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America’s worthy freedom journey

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

Several months ago, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair Arthur Griffin shared with me the fruits of his quest to trace his ancestry. The genealogist he hired all but gushed at the treat it was to delve into the background of his grandfather Laurens Griffin. “It is unusual,” he said, “to have the opportunity to work on an African American research case in which there are only three generations back to the pre-emancipation days of slavery.”

You read that right. Griffin’s grandfather - long dead by the time of Griffin’s birth – was a slave.

Slavery is the past many Americans don’t want to remember but it’s not so distant, and it’s getting some attention these days. Two movies – with different perspectives – are spotlighting it: Steven Spielberg’s fact-based “Lincoln” focuses on President Lincoln’s determination to get the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery, passed. Quentin Tarantino’s fictional “D’Jango Unchained” tells the tale of a freed slave turned bounty hunter.

The more seminal event though is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The commemoration this week kicks off a yearlong celebration the proclamation’s sesquicentennial - Lincoln signed it on Jan. 1, 1863. More important the commemoration spotlights the most critical freedom movement in this country since its founding. That’s something all Americans can take pride in, and is worth celebrating. It’s a shame so many don’t.

The National Archives, where the proclamation was on rare display this week, has dubbed it “one of the great documents of human freedom.” But though the document declared slaves “thenceforward, and forever free,” that decree only applied to enslaved persons in states that were in “rebellion” against the United States. That meant slaves in the Confederacy. For all practical purposes, the document didn’t of itself free most slaves.

Yet, the significance of Abraham Lincoln’s bold move was and still is evident. Lincoln himself said it would be what history would remember him for. “It is the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century,” he said. And Lincoln, staunchly against slavery, told friends he would rather die than take back a word of it.

Still, debates over Lincoln’s true motives for issuing the proclamation and disputes over his complex – some say evolving – views about blacks (he once contended differences between blacks and whites in the United States were too stark and advocated relocating freed slaves to other countries) plus the discomfort many Americans even now feel when talking about slavery and the war that ended it in this country have nearly relegated the proclamation to an historical dust-bin.

With yearlong sesquicentennial events this year, that may change.

It should. The proclamation helped the country confront the inconsistencies in U.S. slavery and the tenets in America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln in a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858 said that though the founders could not have reached agreement on the Constitution without permitting slavery to remain, that did not change the standard of liberty raised in the Declaration : “So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can.”

The reach of the proclamation was profound – even if it was not the widespread liberation many wished for.

Duke University historian, the late John Hope Franklin, put it this way:

“If the Proclamation of Emancipation was essentially a war measure, it had the desired effect of creating confusion in the South and depriving the Confederacy of much of its valuable laboring force. If it was a diplomatic document, it succeeded in rallying to the Northern cause thousands of English and European laborers who were anxious to see workers gain their freedom throughout the world. If it was a humanitarian document, it gave hope to millions of Negroes that a better day lay ahead, and it renewed the faith of thousands of crusaders who had fought long to win freedom in America.”

It not only gave hope, the proclamation changed the character of the war to a fight against slavery. And as historian Ira Berlin noted, “Every advance of federal arms expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the liberated themselves became liberators, for the proclamation also announced the acceptance of black men into the Union army and navy.”

That the proclamation declared the freed slaves “be received into the armed service of the United States” is one of the lesser known parts of the declaration.

Of course, enslaved blacks and abolitionists in the North and South were not simply waiting around for freedom. Slaves frequently ran away and by the time the Civil War began even more were liberating themselves. And with the proclamation, many were eager to fight for freedom in the Union army. By the war’s end, more than 180,000 had enlisted – 7,000 were former slaves or free blacks from North Carolina.

William Henry Singleton of New Bern recruited his own regiment of blacks. In a story in the University of North Carolina archives, he notes: “I secured [one] thousand men and they appointed me as their colonel and I drilled them with cornstalks for guns. We had no way, of course, of getting guns and equipment.... I spoke to General Burnside about getting my regiment into the federal service but he said he could do nothing about it... [But]It was one day at the General’s headquarters… the conference in the inner room apparently ended and Mr. Lincoln and General Burnside came out. I do not know whether they had told President Lincoln about me before or not, but the General pointed to me and said, ‘This is the little fellow who got up a colored regiment.’ …President Lincoln said, ‘You have got good pluck. But I can’t take you now because you are contraband of war and not American citizens yet. But hold on to your society and there may be a chance for you.’... It was not until May 28, 1863, however, that the thing we had hoped for so long came to pass.”

That is just one of many inspirational stories that are part of the freedom movement the Emancipation Proclamation was so crucial to. We Americans have cheered freedom movements in other countries; this year would be a good time to start cheering our own. We’ve still got a ways to go in the fight for equality and fairness in the U.S. – as evidenced by our struggles in tackling immigration and gay rights. But we should celebrate our progress. The Emancipation Proclamation stands as evidence that we can get on the right path, and follow it to the right result.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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