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Let the Bells Ring: 150 Years of the Emancipation Proclamation

Posted on 03 January 2013

Abraham Lincoln in an 1860 photo by Preston Butler.

By Annette Hinkle

One hundred and fifty years ago this week — on January 1, 1863 to be precise, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that forever changed the face of American society.

The document was not a law passed by Congress, but rather, was based solely on Lincoln’s constitutional authority as commander in chief. While questions remain about whether Lincoln’s actions were even legal, the Proclamation’s influence on this country in the century and a half that has followed are still debated to this day.

On Saturday, January 5 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a celebration will be held in Southampton Village. Organized by the Southampton Historical Museum, the event includes a roundtable discussion at 2:30 p.m. that will explore the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation — both then and now — at the museum’s Rogers Mansion.

Sag Harbor’s Carol T. Spencer has assembled the panel which includes author Joan Baum, Natalie P. Byfield (professor of sociology at St. John’s University) and William Pickens, III, a Sag Harbor resident whose family has close ties to the abolitionist movement.

Ironically enough, though she’s the founder of Diaspora Books, which specializes in literature focused on the African-American experience, Spencer admits to knowing very little about the Emancipation Proclamation beyond what most of us learned in grade school.

“I knew that with the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln freed the slaves, but he was more interested in saving the Union. End of story… that’s all I knew,” says Spencer. “It’s what everyone learned in school.”

But of course, the reality is far more complicated than grade school history. Issued in the midst of the Civil War, while the Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves living in the 10 Confederate rebel states, it redefined the war by making the ending of slavery an explicit goal.

As a result, the document changed the course of the war in the Union’s favor. The goal of abolishing slavery turned international support away from the Confederacy, which might have found strong allies in Europe otherwise, and toward the Union.

While the proclamation did not outlaw all slavery in the United States, nor did it apply to border states, it did set the stage for the Thirteenth Amendment, which made slavery illegal throughout the country in December of 1865.

While the details of the abolitionist movement and public opinion in America in the 1860s will be discussed at Saturday’s roundtable, the real focus will be the 150 years since the Proclamation’s issuance and what it has meant for subsequent generations in the form of Jim Crow, segregation, the Civil Rights movement and the election of the first African American president.

“The panelists will engage in a spirited and controversial discussion on the effects of the Proclamation and how it defines who we are today,” says Spencer.

“The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t happen in a vacuum. It didn’t come out of the goodness of someone’s heart,” she adds. “Frederick Douglass did a whole lot of prodding of Abraham Lincoln. Douglass had a complex relationship with Lincoln. He knew before Lincoln did that the war was about coming to terms with the African American.”

But it wasn’t just Douglass, and Tom Edmonds, director of the Southampton Historical Museum, adds that Lincoln was getting pressure to deal with the slavery issue from other corners as well — including Long Island’s own Walt Whitman.

“Walt Whitman was a big supporter of the Proclamation,” says Edmonds. “He really encouraged Lincoln to do something, but Lincoln was dragging his feet and trying to be political — like Obama with the gun laws.”

“He didn’t want to, but he was forced to do it by [Secretary of State William] Seward and Whitman,” notes Edmonds. “Lincoln gets all the credit because he died a martyr.”

Spencer notes that while the Proclamation is often perceived as an end in and of itself, it really represented the beginning of a whole new set of complications in this country.

“There were riots and fears of northerners that free black men would come and take their jobs,” she says. “There was also reconstruction and the rise of the clan.”

“It was not an end,” adds Spencer who is confident that by the end of the day Saturday, all in attendance will have a better understanding of what the Emancipation Proclamation has really meant for the country.

“This is the time we’re going to find out what really went on,” says Spencer.

The Emancipation Proclamation celebration begins at 1 p.m. Saturday, January 5 with ringing of bells throughout Southampton Village. At 1:15 p.m., a community gathering at the First Presbyterian Church (2 South Main Street) includes gospel music and a reading of the Proclamation. The roundtable discussion follows at Rogers Mansion (17 Meeting House Lane) at 2:30 p.m. and the day concludes with a jazz and poetry festival (and food) at the Rogers Mansion from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Call 283-2494 or visit www.southamptonhistoricalmusuem.org for details.

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