The thirteenth amendment is one of the most significant in American history; it abolished slavery in the USA.
Since 1948, Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the joint congressional resolution that proposed the 13th Amendment has been commemorated by National Freedom Day. It was US President Harry Truman who gave the day national recognition.
National Freedom Day is classified as a federal observance, rather than a federal holiday. So while the day is a national occasion, Americans don’t enjoy a day off work. At the time, some members of Congress objected to making the day a national holiday because, they said, February was a short month with existing commemorations.
Perhaps the day would have eventually become a national holiday had the day’s proponent, Richard Wright, lived to continue his campaign to make the day a national holiday.
The civil war had raged from April 12, 1861 until April 9, 1865.
On September 22, 1862 Lincoln first issued a warning that he would order the emancipation of all slaves in any state that did not end its rebellion against the Union by January 1, 1863.
The 13th amendment was subsequently passed in the Senate on April 8, 1864, and in the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865. The following day, President Abraham Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress.
Congress then sent the amendments to the State legislatures for ratification. However, it took until December 6, 1865 before the required number of states ratified the Amendment.
Sadly, Lincoln did not live to see the ratification of the legislation; he was assassinated on April 14, 1865, while attending the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Richard Wright was a nine-year old slave when Abraham Lincoln signed the declaration in 1865.
With the Amendment ratified, Wright was transformed from enslaved boy to American citizen.
He moved with his mother from his birthplace of Dalton, Georgia, to Atlanta, where he attended the Storrs School, a forerunner of Atlanta University. When retired Union General Oliver Otis Howard visited the school in 1868 and asked the students what message he should take to the North, Wright reportedly replied: “Sir, tell them we are rising!” – a line subsequently immortalized in a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.
In 1876, Wright was named valedictorian at Atlanta University’s first commencement ceremony. He went on to serve as a major in the US Army during the Spanish American War. He was appointed paymaster of the United States Volunteers by President William McKinley; the first African American to hold the position.
After the war, he returned to Georgia where he served as President of Georgia State Industrial College, now Savannah State University, until 1921. Here, Wright was involved with movements to mark the fiftieth and seventieth anniversaries of the emancipation declaration and the signing of the Amendment.
Wright was 67 years of age when, in 1921, he moved Philadelphia with the ambition of opening a bank which would serve the needs of African Americans.
He attended the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania before founding Philadelphia’s Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company.
Some twenty years later, at the age of 86, Wright began his campaign for National Freedom Day.
The first grass-roots celebration drew 3,500 people to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in 1942. Attendees held a mass Pledge of Allegiance before the Liberty Bell. To this day, celebrations of National Freedom Day take place beside the city’s most famous landmark.
In 1948, Wright’s intensive lobbying efforts finally bore fruit. President Harry Truman signed Public Law 842 into the federal code, giving the day national recognition.
Like Lincoln before him, Wright did not live to see the results of his effort; he died in Philadelphia in July 1947. Perhaps, were he to live, his campaign would have continued – and National Freedom Day might have gone on to achieve status as a federal holiday.
While the day continues to be marked by the laying of a wreath beneath the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the day is little celebrated even within America.
Attention has focused around other significant events in black history, including Black History Month and days such as Martin Luther King Day (the third Monday in January) and Juneteenth, which celebrates the date of June 19, 1865, when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston in Texas.
Today, National Freedom Day is gaining greater recognition, not least because of the work of President Obama while in office and his association of the day with the global problem of modern slavery.
Obama argued that “It is a day when freedom for all Americans is celebrated. Yet, almost 150 years later, while one form of slavery has been abolished in our country, another has quietly flourished around the world.”
Sarah Mendelson, the Deputy Assistant Administrator at the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict & Humanitarian Assistance at USAID, said that she hopes “February 1st will be known as ‘International Freedom Day’; celebrating the end of modern slavery around the world.”
However, there is a strong argument for not confusing the two issues. The UN already campaigns against modern slavery, marking the global efforts on International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on December 2nd each year.
The celebration of the signing of the 13th Amendment by President Lincoln is surely causing for celebration enough, as is the extraordinary life and campaign to mark the day by Richard Wright.