Today we celebrate and commemorate the 150th anniversary of the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Following the battle of Antietam – in which the First Minnesota Regiment played a critical role – President Abraham Lincoln believed this first significant battlefield victory for the Union provided the military edge to warn the Confederacy he would free its black slaves by executive order by year's end, 1862.
I wrote about the Emancipation Proclamation in greater depth in September 2012. Click here to view the text of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Emancipation Proclamation precipitated a chain reaction of historical events which continues to this day. The trajectory of civil rights in the United States has been upward ever since, but also punctuated by failures, persistent racism and significant, multi-dimensional gaps between blacks and whites in our country.
One hundred and twelve years passed from the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson upholding "separate but equal" to the election of Barack Obama representing both a remarkable American evolution and the slow and excruciating march of progress over parts of three centuries.
Keeping in mind these twin historical pillars, the Emancipation Proclamation committee under the leadership of the Minnesota African American Museum and Roxanne Givens convened a Minnesota commemoration on December 20 in the Governor's Reception Room at the Minnesota State Capitol.
Great thanks are owed to Governor Mark Dayton, Lt. Governor Yvonne Prettner Solon and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and their staffs for their assistance and participation. Governor Dayton issued a proclamation recognizing January 1, 2013, as Emancipation Proclamation Remembrance Day. Governor Quie also honored the commemoration with his participation.
Secretary of State Ritchie offered the following thoughts about the event:
1. The event represented three threads woven together – historical, personal and political – the three organizations that focused on the Emancipation Proclamation – the Civil War Commemoration Task Force, the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) brought these elements together into a powerful reminder of those who've come before us and the unfinished work in front of us.
2. This time of the year is one where our hearts are open to healing, appreciation, generosity – on many fronts. The event on December 20th was at the same time that Dakota and others were on their way to Mankato as part of the 8th annual ride for Healing and Reconciliation – part of the remembering and acknowledging the violence and destruction of the Dakota-US War that also took place 150 years ago.
3. The event on December 20th was a reminder that the arc of justice does bend towards justice, but that it takes human hands to make this happen – the hands of Lincoln to write the Emancipation Proclamation, the hands of Governor Quie's grandfather, a sharpshooter in the MN First Volunteers and soldier in the victory at Antietam that gave Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Proclamation, the hands of the Civil War veterans who created Minnesota’s beautiful State Capitol as a reminder of the sacrifices of those who fought and died to end slavery in our nation and the artists who painted the powerful murals that line the Governor’s Parlor that so powerfully remind us of what that sacrifice looked and felt like to those who came before us.
The setting for the commemoration was keenly appropriate. All the participants spoke under the beautiful and sweeping murals depicting the gallantry of Minnesota civil war regiments at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Missionary Ridge. (TPT’s "Almanac" recently covered the Civil War commission and commemoration.)
The speakers-noted below – all articulated important themes associated with the Emancipation Proclamation. A theme often not properly recognized was the role of Minnesota's African American community fighting for the Union in the Civil War and the history of Minnesota's African American churches in the early days of Minnesota. Local historian David Riehle noted the following important historical facts:
1. The record shows 104 African Americans (male, most historians presume) enlisted in the Union Army's U.S. Colored Troops.
2. The 1860 Census shows 259 people of African descent in Minnesota. So 40% of the African American population enlisted, and obviously a much greater percentage of the males.
3. Under the direction of the MAAM Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Project, a search has begun for Minnesota graves of African American veterans of the Civil War.
Governor Quie, grandson of Civil War veteran – wounded at Antietam – Halvor Quie traced the Emancipation Proclamation from the most sacred principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to their distillation in, at last, the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The Governor discussed the struggle converting the intent of the amendments into rights for African Americans throughout the country. He praised Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr. for having the vision for civil rights legislation protecting the vote and providing for opportunity in public accommodations, employment and housing and the fortitude to see it through the United States Senate in 1964 and 1965. The Governor then challenged in Minnesota to address among the nation's most yawning achievement gap for African Americans and Hispanics.
An artistic highlight of the commemoration was Lou Bellamy's recitation of the poem “Colored Soldiers” by Paul Laurance Dunbar celebrating the role of Union African American soldiers in the triumph of the north in the Civil War.
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Wilhelmina M. Wright reminded us of the necessity of the relentless pursuit of justice for all as integral to the advance of civil rights.
Artika Tyner, Director of Diversity at the University of St. Thomas, reflected upon the role and history of African American churches in Minnesota in connection with the Emancipation Proclamation and as fulcrums of civic engagement. On December 31, 1862, the African American community gathered together awaiting the freedom for millions of black slaves that would arrive at midnight. This became known as “Freedom's Eve.” Two Minnesota African American churches were founded in 1863: Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul and St. James A.M.E. in Minneapolis. A Watch Night service for Freedom's Eve became a New Year’s Eve tradition at the Twin Cities A.M.E. churches. Tonight, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation Watch Night observances will be held at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church from 9:00 p.m. to midnight. GFMC is located at 2600 East 38th Street in Minneapolis. St. James AME church in Minneapolis founded in 1863, which originated the concept of Watch Night in Minneapolis, will be joining Greater Friendship for a joint service. Pilgrim Baptist Church will hold a Watch Night Service from 10:00 p.m. to midnight (732 West Central Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55104).
Great thanks are owed to Judge LaJune Lange for her leadership as emcee of the commemoration as well as Prof. Peter Rachleff, Mary Franklin, Tsidra Jones, Coventry Cowens, Sharon Garth, Chris Taylor, Laura Zelle and Susie Greenberg of the Minnesota African American Museum's Emancipation Proclamation Committee. The Emancipation Proclamation Committee also appreciated the participation of the Minnesota National Guard led by Col. Eric Ahlness, Diversity Program Manager. Thank you also to the Bremer Foundation whose generosity supports the efforts of the JCRC in this commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation. This included two days of programming in October with Freedom Rider Ernest “Rip” Patton in partnership with St. Cloud State University, the Minnesota National Guard, Fairview Alternative High School in Roseville, and the Guthrie Theatre. The 1961 Freedom Rider campaign of desegregation occurred shortly before the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and was a milestone in the trajectory of civil rights springing from this most momentous executive order of Abraham Lincoln.