itself as “The premiere site for hand-painted Lawn Jockey statues and accessories.Estate Quality. Real. Metal. Lawn Jockeys.” The site features a history of the lawn jockey, from which I am re-blogging the following excerpts; follow the link to get the full story:

We get many questions regarding the origins and rich history of the great American Lawn Jockey statue. Many are surprised to learn that the Lawn Jockey is actually an evolution of 3 related statues and was used primarily as a horse hitching post in the 1800’s. The Lawn Jockey makes history come alive with legends of tours of duty in the revolutionary war and civil war. Like a time machine, the cultural significance of this unique sculpture has touched many areas of society in important ways and is still evolving hundreds of years after the statue first appeared.

Above is a page from JW Fiske’s 1910 catalog. Note that there were other jockey versions other than the 3 main versions. Fiske’s “Chinaman” version can be seen in the Charleston, SC photo above(the jockey on the left). There were hundreds of iron foundrys making jockeys in the 19th century but the 3 biggest manufacturers that had catalogs and marked their products were JW Fiske and JL Mott of New York City, and Robert Wood and Company of Philadelphia.

The “big 3″ manufacturers all made the 2 jockey versions as shown below in the 1902 JL Mott catalog. The “caricature” jockey version was not cataloged or manufactured by the “big 3″.

Jockeys were mainly used for residential applications in the 1800’s, but also were used for trades as well. Although they eventually were most closely associated with motels and restaurants as a symbol of “welcome” in the 1900’s, their main location/purpose in the 1800’s were to identify tobacco shop storefronts. Historical documents from manufacturers show zinc statues were made for the trade/tobacco shop applications, while iron statues were made for residences.

Hospitality – Horseracing – History

“Welcome home”, “horseracing”, and “history” are the 3 primary themes of all lawn jockey statues, reflecting charming memories of a bygone era. Many other themes are represented in this uniquely American statue, some of which are described here and on other pages on this website: patriotism, George Washington, the American revolution, slave participation in the revolutionary war, Greek influences in American art and architecture, the Statue of Liberty, Christmas, the Underground Railroad, Black Americana, ironwork and the industrial revolution, 19th century American iron toys, forgotten black jockeys of the 1800’s, the Kentucky Derby, southern hospitality, the American centennial, and the American Red Cross.

Now let’s fast forward to 1776, on the eve of the American revolution, where the Lawn Jockey legend began. Beginning as oral tradition, in the 1960’s and 70’s the source material for this legend was eventually published in book and theater play form by Washington DC insurance agent Earl Koger(see play cover below) and in news articles by Washington Post reporter Chester Hampton. CLICK HERE to read Chester Hampton’s newspaper article on September 27, 1970.

At 3am on December 26, 1776 George Washington’s colonial army in Pennsylvania crossed the Delaware river and attacked the British at Trenton, New Jersey. Legend has it Washington’s groomsman, a 12-year-old slave boy named Jocko Graves, stayed on the Pennsylvania shore taking care of Washington’s horses, holding up a lantern to mark the location. In 1776, a “groomsman” referred to “a man or boy in charge of feeding, conditioning, and stabling of horses.”


Famous painting of Washington’s “Christmas Day” crossing of the Delaware

Recorded history documents two colonial army deaths in the Battle of Trenton, which was a significant victory for the colonials. Both soldiers froze to death on the river crossing, not killed in combat.

But legend tells of one more casualty… Jocko, who was found frozen to death on the Pennsylvania shore while still holding the lantern when Washington returned at noon on December 26, 1776. Legend has it that upon Washington’s return to his Mount Vernon, Virginia home, he was so inspired by Jocko’s heroism, he commissioned a cast iron statue of Jocko holding a lantern and called it the “Faithful Groomsman”. The “welcome/coming home” theme of these statues started here, and with an ironic double meaning: “coming home” being also used as a metaphor for “dying and going to heaven” from Christian theology. The last name “Graves” associated with the statue also offers a cryptic allusion to a cemetery grave – was the original statue a grave marker for Jocko? Taking into account that very few slaves had last names in colonial America, the grave marker explanation seems plausible.

Jockeys and Christmas

Although Christmas was not an elaborate celebration at the time, the “Christmas” theme of the Jockey also started here… making Jockey statues with lanterns the first “Christmas Lights”. Even today, more Jockeys are sold at Christmas than at any other time. Continue reading

More Photos from the New Market Heights Reenactment on Civilwartalk.com

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United States Colored Troops (USCT) reenactor/living historian Marcellus Williams of Washington, DC at the commemoration of the Battle of New Market Heights. All photos by Neil Hamilton.

As mentioned in a previous post, the 150th anniversary of the US Civil War’s Battle of New Market Heights was commemorated during the weekend of September 27, 2014 in Henrico County, Virginia. The commemoration included a number of events, the highlight being a staging of the battle by a large group of Confederate and Union soldier reenactors.

The web forum Civilwartalk.com has a discussion thread which contains a bunch of wonderful photographs from the reenactment events. The photographs appear starting on page three of the discussion thread. A handful of the pictures are displayed below.

I do have a request. If you can identify any of the people or units in the pictures, it would be greatly appreciated. For the photos here, you can leave a comment below. For the photos on Civilwartalk.com, you can join the forum (membership is free) and make a post with your information. Having these details will enhance the record of the event. Thanks!

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USCT in camp, preparing for the day’s events.

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USCT and Confederate reenactors after their staging of the Battle of New Market Heights. The USCT soldier at the far right, holding a sword with a Confdederate soldier, is Bill Radcliffe. Radcliffe was the model for the monument to United States Colored Troops National Monument in the Nashville National Cemetery.

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More reenactors/living historians who were at the event. From left to right, they are Mia Marie McKay, Wisteria Perry and Yulanda Burgess. Perry works at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA. Burgess’ history specialty is the American Missionary Association.

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Another scene from the commemoration events.

The Many Facets of the Remarkable Robert Webster

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Robert Webster: Confederate Slave, Union Supporter, Business Man, and the Allleged Son of “Black Dan” Webster
Source: Julie Rowlands Collection, from the October 2014 issue of Smithsonian magazine

The October issue of Smithsonian magazine features an article about a man who is rightly described as remarkable. Writer Marc Wortman tells the story of Robert Webster, who “risked his life to undermine the Confederacy yet remained close to his former owner after the Civil War.”

The article, titled Why Was Robert Webster, a Slave, Wearing What Looks Like a Confederate Uniform?, introduces us to Webster, a slave who gained minor prominence during the Civil War. From the start of the piece:

As Confederate troops abandoned Atlanta during the night between September 1 and 2, 1864, they blew up a stranded 81-car train packed with munitions. A series of explosions, audible 80 miles away, leveled nearly everything within a quarter-mile and set the cotton warehouses aflame. The perplexed Union commander, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, said that from his position almost 20 miles distant, the sound of the fire was “like that of musketry.”

Yet when a few hundred stunned people clustered downtown on the morning after, one of them remarked, “I have never seen the city more quiet.” After living under siege for nearly six weeks, they watched nine of Atlanta’s leading citizens saddle up to ride out to surrender the city to Sherman’s 100,000 men. “Language falls short,” one of those on hand wrote, “in expressing the suspense and anxiety experienced by everyone.”

Perhaps the clearest signal that life in Atlanta would never be the same could be seen among the men who rode out under the white flag: One of them was black. And while technically still a slave, he was as rich as the white men riding beside him. “[He] was better off than any of us,” a white businessman would testify. Bob Yancey, as he was known at the time, was 44 years old. Over the course of his life he was also called Bob, Bob Gadsby, Bob Cunningham, Yancey and, finally, Robert Webster. After the war, he would insist that Webster was his rightful surname—a legacy from the famed Senator Daniel Webster, whom he claimed as his father.

The article title focuses on the uniform Webster is wearing in the above photograph. But Webster was not enlisted in the Confederate army, and there is no evidence he did any combat duty. I dislike the article title, as it seems to me that the uniform is almost a minor part of Webster’s story. Having said that, it does seem that an African American in (what might or might not be) a Confederate uniform draws a lot of attention in some places.

I found the story poignant in two ways. First, it illustrates the divide, which could be a wide divide, between the lives of plantation or so-called “field slaves” and “servants” or “body servants” or so-called “house slaves.” The black leader Malcolm X gave a speech which is famous to students of him and his era called “the field negro and the house negro” which explores this divide, albeit, in a very pointed way.

This is not to say Webster was a “house negro” in any derogatory sense. Rather, it’s clear that being a house servant gave him privileges and opportunities which he keenly maximized, and used to aid his master’s enemy – the Union – at some financial benefit to himself. It also seems he had some ability at working with diverse groups of people.

Second, I was intrigued by Webster’s alleged lineage from the Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, who was sometimes called “Black Dan” Webster due to relatively dark skin color.

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Daniel Webster, of Massachusetts, who served in the US House and Senate, and was twice US Secretary of State; was he Robert Webster’s father?
Source: Wikipedia Commons

If I could go back in time and meet Robert Webster, my first question would be, “how did your… belief that Dan Webster was your father affect you, and make you what you are?” The stories of mulattos and the impact of white parents on their lives is not something that I have seen discussed in extensive form, outside of individual biographies. That story is a part of my own family history, a story which my family has, in general, avoided discussion of (and this is not at all uncommon).

Two Views of Emancipation – Which is Right?

Which of these two monuments offers the best depiction of the relationship between African Americans and Abraham Lincoln, and the role each played in ending slavery? This one…

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The Emancipation Memorial, AKA the Freedman’s Memorial, in Washington, DC
Source: Wikipedia

…or this one?

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Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
Image © Dave Wiegers Photography, see here and here. Wiegers has done a number of photos of monuments to Abraham Lincoln. 

My thoughts are below the fold. Continue reading

Martin Jackson: Recollections of a Confederate Servant

Martin Jackson
Martin Jackson at age 90: Texan, house slave, Confederate servant, freedman, and WWI veteran
Source: Gelatin-silver photographic print of Martin Jackson, San Antonio, Texas, 1937. Prints and Photographs Division and Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Photo was taken by or for the Federal Writers’ Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration.

Martin Jackson had a long and interesting life. As a slave during the Civil War, he rescued Confederate wounded from the battlefield – he was an “official lugger-in of men,” he called himself. Much later, during World War I, he enlisted as a cook! This is not a story you will hear much.

Jackson was a long time resident of Texas. At the age of 90, he was interviewed about his life as a slave for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. He recalled his early life, mentioned the “good treatment” he enjoyed as a house slave, spoke about the difficulty of telling the true story of slavery to strangers (such as, perhaps, those who conducted these slave interviews for the WPA), and his experiences during the Civil War.

Some have applied the label “black Confederate” to men like Jackson, saying that they “served” the Confederacy. But Jackson’s comments provide a much more complex understanding of his “service.” Rather than characterize his statements in any way, I will let Jackson’s words speak for themselves.

This is an abridged and edited version of the WPA interview. Mainly, I have moved paragraphs around so that they follow a linear timeline; the original interview kind of skipped all over the place in time. Here it is:

“My earliest recollection is the day my old boss presented me to his son, Joe, as his property. I was about five years old and my new master was only two.

“Lots of old slaves closes the door before they tell the truth about their days of slavery. When the door is open, they tell how kind their masters was and how rosy it all was. You can’t blame them for this, because they had plenty of early discipline, making them cautious about saying anything uncomplimentary about their masters. I, myself, was in a little different position than most slaves and, as a consequence, have no grudges or resentment. However, I can tell you the life of the average slave was not rosy. They were dealt out plenty of cruel suffering. Continue reading

This Friday evening (8/22/2014) on C-SPAN3: Slavery in Cinema

The C-SPAN network will air a trio of shows tonight that focus on the depiction of slavery in film:

The Civil War: Slavery & Cinema (8PM ET 8/21/2014; 11:42PM ET 8/21/2014)

A panel of history professors traces the evolution of slavery as depicted in film since the 1930s. Drawing examples from films like “Mandingo,” “Amistad” and “12 Years a Slave,” panelists discuss how filmmakers have framed the idea of slavery. They also describe changes in race relations and gender portrayals in films and how slave characters have shifted from the background into leading roles. (This can be viewed online; see here. The video might require the Flash web-browser plug-in for viewing.)

Hollywood and the Passage of the 13th Amendment (9:30PM ET 8/21/2014; 2AM ET 8/22/2014)

Professor Matthew Pinsker talks about Stephen Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, analyzing what is fact and what is Hollywood fiction. The video for this should be available online by Tuesday, August 28, 2014.

Civil War History and the Film Gone With the Wind (10:20PM ET 8/21/2014; 1:12AM ET 8/22/2014)

Jeffrey McClurken talked about the 1939 movie “Gone with the Wind,” looking at it as a source on southern culture during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and reflective of the Depression era in which it was created. (This can be viewed online; see here. The video might require the Flash web-browser plug-in for viewing.)

These three videos will be useful for folks interested in slavery and the way that slavery and emancipation have been portrayed on film, especially by Hollywood.

Also of interest is this article on Examiner.com: Black slave movies are proven winners in Hollywood, which identifies the most popular slave movies to date.