New Year’s Day marked the 150th anniversary of the enactment of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the rebelling Confederate states during the Civil War, and marked a pivotal turning point in the history of the nation. The fact is not lost on African-American leaders here in Queens.
“He was a man of incredible courage to even propose something like that,” said Elmer Blackburne, a Democratic district leader for the 29th Assembly District. “He is a hero.”
Lincoln’s document declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free,” just as the country was entering the third year of the Civil War.
“The Proclamation only freed slaves in the states in rebellion; but the message was clear that slavery would no longer be tolerated in the United States,” Blackburne said. “I agree with many Civil War historians that the Emancipation Proclamation was indeed the turning point of the war that defeated the Confederacy, preventing the dissolution of the Union. In my view, should the South have won the war, slavery would have endured for many more generations, denying equal rights to African-Americans and other people of color for untold years, subjecting them to a marginal existence at best.”
Black leaders in Queens, who know first-hand how difficult the fight for equality has been, say that while great strides have been made, the journey is far from over. There is much to celebrate, but much is left to accomplish.
Bishop Melvin Artis grew up in Sedley, Va., during segregation and remembers when blacks could not walk through the front doors of buildings, attend the same schools as whites or use the same drinking fountains.
“It was a way of life for us,” Artis said. “That’s all we knew. Our parents didn’t want to talk about it. They just said that’s the way it was supposed to be.”
Artis remembers how he and his brother would alternate days between work and school because they needed to bring home money for their family. The job was hard and it didn’t pay much money.
“We used to work on a farm for a white man who paid us 25 cents a day,” Artis said. “We worked during harvest time, picking peas, tomatoes and collard greens.”
Adjoa Gzifa, a Jamaica community activist, said the re-election of Barack Obama sends a message to people across the country that African-Americans are uniting and prepared to fight on more fronts, for more causes, than they have in the past.
“We have come a long way, but we still have a great distance to go,” Gzifa said. “We have tried our hardest to make people of other ethnic persuasions understand who we are.”
In addition to freeing southern slaves, the proclamation allowed for black men to enlist in the Union Army and Navy. Many emancipated slaves joined the fight to free others. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought on behalf of the Union, according to the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
Within two years of Lincoln’s proclamation, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, outlawing slavery nationwide. In 1870, the 15th Amendment gave African-American men the right to vote.
“The Emancipation Proclamation provided freedom to people of color, and I think a lot has been done since then for civil rights in our country, but there is a lot more to go,” said Bill Perkins, head of the Rosedale Civic Association. “There are still disparities in education and economics. We need to ensure that there are opportunities and those opportunities can be realized.”
For civic leader Greg Mays, the founder of A Better Jamaica, imagining slavery and the nation 150 years ago is a difficult task. In order to do so, Mays said it helps to view the time in the context of more recent periods in African-American history. “Without markers, it’s too abstract for me,” Mays said.
Remembering when his alma mater Howard University went from being an all-white college, to having a black president in 1926 — Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson — and shifting to primarily an African-American student population, is one way Mays puts the evolution of civil rights into perspective.
Another way, Mays said, is through the plays of August Wilson. Each set in a different decade, they depict both the humorous and tragic aspects of the African-American experience in the 20th century.
“Lincoln was a great hero for our country, and we cannot forget his great deeds,” Mays said. “Our journey continues. It’s by no means over.”
NARA celebrated the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with a special display of the original document from Dec. 30 through Jan. 1. Here in Queens, an “Emancipation Day” celebration was held on Jan. 1 at New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Jamaica.