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Nov.-Dec. 2011, Vol. XXVI, No. 6
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Emancipation Proclamations pre-date Lincoln

With the Civil War’s outcome in serious doubt in 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued his famed “Emancipation Proclamation” freeing Confederate state slaves. Yet six years before on Aug. 1, 1857, 200 blacks and whites met at Chicago’s African Methodist Church, marched to a railway station and celebrated “Emancipation Day” nearby.

Revelers enjoyed a picnic lunch and heard speeches underscoring roles African-Americans played in forging the United States. Black speakers emphasized that their traits made them as capable as other Americans to handle civic duties. Then they returned to Chicago. Speeches and dining resumed, followed by dancing until midnight.

Aug. 1 “Emancipation Day” celebrations occurred in other Illinois cities and in many eastern U.S. states, as well, even before the mid-1850s. Most participants saw the annual Aug. 1 get-togethers as more important than the nation’s observances of its July 4 Declaration of Independence from Britain.

But why? How could African-Americans, year in and year out, mark the first day of August as “Emancipation Day” when President Lincoln had yet to act formally?

Britain’s 1834 anti-slavery action
The answer is that Britain, on Aug. 1, 1834, abolished slavery in all its colonies. At the time, England’s geographic reach stretched over several continents and included parts of the Caribbean, Africa, Canada, India, China, Australia and South America. It gave great impetus to existing abolition movements worldwide, including that in the U.S.

Prominent African-American figure Frederick Douglass – author, orator, publisher, abolitionist, former slave – delivered a scathing July 4th speech in Rochester, N.Y., in 1852. It included this question: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”

Answering his own question, Douglass said, “(July 4th is) a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham. There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States.”

Douglass and Lincoln were well aware of each other’s views before they first met in person in the White House in the summer of 1863 – after the Emancipation Declaration was issued. In those times, leading figures of commerce, government and politics came to “know” each other through speeches, books they wrote and newspaper letters and stories.

Through these media, Douglass pressured Lincoln repeatedly to end slavery. When Lincoln did not act immediately due to political considerations and war pressures, Douglass was keenly disappointed. Further, Lincoln felt his first obligation was uniting the country.

Abolition couldn’t be his top consideration. But end slavery Lincoln eventually did, and in a speech at the Washington, D.C., unveiling of a Lincoln statue in 1886, Douglass demonstrated he came to understand how Lincoln had to proceed to end slavery in the United States.

“Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union,” Douglass told the crowd, “he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to (Southern) rebellion impossible.”

‘Juneteenth’ – another emancipation date
This June, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn marked Sunday, June 19 (“Juneteenth”) to observe the date in 1865 when in Galveston, Texas, Union Gen. Gordon Granger announced freedom for all slaves in the southwest part of the country. It was the last major vestige of servitude following the Civil War.

Granger’s General Order No. 3 reads, in part, “In accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

The news arrived there more than two-and-a-half years after Lincoln proclaimed emancipation in Confederate states. It triggered wild jubilation among suddenly free slaves.

June 19 thus became the oldest African- American holiday observance in the nation. Many blacks consider “Juneteenth” America’s “second” Independence Day, behind July 4.

In 1865, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to end slavery in the entire country.

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Douglass on Lincoln

On Aug. 10, 1863, Frederick Douglass became the first black man personally brought to the White House by a president. Douglass later told associates (reports David W. Blight in
his 2001 book “Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln: A Relationship in Language, Politics and Memory”) that he remembered Lincoln “looked him in the eye” and treated Douglass with “utmost respect.”

Blight writes Douglass, in their first of three face-to-face meetings, felt Lincoln “showed a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had ever seen before in anything spoken or written by him.” Earlier in his presidency, for example, Lincoln weighed colonizing slaves to end the bitter slavery debate. Douglass was very unhappy about that.

The subject that brought Douglass and Lincoln together that August day in 1863 was their joint belief that one-time slaves should be allowed to fight for the Union. Lincoln wanted Douglass to help it become a reality. Eventually, 180,000 African-Americans wore uniforms of U.S. military forces.

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