On Feb. 7, 1926, Carter G. Woodson, a professor of history, announced that he would celebrate and highlight for the first time ever a single week devoted to African-American history, and he called it “Negro History Week.”
He selected the second week in February because of its proximity to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays, Lincoln on Feb. 12, and Douglass on a day in February.
In February 1976, President Gerald Ford expanded that single week to the entire month of February and renamed it “Black History Month,” and he encouraged Americans to recognize, appreciate, and learn more of African-Americans’ participation in America’s history.
At the time of the Civil War in the early 1860’s, there were four million slaves, a massive labor force who worked the Southern states’ cotton fields. They received little pay, scant housing, and negligible food. State laws prevented them from learning to read, write, or vote.
Owned by white slaveholders, they were an oppressed population, forced to work in the cotton fields, unable to quit or leave. The white slave owners whipped their slaves whenever for whatever. The slaves were an abused people, downtrodden, uneducated, and disenfranchised.
For them, life was non-stop work without a shred of hope.
On Sept. 22, 1862, in the middle of a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln announced that on Jan. 1, 1863, 100 days hence, he would free the slaves, but he restricted his Emancipation to those slaves living in ten southern states that had seceded from the Union.
In the Emancipation Proclamation’s second paragraph, Lincoln wrote, “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be thenceforward, and forever free.”
Lincoln wrote that he expected the slaves to “be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence,” and that they would “labor faithfully for reasonable wages.”
He then invited “such persons of suitable condition to be received into the armed service(s) of the United States,” something Frederick Douglass highly desired and campaigned for often.
One wonders if Lincoln, the President of the United States, had authority to free slaves in another country, the newly-founded Confederate States of America. Lincoln wrote,
“And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” For Lincoln, the Proclamation was an “act of justice.”
Congress then took up the issue of outlawing slavery. The Senate passed the 13th Amendment in April 1864, and the House passed it in January of 1865 by a vote of 119 to 56.
On Feb. 1, 1865, Lincoln signed the Joint Resolution of Congress and submitted it to the state legislatures for ratification. The necessary three-fourths of the states ratified it by Dec. 6, 1865, and the 13th Amendment entered into the Constitution.
It consists of a single sentence. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Feb. 1, the day when Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment, is now known as National Freedom Day. Freedom is a precious commodity. To receive it brings indescribable joy, but to lose it brings sorrow and grief. Without it, life is dull and ugly.
Frederick Douglass said it best prior to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, “The fate of our country is dependent upon the liberation of the slave.”
History has swept aside the Confederate’s idea that one race is superior to another. The Confederacy’s flag and all it stood for are gone. Black History Month begins Thursday, and National Freedom Day is Thursday.