By Dr. A. J. Williams-Myers
From 5 p.m. on January 1, 2013 until 5 a.m. on January 2nd, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge, which spans the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie to Highland, will be ablaze in white lights. The Dutchess County Historical Society Black History Committee collaborated with the New York State Bridge Authority to observe the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
A consortium of organizations has planned activities throughout the year in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the historic Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863.
Abraham Lincoln was a Kentuckian, lawyer, calculating politician, great debater, decision maker, and our 16th President; but in the end, he was a man born into a world entrapped in the enslavement of fellow humans. Lincoln was of that world and as such his frame of reference was honed by the attributes that defined slavery as the "peculiar institution." It was peculiar because its defenders - on both sides - refused to see the contradictory nature of their deeds in light of the revolutionary talk of freedom, equality, and independence.
If Lincoln were to be that warrior against slavery, he had to come to terms with the interdependency of his humanity with that of the thousands gone, the enslaved Blacks. Lincoln had to come off the fence of indecisiveness and commit political suicide if he were to reach the mountain top. He had to see what Martin Luther King, Jr. would later call "The Promise Land" - a land of true freedom, equality and independence.
If President Lincoln were to be that warrior against slavery, he would find himself one among many whom had been on the field of battle and formed a morally forceful and formidable challenge to slavery. The highly militant Abolitionist Movement and its secret weapon - the Underground Railroad - was, for its "passengers", a one-way ticket to freedom.
The Underground Railroad was a network of thousands of people banded together in defiance of the law for the deliberate purpose of depriving southern slaveholders of their property. Among the battlefield tested warriors Lincoln would join were fighters like Harriet Tubman, herself a fugitive slave. In defiance of the law on several missions into the heart of the South, she secretively ushered enslaved family members and others to freedom. History records her daring effort in the Hudson River Valley during the successful rescue of the enslaved fugitive Charles Nalle from the clutches of Federal Marshals in Troy, New York.
An Abolitionist from the Valley was Stephen Myers of Albany, himself a former enslaved New Yorker who rose to warrior status as an untiring lobbyist for the New York Anti-Slavery Society as well a conductor of the Underground Railroad. Sojourner Truth, a former enslaved New Yorker from Ulster County, who in 1847 during a public gathering in Boston, MA yelled out to Frederick Douglass, "Frederick is God dead?," in response to what she thought was his position on slavery coming to an end in a non-violent manner.
In the waning months of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln donned his warrior regalia as titular head and made peace with himself. He tabled his peculiar solution for slavery, emancipation with compensation. He made regrets for his overtures to black leaders on colonization as well as to Congress for his setting aside the two Confiscation Acts. This proposed legislation would have allowed the federal government to move and take the enslaved from their owners. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary proclamation that ordered the emancipation of slaves in Confederate territory who were not under Union control on the first day of 1863. Ten states in all were affected by this military order, which was signed on January 1, 1863.
It took the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865 to put the final nail into slavery’s coffin. We should not forget the two members of the Reconstruction Congress, Senators Hiram Revel and Blanche K. Bruce, who had a hand in shaping the legislative final nail that lead to the demise of slavery. Twenty-two black elected officials, together with their white counterparts in both the Senate and House of Representatives, went on to strengthen and forever guarantee the amenities of freedom to the newly free and their descendants by passing the Fourteenth (1868 - citizenship) and Fifteenth (1870 - male suffrage) amendments.
As we celebrate January 1, 2013 as the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, let us remain vigilant and not allow the enemies of freedom catch us napping. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and in recognition of our fallen warriors and those who continue to fight in this the 21st Century, let us shout it from the mountain top, in the valleys below, and up on the high plateaus: "Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, I am free at last!"
Dr. Albert J. Williams-Myers is a professor at SUNY New Paltz, Black Studies Department and author of Long Hammering and On The Morning Tide.