Some white Americans still try to dismiss the evils of slavery, pretending that many slaves were happy serving their white masters. But the morning of Jan. 1, 1863, showed a different reality when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and blacks celebrated, as William Loren Katz recalls.
By William Loren Katz
When the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect Jan. 1, 1863, African-Americans had been fighting the Confederacy near the South Carolina Islands for months. These soldiers assembled with their families to celebrate. Their commander, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, had been a militant Abolitionist minister who together with black people in Boston had stormed jails to free captured people of color.
In South Carolina he was devoted to his courageous soldiers. His Diary describes their New Year’s Day ceremony:
“About ten o’clock the people began to collect by land, and also by water, in steamers sent by General Saxton for the purpose; and from that time all the avenues of approach were thronged. The multitude were chiefly colored women, with gay handkerchiefs on their heads . . . . “There were many white visitors also, ladies on horseback and in carriages, superintendents and teachers, officers, and cavalry-men. Our companies were marched to the neighborhood of the platform, and allowed to sit or stand, as at the Sunday services; the platform was occupied by ladies and dignitaries, and . . . the colored people filled up all the vacant openings in the beautiful grove around, and there was a cordon of mounted visitors beyond. . .
“Then the President’s Proclamation was read by Dr. W. H. Brisbane, a thing infinitely appropriate, a South Carolinian addressing South Carolinians. . . . Then the colors were presented to us by the Rev. Mr. French, a chaplain who brought them from the donors in New York. “All this was according to the program. Then followed an incident so simple, so touching, so utterly unexpected and startling, that I can scarcely believe it on recalling, though it gave the keynote to the whole day. The very moment the speaker had ceased, and just as I took and waved the flag, which now for the first time meant anything to these poor people, there suddenly arose, close beside the platform, a strong male voice (but rather cracked and elderly), into which two women’s voices instantly blended, singing, as if by an impulse that could no more be repressed than the morning note of the song-sparrow.,
“‘My Country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing!’
‘People looked at each other, and then at us on the platform, to see whence came this interruption, not set down in the bills. Firmly and irrepressibly the quavering voices sang on, verse after verse; others of the colored people joined in; some whites on the platform began, but I motioned them to silence. I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap; it seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed.
“Nothing could be more wonderfully unconscious; art could not have dreamed of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it; and when I came to speak of it, after it was ended, tears were everywhere.”
As cited in several of my books: from Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Army Life in A Black Regiment (Boston, 1882) 40-41.
William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden History and 40 other books on U.S. history. His website is williamlkatz.com