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

From Twelve Years a Slave: Arrival Home (Never take your family for granted)

Solomon Northup, on his arrival home, after twelve years of false imprisonment in the South.
Image Source: Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853. This is from the electronic edition of the book on the DocSouth website.

The book Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 is an autobiography of a free person from New York state who was kidnapped, sold into bondage, and regained his freedom after a dozen years in bondage. The book was made into the movie 12 Years a Slave. As noted in Wikipedia, the movie was “a box office success, earning over $187 million on a production budget of $22 million.”

The following text, which tells of Northup’s return home to his family, is from the end of his book. It reminds us, we should never take our family for granted.

We left Washington on the 20th of January, and proceeding by the way of Philadelphia, New-York, and Albany, reached Sandy Hill in the night of the 21st. My heart overflowed with happiness as I looked around upon old familiar scenes, and found myself in the midst of friends of other days. The following morning I started, in company with several acquaintances, for Glens Falls, the residence of (wife) Anne and our children.

As I entered their comfortable cottage, Margaret was the first that met me. She did not recognize me. When I left her, she was but seven years old, a little prattling girl, playing with her toys. Now she was grown to womanhood—was married, with a bright-eyed boy standing by her side. Not forgetful of her enslaved, unfortunate grand-father, she had named the child Solomon Northup Staunton. When told who I was, she was overcome with emotion, and unable to speak. Presently Elizabeth entered the room, and Anne came running from the hotel, having been informed of my arrival. They embraced me, and with tears flowing down their cheeks, hung upon my neck. But I draw a veil over a scene which can better be imagined than described.

When the violence of our emotions had subsided to a sacred joy—when the household gathered round the fire, that sent out its warm and crackling comfort through the room, we conversed of the thousand events that had occurred—the hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, the trials and troubles we had each experienced during the long separation.

Alonzo was absent in the western part of the State. The boy had written to his mother a short time previous, of the prospect of his obtaining sufficient money to purchase my freedom. From his earliest years, that had been the chief object of his thoughts and his ambition. They knew I was in bondage. The letter written on board the brig, and Clem Ray himself, had given them that information. But where I was, until the arrival of Bass’ letter, was a matter of conjecture. Elizabeth and Margaret once returned from school— so Anne informed me—weeping bitterly. On inquiring the cause of the children’s sorrow, it was found that, while studying geography, their attention had been attracted to the picture of slaves working in the cotton-field, and an overseer following them with his whip. It reminded them of the sufferings father might be, and, as it happened, actually was, enduring in the South. Numerous incidents, such as these, were related—incidents showing they still held me in constant remembrance, but not, perhaps, of sufficient interest to the reader, to be recounted.

My narrative is at an end. I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the “peculiar institution.” What it may be in other States, I do not profess to know; what it is in the region of Red River (in Louisiana), is truly and faithfully delineated in these pages. This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture. I doubt not hundreds have been as unfortunate as myself; that hundreds of free citizens have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and are at this moment wearing out their lives on plantations in Texas and Louisiana. But I forbear.

Chastened and subdued in spirit by the sufferings I have borne, and thankful to that good Being through whose mercy I have been restored to happiness and liberty, I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps.

The War is Over; We Won; Time to Go Home – Victory and Freedom in Little Rock, Arkansas

African American soldiers mustered out at Little Rock, Arkansas, April 20, 1865; by Alfred Waud; published in Harper’s Weekly, v. 10, 1866 May 19, p. 308.
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-21005 (digital file from original item) LC-DIG-ppmsca-13485 (digital file from original item) 

To some, it seemed that the Civil War would never end. But end it did.

How sweet the taste of victory and freedom must have been, for the Union’s black military men! Perhaps as many as 70% or more of the 200,000 or so African Americans who served in the Union army and navy had been enslaved before the war. They understood the stakes: victory meant freedom; defeat meant the continuation of slavery, perhaps a harsher slavery in light of how many slaves supported the Union war effort.

On April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union Gen Ulysses S. Grant. That surrender ushered in the end of the American Civil War. Union men all over were ecstatic from the news.

Alfred Waud’s drawing captures the exuberance of the Little Rock, Arkansas, African American community as the U. S. Colored Troops returned home from war; over 5,000 men from the state of Arkansas enlisted in the Union army.  The victorious soldiers are joyously greeted by women and children, who no doubt had their own stories of travail to tell, as black civilians in the Civil War South.

An uncertain future awaited them all. But for now, they could finally go about their way, ushered on the wings of a new birth of freedom, ushered on the winds of victory that had earned.

December 18, 1865: It’s official – slavery is dead with the ratification of the 13th Amendment

It was 150 years ago, December 18, 1865, that the United States Secretary of State, William Seward, announced that the 13th Amendment had been ratified and had “become valid, to all intents and purposes, as part of the Constitution of the United States.” Officially and constitutionally, slavery in the United States was dead.

From: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875, pages 774-775:

13th amendment Seward part 1

13th amendment Seward part 2

The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress January 31, 1865, and was ratified by the states at December 6, 1865. The Amendment states:

Amendment XIII


Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.


Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Some people ask, why was the 13th Amendment needed, given that Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation (the “EP”)? For one thing, the Proclamation did not abolish slavery. Emancipation and abolition are not the same thing. The EP only applied to a set of people who were enslaved at a point in time, namely, January 1, 1863. Thus, there was nothing to legally prevent children who were born after the EP from being enslaved. The EP forestalled the possibility of the enslavement of future generations.

Additionally, slavery was still legal in Delaware and Kentucky. The EP did not apply to Union slave states; it was only effective for states that were in rebellion, i.e., the Confederate States. The Union slave states of Maryland and Missouri, for example, were exempted from the EP, but they passed laws/amendments in their states which abolished slavery before the end of the Civil War. Delaware and Kentucky, two other Union slave states, did not vote to ratify the 13th Amendment; however,  the Amendment did have the necessary votes for ratification, and so slavery ended in those  two states.

There was also the possibility that the Emancipation Proclamation would face legal challenges after the end of the war. The 13th Amendment made the matter of the legality and constitutionality of the EP moot.

Fighting over Freedom in Post-war South Carolina, Part 1: Keep the Negro “as near to the condition of slavery as possible”

Negro quarters on Fripp Place, St. Helena Is. [i.e. Island], S.C. 2a
Negro quarters on Fripp Place, St. Helena Island, S.C.; circa 1863-mid 1866; Hubbard & Mix, photographers; a group of African Americans gathered outside of their living quarters, possibly on Thomas James Fripp place on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina.
Note: Edmund Rhett, Jr’s post-Civil War proposal for the “preservation of… our social system,” as described below, would prohibit African Americans from owning land and restrict their ability to move. Thus, they would be forced to live in housing quarters like this into perpetuity, if their master so desired.
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-stereo-1s03955 (digital file from original item, front) LC-DIG-stereo-2s03955 (digital file from original item, back)

What, exactly, was freedom supposed to look like? This was a subject of much debate in late 1865, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War (and for some time after that, as it turned out). The Union promised that slavery would end, and ongoing efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, whose ratification at the end of the year constitutionally abolished slavery, gave good reason to believe that the peculiar institution was truly in its death throes.

But it was still an open question as to how far freedom would go. Emancipation did not necessarily mean economic independence, or political or social equality. Over the course of the Reconstruction era – when the former Confederate States were re-integrated into the United States – there would be a battle between blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, and Republicans and Democrats, about the rights, privileges, and opportunities that African Americans would have in the South.

Edmund Rhett, Jr, had his own vision of emancipation: keep the Negro “as near to the condition of slavery as possible.” Rhett, from the prominent Rhett family of South Carolina, was an editor of the Charleston Mercury newspaper, and served as an officer in Confederate Army. In mid-October, 1865, he wrote a letter to former U.S. Representative Armistead Burke, which detailed his ideas for dealing with the freepeople in the post-war South. [1] These are excerpts:

Edmund Rhett, Jr, letter to Armistead Burt, October 14, 1865.

Dear Sir:

With great diffidence and some hesitation I venture to enclose you certain propositions relative to the negro-discipline and negro-labor questions, Which have occurred to me, and impressed me as essential to the preservation of our labor system, and, indeed, our social system. As one of the Commission Appointed to suggest such laws as are advisable for the regulation and the protection of the Negro, I venture to submit these propositions to your consideration.

…[T]he sudden and entire overthrow of that system which has taken place is unwise, injurious, and dangerous to our whole system, pecuniary and social… it must follow as a natural sequence, it appears to me, that, sudden and abrupt abolition having taken place by force of arms, it should be to the utmost extent practicable be limited, controlled, and surrounded with such safeguards, as will make the change as slight as possible both to the white man and the negro, the planter and of the workmen, the capitalist and the laborer.

In other words, that the general interest of both the white man and the Negro requires that he should be kept as near to his former condition as Law can keep him and that he should be kept as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as practicable. Continue reading

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.


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, 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

The Innocent Cause of All this War Trouble

These are three Civil War era envelopes, of undoubtedly Union origin, which make a statement about the role of enslaved persons in causing or contributing to the war. Note that, during the Civil War era, illustrated envelopes were a kind of social media. People used the mails to send these pre-printed envelopes which had artistic, political, or social content. The envelopes represent a kind of pop culture treatment of the issues of the day, such as, in this case, war and slavery.

Innocent cause of war envelope
Figure 1: “Innocent Cause of War” envelope cover, circa American Civil War (1861-1865). A caricatured enslaved person, with what appears (to me) to be an impish grin, says “I’se De INNOCENT CAUSE ob all dis WAR TRUBBLE.”
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, from the Civil War Envelope Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

Innocent cause of war envelope 2
Figure 2: “Innocent Cause of War” envelope cover, circa American Civil War (1861-1865). This is similar to the envelope in Figure 1, but without the use of caricatured dialect, and with less of the grin.
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, from the Civil War Envelope Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

Cornerstones envelope
Figure 3: “Cornerstones” envelope cover, circa American Civil War (1861-1865). This uses the enslaved person image seen in Figure 1. A bust of George Washington is at the top left. Washington is called the ‘Corner Stone of the Federal Union’ while the slave is called the ‘Corner Stone of the “Southern Confederacy.”‘ Published by James Gates, Cincinnati.
Note: In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederate States, made a now famous oration that has been called the “Cornerstone Speech.” In it, Stephens is said to have stated “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, from the Civil War Envelope Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.