On September 22, 1862, partly in response to the heavy losses inflicted at the Battle of Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, threatening to free all the enslaved people in the states in rebellion if those states did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863. The extent of the Proclamation’s practical effect has been debated, as it was legally binding only in territory not under Union control. In the short term, it amounted to no more than a statement of policy for the federal army as it moved into Southern territory.
Never in all the march of time,
Dawned on this land a more sublime
A grand event than that for which
To-day the lowly and the rich,
Doth humbly bow and meekly send
Their orisons to God, their Friend.
A Poem read by J. Madison Bell. Published in The Centennial Jubilee of Freedom at Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, September 22, 1888. p.87. Xenia, Ohio: The Aldine Printing House, 1888. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
In larger terms, however, Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation was enormous. This event, combined with the determination on the part of African Americans to flee across Union lines as the federal army advanced into Southern territory, framed the Civil War as a struggle for freedom and against slavery. In more practical terms, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation prevented European nations from intervening in the war on behalf of the Confederacy and enabled the Union to enlist nearly 180,000 African American soldiers to fight between January 1, 1863 and the conclusion of the war.
Throughout the intervening years, the public has commemorated the Emancipation Proclamation with marches and celebrations. In American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, two people share their memories of these events. “Mrs. Ella Boney,” born in Henry Country, Kentucky on October 12, 1869, remembers childhood celebrations in Hill City, Kansas in her 1938 interview:
One of the biggest events of the year for Negroes in Kansas is the Emancipation Proclamation picnic every fourth of August. We celebrate four days in a large grove just out side of Nicodemus, and Negroes come from all over the state. There are about twelve barbecue pits dug and they are going all day barbecuing chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs, sides of beef, etc.
[Mrs. Ella Boney]. Albert Burks, interviewer; Lincoln, Nebraska: November 26, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
In a 1939 interview, John Wesley Dobbs, a Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons, recounts his Emancipation Day speech for “Wings over Jordan,” a radio program heard every Sunday morning in the 1930s on station WGAR in Cleveland:
Over the doorway of the nation’s Supreme Court Building in Washington, D. C. are engraved four words, ‘Equal Justice Under Law’. This beautiful American ideal is what the Negroes want to see operative and effective from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf – nothing more or less.
[I Saw the Stars]. John Wesley Dobbs, interviewee; Geneva Tonsill, interviewer; Atlanta, Georgia, December 2, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
From African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection come speeches and sermons, including an oration delivered by Reverend A.L. DeMond to members of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on January 1, 1900. In “The Negro Element in American Life: An Oration,” DeMond describes the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation as
…two great patriotic, wise and humane state papers…Both were born in days of doubt and darkness. Both were the outcome of injustice overleaping the bounds of right and reason. The one was essential to the fulfilling of the other. Without the Declaration of Independence the nation could not have been born; without the Emancipation Proclamation it could not have lived.
“The Negro Element in American Life: An Oration,” delivered by Rev. A.L. DeMond in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, Jan. 1, 1900. Montgomery, Ala.: Alabama Printing Company, 1900. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division