The Grand Emancipation Jubilee


Alan Singer is a historian and Professor of Secondary Education at Hofstra University, author of "New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth" (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008), and editor of the New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance curriculum that received the 2005 National Council for the Social Studies program of excellence award.

Among historians there is significant debate over the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863 and its actual and immediate impact on slavery in the United States. However these contemporary newspaper articles and speeches make clear that for the majority of abolitionists and free and freed black people, it had tremendous symbolic importance and was cause for a “grand emancipation jubilee.” Frederick Douglass later summarized these feeling in his autobiography. “The first of January, 1863, was a memorable day in the progress of American liberty and civilization. It was the turning point in the conflict between freedom and slavery. A death-blow was given to the slaveholding rebellion” (351).

As reported in the New York Times on January 1, 1863, “In anticipation of the Emancipation Proclamation which the President is expected to issue today, the colored people of this City held a grand jubilee last night at Shiloh Presbyterian Church, corner of Prince and Marion streets ... [T]he church was filled to overflowing, nearly one-third of the audience being white. Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of Shiloh Church presided."

At five minutes to midnight, Reverend Garnet interrupted a speaker and announced that “the audience would unite in silent prayer ... A solemn dirge was then played on the organ. At the close of which the whole audience knelt for five minutes in silent prayer. At the expiration of that time the choir sang the hymn commencing, ‘Blow, ye trumpets blow, the year of jubilee has come;’ in which the audience joined.”

Reverend Garnet “then read a dispatch from Washington, saying that President Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation at 12 o'clock M., to-day. This announcement was greeted with the most tumultuous cheers, which lasted some minutes, and were followed by three cheers for Abraham Lincoln, three cheers for freedom, &c., &c ... Other speakers followed, and the jubilee was kept up to a late hour in the evening, the audience singing ‘Old John Brown’ and other similar songs, shouting, praying and rejoicing.”

The same evening, the hlack population of Brooklyn, which at the time was an independent city across the East River from New York City, gathered for a three-day celebration of freedom at the Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal church. Its pastor, Reverend James Gloucester, presided. Speakers included the prominent such as William Wells Brown and Theodore Tilton, a representative from the near-by Plymouth Congregational Church, and a man the Brooklyn Eagle identified as a “contraband,” or runaway slave.

That Sunday, January 4, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher addressed a jubilant gathering at the Plymouth Congregational Church. Discussing the Civil War, Beecher told the congregation, “there is a tremendous conflict going on between desposition [sic. despotism (?)] and liberty -- between the oppression of the common people and their enfranchisement. It is a conflict of two opposing forces for the government of the continent -- the spirit of Christian liberty and democracy, and the spirit of aristocratic oppression.” However, “At last the Government of the United States stands straight again.” Beecher closed with a passage from the eighteenth chapter of Revelations describing the fall of Babylon. “So may Slavery perish, and all who uphold it.”

The next day, Monday, January 5, the “‘Sons of Freedom,’ an association of colored people,” sponsored a rally at the Cooper Institute in New York City, where Abraham Lincoln had delivered a speech in 1860 that helped propel him to Republican Party nomination and the presidency. According to a report in the Times, “A living stream of people set swiftly toward the doors long before the hour appointed for commencing the exercises, and filling the body of the house with a rush, eddied into the lobbies, percolated into the aisles, dashed its spray upon the platform, and overflowed into the street.”

Three-fifths of the group assembled at the Cooper Institute were “colored people” and “the remainder were sympathizing whites. The sexes, too, seemed to be about equally represented, and a larger number of intelligent, respectable, joyous faces never stamped an audience as being above mediocrity. There was enthusiasm beyond measure, but no disorderly demonstration, the feeling of joy which animated the congregation seeming to be subdued by its very intensity rather than made exuberant by its earnestness.” Speakers included “the venerable Lewis Tappan.”

Frederick Douglass, in the February issue of his monthly newspaper, reported, “Rev. H.H. Garnet presided with dignity, reading the Proclamation, and making a most appropriate and eloquent address” that concluded with “three cheers for the President ... followed successively by cheers ‘for our native land,’ for the Stars and Stripes, for the Abolitionists, and for Horace Greeley.” The Times concluded, “The demonstration was a fitting expression of the triumph of the American Union over African Slavery.”

Douglass also reported similar festivities across New York State, the nation, and even in parts of the South. In Rochester, New York commemorative exercises were held on Sunday of a “religious character.” In Orange, New Jersey, private dwellings were lit up.

On January 1, there was a public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation at Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston. In his memoir, Life of Times of Frederick Douglass (427-430), Douglass described the scene as well as the anticipation and trepidation in the crowd at possible disappointment.

I was in Boston, and its reception there may indicate the importance attached to it elsewhere ... The occasion, therefore, was one of both hope and fear. Our ship was on the open sea, tossed by a terrible storm; wave after wave was passing over us, and every hour was fraught with increasing peril. Whether we should survive or perish depended in large measure upon the coming of this proclamation. At least so we felt. Although the conditions on which Mr. Lincoln had promised to withhold it had not been complied with, yet, from many considerations, there was room to doubt and fear. Mr. Lincoln was known to be a man of tender heart, and boundless patience: no man could tell to what length he might go, or might refrain from going, in the direction of peace and reconciliation ... Every moment of waiting chilled our hopes, and strengthened our fears. A line of messengers was established between the telegraph office and the platform of Tremont Temple, and the time was occupied with brief speeches ... But speaking or listening to speeches was not the thing for which the people had come together. The time for argument was passed. It was not logic, but the trump of jubilee, which everybody wanted to hear. We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four millions of slaves; we were watching, as it were, by the dim light of the stars, for the dawn of a new day; we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries. Remembering those in bonds as bound with them, we wanted to join in the shout for freedom, and in the anthem of the redeemed.

In Chicago, “the colored people celebrated the gladsome New Year’s Day with appropriate public festivities -- feeling sure of the coming of the Proclamation, before it was issued.” One hundred guns were fired in salute on the Boston Common, in Albany, New York, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and San Francisco, California.

At Beaufort, South Carolina, “a celebration of the negroes was held in a live-oak grove, Gen. Saxton, Chaplain French, Col. Higginson, Mrs. Frances D. Gage (The Independent’s correspondent,) and others, in addition to the colored people, took part in the exercises. A set of colors, the gift of Dr. Cheever’s church of New York, was presented to the negro brigade. A barbeque followed, consisting of twelve roasted oxen. The health of the President was drunk in molasses and water by the humble people whom he so greatly blest.”

In Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, “a great flock of contraband – men, women and children assembled” at a hospital for wounded soldiers. “At seven in the evening, a bell-man, rang a bell, calling the people together for the reading of the Proclamation” and a “prayer was offered by an aged contraband.”

We ‘seech thee, O Lord!
To ‘member the Union army, support dem on de right and left to carry on by work.
Go before dem like a burning lamp.
‘Member de President, de sea sailors and land trabbelers; ‘member me, de meanest of dem all. Write us a ticket, and give us free admission to heaven. Amen.

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