BOSTON — Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the American South.
Huge celebrations erupted in Boston, an abolitionist center, on New Year’s Day in 1863. And on First Night 2013, the anniversary was marked as part of Boston’s festivities.
Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society performed the “Hallelujah Chorus” before an audience at Boston’s Music Hall 150 years ago, awaiting word of signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Monday at First Night Boston, the same Handel and Haydn Society performed it again at the African Meeting House.
Beverly Morgan-Welch of the Museum of African American History said thousands gathered in Boston on that long ago New Year’s.
“There are two locations: the Boston Music Hall and Tremont Temple,” Morgan-Welch said. “And there are about 6,000 people who are gathered, most of whom are black. But of course, white abolitionists and the biggest names in the country are here in Boston. This is the huge public celebration.”
In 1863, the hymn “Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow” was on the program at Tremont Temple. Among those gathered was former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
“While the people in Boston, once they finally learn that the president has signed the Emancipation Proclamation and understand exactly what the final document says, they throw their hats in the air,” Morgan-Welch said. “They sing and shout with jubilee, and as Douglass says, it is the first time he knows what joy truly is.”
“If you look at the black papers of the day, there were similar events all over the country, each of them waiting for the news of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Donald Yacovone of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute said. “And why was there such urgency? Because they weren’t convinced it was going to happen. That’s why.”
“They also want to hear exactly what it says,” Morgan-Welch said. “Now, they know it doesn’t free everyone. It freed those enslaved in states and territories in rebellion against the Union. That didn’t include states that were in the Union where people were enslaved. Native American nations, some, had blacks who were enslaved and it did not free them.”
Morgan-Welch and Yacovone said the Emancipation Proclamation laid the groundwork for the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery.
“It [the Proclamation] didn’t free all that many slaves, but was critical in transforming the war from one to only save the Union, to one to attack the institution of slavery,” Yacovone said. “And the fact that it led to the enlistment and recruitment of so many African-Americans in the army is also hard to overplay. It’s very critical.”
“It is a huge step for the country,” Morgan-Welch agreed.
This year, the Museum of African American History and Harvard’s Du Bois Institute are among those celebrating the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation and African-American military service.
“For us, it’s appropriate to recognize Jan. 1, , as the beginning of an enormous process that transforms American history, the beginning of the second founding of the United States,” Yacovone said. “It is the beginning of a process that helps end slavery and transforms race relations in the United States, but it’s a very long process that we’re still engaged in to this day.”
This year, on the 150th anniversary of its signing, the Emancipation Proclamation is being displayed by the National Archives, along with the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.