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

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

Missouri abolishes slavery, January 11, 1865; later, black Missouri soldiers found Lincoln University


An Ordinance Abolishing Slavery in Missouri, 1865
From here: “This ink on vellum document signed by the members of Missouri’s 1865 Constitutional Convention enacted the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people in Missouri. It was signed on January 11, 1865, three weeks before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery, was even proposed.”
Image source: Missouri History Museum Archives, via the website “The Civil War in Missouri”

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It stated that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” Of note was that the proclamation would only be effective for states in “rebellion against the United States,” namely, the Confederate States that had seceded from, and were fighting against, the Union during the American Civil War.

Not covered by the proclamation were several slave states – the so-called ‘Border States’ of Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky – which stayed loyal to the Union and had had not seceded. In those states, bondage remained unabated.

This was not for lack of effort by Abraham Lincoln to end slavery in the Border States. Lincoln believed that Border State slavery posed a risk for the Union. His fear was that their slaveholders might agitate for secession and alliance with the Confederacy, in order to protect their slave property. Lincoln hoped to eliminate this threat by having the Border States end slavery voluntarily. In March 1862, Lincoln asked Congress to pass a resolution to provide “pecuniary aid” to any Border State that would “adopt gradual abolishment of slavery.”

In July, 1862, President Lincoln met with congressman and senators from the Border States and personally asked them to implement a plan of gradual, compensated emancipation. He said at the meeting:

The incidents of the war can not be avoided. If the war continue long, as it must, if the object be not sooner attained, the institution (slavery) in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion–by the mere incidents of the war. It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it. Much of its value is gone already.

How much better for you, and for your people, to take the step which, at once, shortens the war, and secures substantial compensation for that which is sure to be wholly lost in any other event. How much better to thus save the money which else we sink forever in the war. How much better to do it while we can, lest the war ere long render us pecuniarily unable to do it. How much better for you, as seller, and the nation as buyer, to sell out, and buy out, that without which the war could never have been, than to sink both the thing to be sold, and the price of it, in cutting one another’s throats.

Lincoln’s message to the Border States was clear: the Civil War was going to put pressure on the institution of slavery, and perhaps even lead to its demise. Why not end slavery in your states now, and get compensated for it, while the government still has the money to afford such a plan? If this plan is not accepted now, and the war does end slavery, you’ll lose everything and get noting in return.

Lincoln was right in his prediction. The “friction of war” did indeed destabilize bondage throughout all of the slave states, Union and Confederate. In Missouri, for example, thousands of slaves escaped their master as fighting raged throughout the state. At least 8,300, black Missourians – mostly former slaves – joined the Union army, gaining freedom for themselves in the process. (Slaves who joined the US army were given the status of freemen.)

The issue of gradual, compensated emancipation became a subject of discussion and debate within Missouri. In 1863, a state convention was held, and an ordinance for gradual emancipation, to begin in 1870, was passed. But for some Missourians, emancipation starting in 1870 wasn’t soon enough. The so-called “Radical Republicans” of the state – members of Lincoln’s political who party were ardent anti-slavery men – agitated for a policy of immediate emancipation.

As the war wore on, the Radicals gained increasing political power in Missouri, and they used it to finally end bondage in their state. In January 1865, another state convention was called to order. As noted here: “Led by Charles Drake, the Radical Republicans who made up the majority of the state convention’s delegates passed the vote for emancipation almost unanimously.” Although the convention abolished slavery effective January 11, 1865, it “did not give the right to vote to any of the more than 100,000 slaves freed in Missouri. Although the state convention’s delegates believed strongly in emancipation, they did not necessarily believe in equality.”

With freedom in hand, and despite efforts to limit their progress, African Americans pressed forward to take advantage of whatever opportunities they could. They recalled that in 1847 the Missouri General Assembly passed a law forbidding blacks, slave or free, to be taught to read or write. As noted in the book Missouri’s Black Heritage, the law “was a reflection of a slaveholder’s fear that literacy might lead to (a slave) rebellion.” This so-called “Black Code” prohibition taught Missouri blacks a lesson they would not forget: education was a force for their liberation and uplift.

Black soldiers and veterans were at the forefront of efforts to ensure that freedmen and freedwomen would receive the education and learning that were denied to the under slavery. Men from two regiments of black Union soldiers – the 62nd and 65th infantry regiments of United States Colored Troops – took an unprecedented action: in 1866, they pooled their money to fund the first and only school established by soldiers of African descent.

Located in Jefferson City, Missouri, that school stands as a legacy of African Americans’ efforts for improvement, progress, and full citizenship. Its name: Lincoln University of Missouri.


Main statue for the Soldiers’ Memorial at Lincoln University, Missouri
Source: Lincoln University, Missouri