Editor’s note: The National Constitution Center celebrates African American History Month with a variety of programs and exhibits that spotlight the story of the African American experience and the struggle for equality, including a close look at the Center’s rare printing of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln.
According to the federal government, Americans are supposed to commemorate both Independence Day (July 4) and National Freedom Day (Feb. 1). But have you ever heard of National Freedom Day? The story of this unknown holiday begins with a bit of presidential trivia but soon turns into a fascinating tale about a most extraordinary slave-turned-citizen.
It was on Feb. 1, 1865, that President Abraham Lincoln signed a joint congressional resolution proposing a 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would abolish slavery. But any good civics student knows that the process for amending the Constitution was by no means complete. Congress (not the president) sends amendments to the states for ratification, and the states must finalize any proposed changes.
The requisite number of states did not ratify the 13th Amendment until Dec. 6, 1865, an event that set off an explosion of celebrations in the North. John Greenleaf Whittier’s once-famous poem “Laos Deo!” immortalized the spirit of the times: “IT is done! / Clang of bell and roar of gun / Send the tidings up and down .... / Fling the joy from town to town!”
Lincoln himself appeared to acknowledge the special nature of Feb. 1 when he placed an otherwise superfluous signature on the joint resolution. He had called the proposed amendment “a king’s cure” to the challenge of ending slavery and clearly wanted to bear witness to the transformation that was being wrought by the bloody Civil War. Though he did not live to see ratification, Lincoln’s contributions as military emancipator and advocate for constitutional abolition deserve commemoration.
That was the idea that eventually inspired Richard R. Wright, a former slave, to lobby Congress to designate Feb. 1 as National Freedom Day. Wright was a nine-year-old enslaved boy living in Georgia when Lincoln signed the joint resolution. After the war, while attending a freedmen’s school during Reconstruction, Wright then became known as the inspiration for yet another celebrated poem by Whittier, “Howard at Atlanta,” about the visit of Union General Oliver O. Howard to a black school. The general asks the students:
“What shall I tell the children
Up North about you?”
Then ran round a whisper, a murmur,
Some answer devising:
And a little boy stood up: “General,
Tell ‘em we’re rising!”
The phrase “Tell ‘em we’re rising!” became an anthem for the postwar black middle class, of which Richard Wright became a notable embodiment. Wright served as an officer in the Spanish-American War and became a renowned educator (and a mentor to W.E.B. DuBois) and a banker—a self-made man who never seemed to stop striving.
Author Richard Wright was one of many American novelists that used literature to illustrate the anger, hope, and struggle of all types of people attempting to reach or redefine the American Dream. Here is a wonderful resource that can help educators organize a unit or course around the American Dream theme in both english and social studies.
At age 67, Wright enrolled in Wharton Business School to help retrain for his new commercial endeavor, The Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company. In early 1942, at age 86, he began an intensive lobbying effort for the creation of National Freedom Day.
The first grassroots celebration drew 3,500 people to the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The crowd held a mass Pledge of Allegiance in front of the Liberty Bell and then organized a patriotic parade “with forty flag-bedecked automobiles,” according to a report from the Baltimore Afro-American (Feb. 7, 1942). The turnout was especially impressive because the national climate did not seem promising for such an earnest effort.
World War II had already begun, Japanese internment was about to be launched and a climate of segregation and oppression still prevailed across the South and much of the North. Attendees at this first gathering, for example, felt compelled to formally denounce a recent lynching in Missouri. Yet Wright persisted, undertaking a national speaking tour and working behind-the-scenes with various legislators.
Seven years later, the effort finally bore fruit on June 30, 1948, when President Harry Truman signed Public Law 842, establishing “National Freedom Day” into the federal code. The legislation encouraged national observance of Feb. 1 as a way to commemorate the abolition of slavery, but did not mandate a new federal holiday. That had been the original intent of Wright’s proposal, but some in Congress had objected to canceling a work day in the short and already commemoration-crowded month of February.
Unfortunately, Wright was not present to fight for more. He had died in July 1947 and never lived to see the formal establishment of his dream—not unlike Abraham Lincoln, who never lived to witness the ratification of his proposed amendment.
Matthew Pinsker is the Pohanka Chair in American Civil War History at Dickinson College and co-director of the House Divided Project.