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.

Group of Children at the Model School, Fisk University, Nashville; And The Fisk Sesquicentennial

Nashville Normal School Edit
Group of Children at the Model School, Fisk University, Nashville Tenn; circa 1899; please click here for  full resolution view of the image.
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.  Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-54757 (b&w film copy neg.); Call Number: LOT 11299 [item] [P&P]

After the Civil War, freedmen and their supporters engage in a major project: the creation of educational institutions in which African Americans could learn to read and write. For them, literacy, and also numeracy, were the key to progress and improvement.

One of those institutions was Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee. As noted at the University’s website,

In 1865, barely six months after the end of the Civil War and just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, three men — John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith — established the Fisk School in Nashville.

The school was named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau, who provided the new institution with facilities in former Union Army barracks near the present site of Nashville’s Union Station. In these facilities Fisk convened its first classes on January 9, 1866. The first students ranged in age from seven to seventy, but shared common experiences of slavery and poverty — and an extraordinary thirst for learning.

As part of its enterprise, the University created a Model School, for the education of local children. The above image shows children and adults holding hands in a circle, perhaps in a school yard.

Next year (2016), then, is the Sesquicentennial (150th) Anniversary of one of the trailblazers in the national movement to educate and improve the African American community. I encourage all of us to contemplate this great transformation, from enslavement to freedom, and how these African American institutions – which were created by an integrated leadership – were part of that transformation.

 

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.”
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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

Quotable: Patrick Rael on Men, Lions, and History

On a warm afternoon in Newcastle, England, in 1863, the British Association for the Advancement of Science met to hear papers presented by scholars in its Ethnological section. Before a rapt audience, one of its distinguished members, Dr. James Hunt, lectured lengthily on the superiority of the white race over its darker cousins. In the middle of the lecture, from the midst of the audience, a long black man rose to challenge Hunt.

Arguing for the innate ability for African descent people to “rise,” the man engaged the learned racial theorist on none of the grounds of the new racial science. Instead, he told a tale taken from Aesop, of a man and a lion both walking down the street, arguing over which represented the superior species. According to the story, hard pressed to prove his case, the man was delighted to spy a public house, the sign for which depicted a man wrestling a lion to the ground. Considering his arguments won, the man pointed to the picture as evidence of men’s superiority over lions. The lion, however, simply asked, “Ah, but who painted the picture?”

The meeting errupted. Defenders and challengers of black capacities descended into verbal melee, and the session adjourned prematurely.

– From Black Identity & Black Protest in the Antebellum North, by Patrick Rael, P1.

According to Rael, the black man in the audience was William Craft. Craft has gained some measure of fame for his daring escape from slavery with his wife, Ellen Craft. Notes Rael, “(Ellen), lightly complected, had posed as a young white master traveling north with his slave, William.” They resided in New England for a time, but were forced to flee the United States. According to Wikipedia,

Threatened by slave catchers in Boston after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Crafts escaped to England, where they lived for nearly two decades and reared five children. The Crafts lectured publicly about their escape. In 1860 they published a written account, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; Or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery

The story of the Crafts is detailed here.

Ellen_and_William_Craft
Ellen and William Craft, wife and husband, circa mid 1800s. Ellen, a “light skinned slave,” posed as a male slave owner, and William posed as her slave, in a daring plot to escape from the South to gain their freedom.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

Giving Thanks, by Harry Herman Roseland

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

image
Source: Liveauctioneers.com

This painting, titled Giving Thanks, is the work of Brooklyn, New York artist Harry Herman Roseland (c.1867—1950). He was a noted painter who received many awards for his work in his lifetime. According to Wikipedia, “Roseland was primarily known for paintings centered on poor African-Americans.”

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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Saluting the flag at the Whittier Primary School, Hampton, Virginia, circa 1899-1900


Saluting the flag at the Whittier Primary School, Hampton, Virginia, circa 1899 – 1900;  Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952, photographer. Click on the image for a larger/higher resolution version of the photograph.
Image Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-65770; see here for more details

This picture was taken in 1899 or 1900, just as the full force of segregation was tightening itself around the necks of African Americans – sometimes in a literal way.

Yet, these children – or their parents and teachers – still saw fit to salute the flag. But then, that flag might have freed their parents or grandparents from bondage in the wake of the American Civil War. Some of them might have had family who served in the Union army or navy, or who provided labor to the army at nearby Fort Monroe. So the United States flag was still something to respect and cherish, perhaps even without a sense of irony.

The Whittier School for children was “used as a practice ground for teaching students of the Hampton Normal School” (“Normal Schools” were schools for teachers), which was part of Hampton Institute, in Hampton, Virginia. Hampton Institute was one of many institutions established after the war to provide education and training to the former slaves as they made the transition to free citizens.


Close-up on boy holding the flag

See also A Field Trip to the Freedom Fortress by Hampton Institute Students.

A Field Trip to the Freedom Fortress by Hampton Institute Students

Field Trip to Fort Monroe
Students at Hampton Institute, VA, view a cannon at Fort Monroe, circa 1899-1900; Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952, photographer.
Source: Library of Congress, Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection. Created/published in 1899 or 1900; LOC Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-117748

Fort Monroe, just outside modern day Hampton, Virginia, was a Union military base where three African American men – Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend – escaped to freedom early in the Civil War. In return for giving their labor to the Union, the US Army Major General Benjamin Butler gave them asylum from bondage  Those men blazed a trail that would eventually lead to freedom for millions of bondsmen.

After the war, numerous schools were founded as places where freedmen and women could improve themselves through education and training. Thus was born Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which today is called Hampton University. At the turn of the century (19th to 20th), these Institute students visited the place that was known to escaping slaves – perhaps their mothers and fathers – as the Freedom Fortress.