After shaking hands with visitors to the White House for four hours on Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s right arm trembled as he prepared to sign the Emancipation Proclamation later that afternoon. It wasn’t, however, due to any lack of conviction on his part. His hand simply hurt.
“I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper,” said Lincoln, after he added his signature to the official document. The 16th president’s executive order actually did little more than free slaves in those states in rebellion during the Civil War, and was hailed simply as a military measure aimed at helping the North defeat the South.
“It was a strategic military effort more than anything else, and because Lincoln announced that he was going to do it back in September, it was an opportunity for those Southern states that had seceded to come back to the Union,” said Kenneth Aslakson, a history professor at Union College.
“He was hoping they would see the error of their ways and rejoin the Union, and he was also concerned about not driving the four border states that still allowed slavery into the Confederacy. None of that happened, so the Emancipation had very little practical effect when Lincoln signed it.”
‘Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation’
WHERE: New York State Museum, 222 Madison Ave., Albany
WHEN: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Harold Holzer will speak 8 p.m. Friday in the Huxley Theater
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 474-5877, www.nysm.nysed.gov
Emotionally, however, it lifted the spirits of black people everywhere and paved the way for the 13th amendment abolishing slavery to be passed almost three years later in December 1865.
The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the only original version in Lincoln’s handwriting, will be on display Friday and Saturday at the New York State Museum. Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer will give a brief lecture Friday in the Huxley Theater, free of charge. His presentation is titled, “Lincoln and Liberty: Re-assessing the Preliminary Proclamation in the Age of Spielberg.”
To help commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Proclamation, the Gazette asked six Capital Region residents, all of them black and all with a keen interest in history, to offer their impressions of the document and what it means to them.
‘Trying not to get us angry’
Allen B. Ballard is a history professor at the University of Albany and author of the Civil War novel “Where I’m Bound.”
“Two things come to my mind. First, a long way back, when I was 6 or 7, my mother told me about my great-grandfather, who had been a slave and had run away from a tobacco field in Maryland. He had these stripes across his back, and he would talk to her and tell her never to forget them.
“Secondly, there was this old lady who lived a few houses down the street from us, and she used to sit out on the block during the summertime. She was blind and she must have been in her 80s. She was an ex-slave who would wear this African turban around her head. Everybody called her ‘Aunt Garry,’ and we actually tried to avoid her because if she could she would pinch us. But she was a very interesting lady, and we would always bow our head as we walked past her.
“In my family, the subject [slavery] was never mentioned. You might hear it as a threat from adults, ‘We’re going to put you back in slavery,’ if you didn’t mind, but most of the time adults never talked about it. In school, and I went to an all-black school in Philadelphia with all-black staff, slavery was never mentioned except in reference to people like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass, and their opposition to it. But they never said, ‘This is slavery and this is what it was all about.’ They never represented it to us that way. I think they were trying not to get us angry.
“As I got older and learned more, it [the Emancipation Proclamation] still never disappointed me. As I began to understand the context, I realized and appreciated the limitations that Lincoln was under. But its effect was still electric, and once it was out of the box you couldn’t put it back in. The document was carried word of mouth by the advancing troops and by runaways. It meant the death of slavery.”
‘I had some concerns about it’
Julia Holcomb, a Schenectady native and a 1971 Linton High graduate, has been a history teacher at Schenectady High School since 2001.
“Living up here in Schenectady, I felt a little untouched by the civil rights movement. We didn’t go through the struggles the blacks did in the South. There were some subtle prejudices, but nothing quite like right in your face that they went through down South. I think it probably wasn’t until my undergraduate years as a political science major that I started thinking more about the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I had some concerns about it, and its validity to Black America and what it meant to me. It was very limited because it only freed those slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union. It did allow black men to join the Union army, but black people still had ‘limited freedom.’ Slavery didn’t end until 1865, so maybe we should celebrate that more than the Proclamation, and maybe we will in 2015.
“But the proclamation did give us rights that the Declaration of Independence didn’t even think of for the slaves, and in some ways I think Lincoln was a lot like Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson said that he wanted to abolish slavery, but he didn’t forcibly advocate for it, and in the beginning Lincoln would have been OK with sending slaves back to Africa to just get rid of the problem. Later on he changed his mind, but I wish when he wrote the Proclamation that he would have advocated for slaves to be free all over the country and not just in those states that seceded.”
‘An important corner to turn’
Paul Stewart began the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region 12 years ago with his wife, Mary Liz.
“I grew up in Illinois, which is considered the Land of Lincoln, and in the eighth grade, I think, we had a whole segment on Illinois history, and Lincoln plays a huge roll in that. So, it’s at least that early for me, and I’m sure I was thinking about the Emancipation Proclamation as well as other things that tied in with Lincoln. As I was growing up, I learned the kind of history that was widely taught at the time, in terms of the Emancipation Proclamation being the document that ended slavery or freed slaves in the South, and so of course I held that view for many years.
“But it was certainly refreshing to me, in a manner of speaking, to begin to get the nuances that were involved, and how it only freed the slaves in the South or those that were enslaved in the areas of rebellion. It did continue to allow this ambiguous situation in the states that maintained slavery but sided with the North. Later on I learned some new things about Lincoln’s disposition toward race and freedom, et cetera, and I realized it was a lot more complicated than how it was initially taught to me. But in spite of that, it remains an important document, and it was an important corner to turn in the midst of the Civil War conflict. It did lead eventually to the downfall of slavery.”
‘Important that we continue to read it’
Marsha Mortimore’s interest in the past began when she started digging into the history of her church, the Duryee AME Zion Church in Schenectady.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was older, in my 30s, that I really started to have an appreciation of history and the words in the Emancipation Proclamation. My parents never talked about it. What we talked about was how my father migrated from the South and came to Schenectady looking for work at GE. What I think about now is how back then we had former slaves who found their way to Schenectady after the Civil War, men like Bartlett Jackson, the first black that worked for the police department here in 1865.
“Then there’s my great-great grandfather Green Riddle, the son of a slave master in Sandersville, Georgia, who fought for the Union and was then excommunicated from his church when he went back home after the war. It’s remarkable what these men went through. I imagine kids today know about the Proclamation, and it’s very important that they hear the words and how profound they are. It’s important that we continue to read it.”
‘Lincoln was my idol’
Robert Nii Nartey is a native of Ghana and has taught history at Siena College since 1989.
“Abraham Lincoln was my idol. I was a student in Ghana studying American history, so I closely followed the history behind the Civil War in America, and I have a picture of Lincoln on my door at Siena. Of all the U.S. presidents, he and FDR are my two most respected presidents.
“I think the Emancipation Proclamation was something that was morally correct. It was the moral thing to do. In those circumstances. it was very difficult to do and it really didn’t free many people until after the war was over. But I think we have to understand that it was a gesture for the whole world to know that the Union cause was right. It was a booster for the Union effort internationally, and it helped people understand that America stood for freedom.
“Now, like I said, it was very limiting and controversial because not that many blacks gained their freedom until after the Civil War was over and the 13th amendment was passed, but still, it was Abraham Lincoln’s way of saying that the cause of the Union is right and that America does stand for liberty and freedom, irrespective of color. It was the 19th century and the ideas of the Enlightenment were with us. Blacks should be free. It was the right thing for America to portray itself as a country where that could happen.”
‘We still have A ways to go’
Kent McHeard grew up in Alexandria, Va., and has been pastor at the Woestina Reformed Church in Rotterdam Junction since 2002.
“I was raised in foster care, so growing up we were surrounded by racial tensions, and the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t really part of my thinking. However, later on in life, I realized that even though there are words that say there has been an Emancipation Proclamation, it isn’t always expressed in our everyday lives. We still have a ways to go. For example, I’m the first black to serve this church that’s 228 years old, I’ve been here 10 years, and I was reminded just the other day how there are families that have said as long as I’m here, they won’t go to this church.
“Those types of things, and some are very subtle, are still happening and they suggest to me that our freedoms are not fully understood by some people. It’s a very small segment of the community. I would never think it was the view of the entire community, but this small group does raise its voice every now and then. So, even though the Emancipation Proclamation was 150 years ago, we’re still struggling with our freedom today. I will say that these kind of things don’t stop me. I don’t feel enslaved and I never have felt that way, but I’m sure there were people back then who said, ‘We were slaves and now we’re free, but we’re free by paper and not in our minds.’ ”