Happy Anniversary, Emancipation Proclamation

By Dr. Harold A. Black



January 1st is the 161st anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although universally acknowledged as an important historical document, the reasons for its importance are not at all clear. I remember being taught in high school that Lincoln freed the slaves and immediately getting into an argument (which I lost) with the teacher. I contended that Lincoln could not have freed the slaves since the slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment which was ratified after Lincoln’s death. She, of course, was referring to the Emancipation Proclamation as the document which freed the slaves. However, I remember a conversation I had with my great-grandmother (Ma Mat) who said she was picking cotton on Bonner’s Hill in Clinton, Georgia, in December 1864 “when Sherman marched up the hill.” She also said that when she heard of the Emancipation the previous year, the slaves all of a sudden did not start running around shouting, “Lawdy we is free”. Rather it was business – or servitude – as normal. Even after “Sherman” had left Clinton and headed to Savannah, the slaves remained in bondage. Although later I learned that it was not Sherman but rather Oliver O. Howard’s (Howard University) wing that marched up Bonner’s Hill, it still did not detract from Ma Mat’s powerful imagery. So armed with that information from my great-grandmother I confronted my high school history teacher.

Later at home, I went to the Encyclopedia Britannica to actually read the Emancipation Proclamation and sure enough it stated that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Since those states had declared their independence, the proclamation did not have any force of law. Indeed, so as not to offend the neutral states and territories that allowed slavery (Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and the western counties of Virginia) Lincoln had carefully crafted his words. However, there was one very important provision of the proclamation, which was to have the Federal forces “recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” This was of extreme importance since in earlier years of the war, runaway slaves were often not aided by the federals and were sometimes returned to the confederate lines. Also after the proclamation, the federals started wholesale enlistments of black troops. Although the vast majority were freemen, many were runaways. In the end, more than 200,000 blacks wore union blue and historians find that the superiority of manpower of the federals enhanced by the blacks in blue, hastened the end of the war. Finally, did my history teacher concede? No. She simply stated that Lincoln through the emancipation laid the foundation for freedom and had motivated the 13th Amendment which was passed in the Senate before Lincoln’s assassination.

Lincoln was emboldened by the Union victory at Antietam in September 1863 which lifted northern spirits after a series of defeats by Lee’s army. It prompted him to issue the Proclamation in hopes of dissuading the anti-slavery governments of Britain and France from recognizing the legitimacy of the confederate government. It also allowed him to allow the enlistment of black troops. However, the Proclamation was not met with universal favor in the north, leading to riots in some cities. So should January 1st be “Emancipation Day?” Texas, and many blacks, had long celebrated Juneteenth Day as Emancipation Day. Juneteenth (June 19, 1865) marked the end of slavery in Texas and is now a federal holiday. Fittingly, Texas first enshrined the date as a state holiday in 1980. By 2019, Juneteenth was recognized by 47 states and the District of Columbia. Thus, whether accurately or not, Juneteenth rather than January 1st is Emancipation Day.