By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
On Jan. 1, 1863, Emilie Frances Davis, a 21-year-old freeborn Black woman, sat in her room in Philadelphia, Pa., pulled out her pocket diary, wrote her name in ink and cursive on the first page, and proceeded to describe her day. The day was historic: it was Jubilee Day, the moment when the “throat of slavery” intersected with the “keen knife of liberty” as the nation, with the release of the Emancipation Proclamation, began a slow march toward liberty and justice for all. It was also a day of marked contradictions because the Confederate states that had seceded from the Union were unwilling to concede.
One hundred days before the final document was released, President Abraham Lincoln, while speaking in Antietam, Md., signed a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation—offering the Confederate states a final opportunity to either rejoin the Union or risk the immediate emancipation of their “slaves.” It was not intended to be a pro-black benevolent document; it was a war tactic, a political statement.
For the Black community, the potential release of this Proclamation was the first step in that slow march. As Jacqueline Jones explains it, emancipation “was not a gift bestowed upon passive slaves by Union soldiers or presidential proclamation; rather, it was a process by which black people ceased to labor for their masters and sought instead to provide directly for one another.”
As it is today, during that time, America was deeply divided. It was at war, and even though Lincoln and other White male power brokers said the war was nothing more than a “simple misunderstanding between gentlemen, a White man’s War,” the real issue was the continuation and expansion of the peculiar and evil institution called slavery. It was a billion-dollar industry that had continued unchecked for over 240 years. By 1860, the majority of millionaires in this country were Southern slaveholders, and the economic value of four million enslaved people was about $3.5 billion.
Slavery was a brutal system. Frederick Douglass, in his speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” argued that slavery was designed to turn Black men into brutes by robbing them of their liberty, working them without wages, keeping them ignorant, beating them with sticks, raping the boys and girls, flaying their flesh, loading their limbs with iron, hunting them with dogs when they dared to try to claim their freedom, knocking out their teeth, selling them at auctions, and starving them into obedience and submission.
This type of brutality, I would say, does not turn Black men into brutes but reveals the brute in the White men who see this as just behavior. As Matthew Desmond explains, to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation. In the same vein, if you want to understand why the notions of freedom are so hard to explain, you have to start with the lies rooted in the celebration of the Proclamation.
Lincoln’s goal was not to end slavery but to save the Union. (As an aside, I often say that it is not America at war that concerns me but America at war that keeps me up at night.) Slavery was not supposed to end and when it did, we were not supposed to survive.
So on that day, when the news of “emancipation” swept across the nation, the night of celebration was electric. Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a White abolitionist from the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment, later noted that the tribute to the news of Jubilee sounded like “the choked voice of a race at last unloosed.”
Douglass, who spoke at the Tremont Church moments after the Proclamation was released, said, “Remembering those in bounds as bound with them, we wanted to join in the shout for freedom, and in the anthem of the redeemed.” But the news of freedom, like freedom itself, moved slowly.
Union soldiers were tasked with taking the word from plantation to plantation, so it was not until June 19, 1865, that the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas (the outermost part of the Confederate States of America) received the news that they had been emancipated. One year later, they held the first Juneteenth celebration to mark their moment of freedom.
Even though the Emancipation Proclamation did not legally end slavery (that did not happen until Dec. 6, 1865, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment), Black people have used that moment and every moment since then to make America live up to its creed to be both the home of the brave and the home of the free. Even though true freedom has yet to arrive, we recognize Juneteenth as a day of celebration, education, and agitation. We mark this occasion with tears and with joy because we understand that we were not supposed to survive, but we did.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the Founding Executive Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, & Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland, the 2021 Winner of the Vernon Jarret Medal for Journalistic Excellence, and the award-winning radio host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and her dog.*Portions from this Opinion Editorial are from “Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Francis Davis.”
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