Reminiscences of the Proclamation of Emancipation: “the thunderbolt… smelted in the furnace of fair play, justice and eternal equity”


Henry McNeal Turner, writer, editor, army chaplain, religious leader, and political leader in the second half of the 19th century.
Source: African Letters by Bishop H M Turner, 1983; picture is from the Electronic Version of the book at the DocSouth site of the University of North Carolina.

Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915) was one of the most important African Americans of the 19th century. Born free in South Carolina, he was a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, served as a United States army chaplain during the Civil War, was a Georgia state legislator during the Reconstruction era, and was also a writer and editor.

In the January 1913 issue of the A. M. E. Church Review, Turner wrote about his memory of the release of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. “We are now upon the verge of the fiftieth anniversary, since the Immortal Abraham Lincoln, then President of the United States, by the grace of God hurled against the institution of American slavery the thunderbolt which had been smelted in the furnace of fair play, justice and eternal equity,” he wrote. “Well do I remember the circumstances and incidents connected with my surroundings and experience on that occasion.”

He continued with poignant and pointed memories of that “thunderbolt,” which offer us a view into how African Americans, and many white Americans, felt on that momentous occasion:

In 1862, on the 22d day of September, Mr. Lincoln issued a proclamation (the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation) that in a hundred days, unless the rebel army disbanded, and the several Southern states resumed their relation to the general government, he would declare the slaves in all the states free with a few local exceptions. The newspapers of the country were prolific and unsparing in their laudations of Mr. Lincoln. Every orator after reviewing in their richest eloquence, concluded their speeches and orations by saying, “God save Abraham Lincoln,” or “God bless our President.” Mass-meetings were held in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, San Francisco and hundreds of minor towns, and such a time I never expect to witness on earth in the future. I may witness such a time again in heaven, but not in the flesh.

In the great Union Cooper Hall in New York City, a colored man leaped and jumped with so much agility when the proclamation was read that he drew the attention of every man and woman, till Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation was scarcely listened to. New songs were sung and new poems were composed, and the people shouted to such an extent that horses became frightened, and many ran away and smashed carriages into kindling wood. Whites and blacks realized no racial discriminations.

On the first day of January, 1863, odd and unique conditions attended every mass-meeting, and the papers of the following day were not able to give them in anything like detail. Long before sunset Israel Church and its yard were crowded with people. The writer was vociferously cheered in every direction he went because in a sermon I tried to deliver I had said that Richmond, the headquarters of the Southern Confederacy, would never fall till black men led the army against this great slave-mart, nor did it fall and succumb to the general government till black men went in first. This was only a popular prediction, and delivered under a general excitement, but strange to say, it was fully realized.

Seeing such a multitude of people in and around my church, I hurriedly went up to the office of the first paper in which the proclamation of freedom (the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation) could be printed, known as the “Evening Star,” and squeezed myself through the dense crowd that was waiting for the paper. The first sheet run off with the proclamation in it was grabbed for by three of us, but some active young man got possession of it and fled. The next sheet was grabbed for by several, and was torn into tatters. The third sheet from the press was grabbed for by several, but I succeeded in procuring so much of it as contained the proclamation, and off I went for life and death.

Down Pennsylvania Avenue (in Washington, DC) I ran as for my life, and when the people saw me coming with the paper in my hand they raised a shouting cheer that was almost deafening. As many as could get around me lifted me to a great platform, and I started to read the proclamation. I had run the best end of a mile, I was out of breath, and could not read. Mr. Hinton, to whom I handed the paper, read it with great force and clearness. While he was reading every kind of demonstration and gesticulation was going on.  Men squealed, women fainted, dogs barked, white and colored people shook hands, songs were sung, and by this time cannons began to fire at the navy-yard, and follow in the wake of the roar that had for some time been going on behind the White House. Every face had a smile, and even the dumb animals seemed to realize that some extraordinary event had taken place.

Great processions of colored and white men marched to and fro and passed in front of the White House and congratulated President Lincoln on his proclamation. The President came to the window and made responsive bows, and thousands told him, if he would come out of that palace, they would hug him to death. Mr. Lincoln, however, kept at a safe distance from the multitude, who were frenzied to distraction over his proclamation.

I do not know the extent that the excitement in Russia led to, when the humane Emperor proclaimed the freedom of twenty-two million serfs, I think in 1862, but the jubilation that attended the proclamation of freedom by His Excellency Abraham Lincoln, I am sure has never been surpassed, if it has ever been equaled. Nor do I believe it will ever be duplicated again.

Rumor said that in several instances the very thought of being set at liberty and having no more auction blocks, no more Negro-traders, no more forced parting of man and wife, no more separation of parents and children, no more horrors of slavery, was so elative and heart gladdening that scores of colored people literally fell dead with joy. It was indeed a time of times, and a half time, nothing like it will ever be seen again in this life. Our entrance into Heaven itself will only form a counterpart. January 1st, 1913, will be fifty years since Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation stirred the world and avalanched America with joy, and the first day of next January, 1913, our race should fill every Church, every hall, and every preacher regardless of denomination should deliver a speech on the results of the proclamation.

No doubt, many of his fellow church people read this and exclaimed, “Amen, my brother, Amen.”

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Musings on the 4th of July and the end of slavery

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Fighting for Freedom and Union: The Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusestts (Colored) Regiment, by Currier & Ives, New York, 1863.
Image Source: Gilder Lehrman Collection

The 4th of July is one of the important dates in US history. We Americans celebrate the clarion call to liberty and equality as stated by the American Patriots in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

But I am reminded that, throughout our history, this ideal of liberty and equality was not universally held. During the American Civil War, that portion of the Declaration was explicitly rejected by the Confederate States of America, the breakaway nation formed by secessionist slaveholding states. Consider the words of Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, in his famous “Corner Stone Speech”:

The new (Confederate) constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongs us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.

(Former President Thomas) Jefferson… had anticipated this as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day.

Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new (Confederate) 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.

Many people say this clash between the competing visions of a free society and a slave society led to an irresistible conflict within the body politic of the United States, a conflict that Confederates hoped to resolve by simply breaking away from the Union. But they did not reckon with the desire of Union men to preserve the United States in the face of the secessionist threat.

In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln said during his second Inaugural Address:

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago… One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict (i.e., slavery) might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

It is certainly true that much wealth was gotten by “two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” from the bondsmen. But I don’t know if the Civil War was a providential judgment, a cosmic/karmic phenomenon in which “the offenses of the North and South” resulted in “every drop of blood (that was) drawn with the lash (being) paid by another drawn with the sword.”

I have noticed that some people find discomfort or even fault with the way that slavery finally ended in the United States. They correctly note that the United States went to war to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. The downfall of slavery was an unanticipated outcome that came only because a long and bloody war forced the Union to offer freedom to the enslaved, so they would join the fight to destroy the Confederacy. For some folks, the demise of slavery is tainted by the lack of original intent on the Union’s part to end bondage at the outset of the war.

And maybe it was serendipity. Perhaps it was mere luck that a Confederate nation-state founded on principles “opposite” to those of the Declaration of Independence would fall, with the “fundamental and astounding” results that the conflict between slavery and liberty would be resolved in favor of liberty, and that the wealth piled by the bondmen’s toil would be lost to the slaveholders.

What we can say is that the ante-bellum conflict between the ideal of liberty and equality for all men and the race-based privilege of holding property in man came to a sudden end with the defeat of the Confederacy. We can say that almost 4 million people gained their freedom out of the carnage of war, just as the American patriots gained their independence from the carnage of war many decades earlier. Perhaps the United States did stumble, unintentionally, into ending human bondage. I like to tell people that, it’s something that could only happen in America… the United States of America. If the USA can continue to hold to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, maybe we won’t need this kind of luck ever again.

May 20, 2015: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida

Annually in Florida, on May 20, the end of slavery is commemorated with Emancipation Day. A previous blog entry on Florida Emancipation Day 2015 follows below.

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

Emancipation-Day Florida 2015
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: Tallahassee resident Brian Bibeau (center) portrays Brigadier General Edward McCook and presents a dramatic recitation of the Emancipation Proclamation from the front steps of the historic Knott House Museum. He is joined by the Leon Rifles 2nd Florida Volunteer Infantry Regiment Co. D, Captain Chris Ellrich Commanding, and the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit & Living History Association, led by Sgt. Major (Ret.) Jarvis Rosier.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com

May 20, 2015, marked the 150th anniversary of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. That date is observed as Emancipation Day in the state; thus, Florida Emancipation Day is the equivalent of Juneteenth in Texas. Activities were held throughout the state to commemorate the event, including a reenactment of the Proclamation reading in Tallahassee.

Here’s the history behind the Day: on…

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Jefferson Davis, Mississippi, votes for Barack Obama

Jeff Davis County Obama election 2012 copy
Election Results, 2012 Presidential Election, Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi
Image Source: Mississippi Presidential election results, 2012 Elections, NBC News.com; retrieved May 1, 2016

I rise… for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that… the State of Mississippi… has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course my functions are terminated here. It has seemed to me proper, however, that I should appear in the Senate to announce that fact to my associates, and I will say but very little more.

…I concur in the action of the people of Mississippi, believing it to be necessary and proper… (it is) a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.

…the great principles… (of the Declaration of Independence have) no reference to the slave… When our Constitution was formed… we find provision made for that very class of persons (of the black race) as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men–not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three fifths.

– Jefferson Davis, Farewell Address to the US Senate, January 21, 1861

The forefathers of these (negroes)… were gathered from the torrid plains and malarial swamps of inhospitable Africa…. Generally they were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and, sold by heathen masters, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity.

There, put to servitude, they were trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization; they increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due. A strong mutual affection was the natural result of this life-long relation, a feeling best if not only understood by those who have grown from childhood under its influence.

Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other.

The tempter came, like the serpent in Eden, and decoyed them with the magic word of “freedom.”

– Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Chapter XXVI, published 1881, p 192

Jefferson Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. Prior to becoming the CSA’s president, he was a US Senator from the state of Mississippi. He resigned that position to join in Mississippi’s unilateral secession from the United States. Davis presided over the Confederacy’s unsuccessful Civil War with the United States, a war that eventually led to freedom for just under 4 million enslaved people. Over 436,000 of those enslaved people lived in his home state when the war began. Mississippi had the distinction of having the highest percentage of enslaved residents of any state; indeed, enslaved Africans were in the majority – 55% of the state’s population were enslaved people of African descent, while 45% of the population were free whites.

Davis did not take kindly to the United States’ emancipation policy. As noted in his post-war book The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, published in 1881, he believed that slavery represented a “happy dependence of labor and capital.” He especially condemned the Union policy of black military enlistment, which “put arms in (negro) hands, and trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate their benefactors…” As far as Davis was concerned, the destruction of the “strong local and personal attachment” between master and slave was one of the worst outcomes of the war.

In honor of one of its favorite sons, Mississippi named a new county, formed in 1906,  after the CSA president. I don’t know if any black residents in the county or state had a say in that name, but my guess is, they had none. Jefferson Davis County is located in the south-central part of the state, about 40 miles from Hattiesburg, MS.   The county is not populous at all. It has a population of under 12,000, 60% of whom are African American.

Jeffereson Davis MS Vote for Obama

Election Results, 2012 Presidential Election, Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi
Image Source: Mississippi Presidential election results, 2012 Elections, NBC News.com; retrieved May 1, 2016

In the 2012 presidential election, Jefferson Davis county voters were feeling blue: Barack Obama won the county in a landslide, beating Republican candidate Mitt Romney by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. But Romney prevailed statewide. He won the state of Mississippi by getting 54% of the vote, versus 44% for Obama.

One wonders: what would Jeff Davis think of the county which bears his name, in his home state, voting to elect a negro – a person of a race that was not “upon (the) footing of equality with white men” – to the office of president? In his grave, he might be thankful that he never lived to see the day.

And as an aside, I wonder how the people of the county feel about their county being named after a person who would have excoriated them for their choice of president.

BuzzFeed.com: “The Secret History Of The Photo At The Center Of The Black Confederate Myth”


Sergeant A.M. Chandler of the 44th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, Co. F., and Silas Chandler, family slave, with Bowie knives, revolvers, pepper-box, shotgun, and canteen; was Silas Chandler an enslaved camp servant, taking a photo amid movie studio props, or a bona fide black Confederate soldier?
Image Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-40073, also LC-DIG-ppmsca-40072

The website BuzzFeed.com has a great article about African Americans and the Civil War titled The Secret History Of The Photo At The Center Of The Black Confederate Myth. This is from the introduction to the article:

A 160-year-old tintype depicting Andrew Chandler and his slave Silas, both in Confederate uniform, has long been used as evidence that slaves willingly fought against the army that aimed to free them. Following the national backlash against Confederate iconography, Silas’s descendants seek to debunk this once and for all.

This is a powerful piece about how we, as families and communities, remember the past. It asks important questions, such as: can we ever really trust the family history that has been handed down to us, given that it might combine both fact and fancy? And also: after we die, who gets to tell the story of our life: our families, “interested” social organizations, or somebody else? Silas Chandler (see the above picture), the young, enslaved person who was a camp servant during the Civil War, would never have guessed that 150 years after the war’s end, his memory would be as contested as it is now.

FYI, I met with Bobbie Chandler (one of the great-grandchildren of Silas) a few years ago in Washington, DC. He was visiting the African American Civil War Museum. He and several family members were quite skeptical of the black Confederate soldier narrative that had been applied to their ancestor, and he was trying to find information about the subject. We now know that his skepticism was well founded.

His search for the truth was touching. He was clearly frustrated that so many people had told this story about his forefather, but now it seemed like that story could not be trusted. So he had to go on a quest, you could call it, to find the real past.

I know a lot of people think that the black Confederate “controversy” is overblown, and perhaps not worth the time it’s given in the media, or in social media. But it did matter to these descendants of Silas Chandler that they finally learned the truth about his life, and it matters to them that his life be correctly rendered wherever it is told. Ultimately, it is this concern about family and truth that drives the controversy, as much as anything.

RIP, Silas Chandler

Four women and two children at the ruins of the Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge; Richmond, Virginia, April 1865

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

Ruins of Richmond copy3

“Ruins of Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge from island in James River.” Richmond, Virginia, April 1865;  Alexander Gardner, photographer. Shows group of five African American females (perhaps four women and a girl) and a boy on an island in the James River.
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. “Ruins of Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge from island in James River,”   Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-cwpb-00388, Call Number: LC-B815- 846

This very curious Civil War era photograph was taken in Richmond, Virginia. The  city had been the Capitol of the Confederate States of America, but in April 1865, it was captured and occupied by Union troops. In the wake of the attack on the city, damage was done to its infrastructure. Some of the damage was done by evacuating Confederate military, to limit the use that the Union army could make of the place.

Alexander Gardner, one of the War’s famed photographers, took this photograph of…

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A Reunion in Richmond, VA, April 1865: “This is your mother, Garland, who has spent 20 years of grief about her son.”

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

NatlRep491
It was the beginning of the end of the American Civil War: The National Republican, a Washington, DC newspaper, reports that the city of Richmond, VA, which was the capital of the Confederacy, was captured by Union forces on April 3, 1865. And the US Colored Troops – the “black troops” - led the way.
The US Colored Troops consisted primarily of African American soldiers. One of those soldiers experienced an unexpected family reunion which exemplifies the meaning of the war to African Americans, especially those who had been enslaved. See the blog post below.
Source: From theApril 3, 1865 extra edition of The National Republican, a Washington, DC newspaper; as noted in the African American Civil War Museum blog.

On April 3, 1865, Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the Confederate States of America – was captured by the Union army. Soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (orUSCT…

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The March 1865 Review of the Union’s Black Soldiers: “President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops”

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

Union Troops enter Richmond VA Leslie's Illustrated
“The Union Army Entering Richmond, VA., April 3,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1865.
As depicted in the illustration, African American soldiers led the way into Richmond when it was captured near the end of the Civil War. Just a week earlier, these soldiers had marched in review for President Abraham Lincoln.
This is a colorized versions of an image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News by the postcard publisher Southern Bargain House of Richmond, VA.

Image Source:From MetroPostcard.com

For Confederates, it was time to do the unthinkable: enlist slaves in their war to create a slaveholders’ nation. For the Union, it was a time for black soldiers to strut their stuff in front of the president of the United States.

Such was the state of the American Civil War in March 1865. These two very different stories are discussed in the book HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS…

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Learning from Toy Soldiers

Mike and Marquet at Afro Am Museum
Michael Schaffner and Marquett Milton, two United States Colored Troops reenactors, use toy soldiers to discuss the formations used during the course of Civil War battles. Picture was taken at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC.
Image Source: Ed Gasaway

The following images feature Michael Schaffner’s toy soldier collection, which depicts United States Colored Troops (African American Civil War soldiers). Schaffner has found them to be useful for teaching and training. For whatever reason, I find this to be cool; your mileage may vary. All images provided by Schaffner.

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