— As New Year’s Day approached 150 years ago, all eyes were on President
Abraham Lincoln in expectation of what he warned 100 days earlier would be
coming — his final proclamation declaring all slaves in states rebelling
against the Union to be “forever free.”
began Dec. 31, 1862, as many black churches held Watch Night services,
awaiting word that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would take effect
amid a bloody Civil War. Later, congregations listened as the president’s
historic words were read aloud.
would not end slavery outright and at the time couldn’t be enforced by
Lincoln in areas under Confederate control. But the president made clear
from that day forward that his forces would be fighting to bring the Union
back together without the institution of slavery.
his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, after the
Battle of Antietam, announcing that if rebel states did not cease fighting
and rejoin the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in rebellious states or
parts of states would be declared free from that date forward.
This year, the
Watch Night tradition will follow the historic document to its home at the
National Archives with a special midnight display planned with readings,
songs and bell ringing among the nation’s founding documents.
document bears Lincoln’s signature and the United States seal, setting it
apart from copies and drafts. It will make a rare public appearance from
Sunday to Tuesday — New Year’s Day — for thousands of visitors to mark its
anniversary. On New Year’s Eve, the display will remain open past midnight
as 2013 arrives.
“We will be
calling back to an old tradition,” said U.S. Archivist David Ferriero,
noting the proclamation’s legacy. “When you see thousands of people waiting
in line in the dark and cold ... we know that they’re not there just for
words on paper.
“On this 150th
anniversary, we recall those who struggled with slavery in this country, the
hope that sustained them and the inspiration the Emancipation Proclamation
has given to those who seek justice.”
Archives allows 100 visitors at a time into its rotunda, where the
Emancipation Proclamation will be displayed along with the Constitution and
Declaration of Independence. On the busiest days, 8,000 people file through
for a glimpse of the founding charters.
re-enactments are scheduled to continue throughout New Year’s Day. The U.S.
Postal Service will unveil a new Emancipation Proclamation stamp as well.
display is just one of many commemorations planned in Washington and in
churches nationwide to mark the anniversary of Lincoln’s actions to end
slavery and end the Civil War.
Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, where the 16th president spent much of his
time and where he began drafting the proclamation, is displaying a signed
copy of the document through February. It also will host its own New Year’s
The Library of
Congress will display the first draft handwritten by Lincoln. It will be on
display for six weeks beginning Jan. 3 in the library’s exhibit, “The Civil
War in America,” which features many personal letters and diaries from the
Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture just
opened its newest exhibition, “Changing America,” to recount the 1863
emancipation of slaves and the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights. It
includes a rare signed copy of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that
ultimately abolished slavery.
The Watch Night
tradition also continues at many sites Monday night.
the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, where abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a
member, will host a special 150th anniversary service.
say this is a chance to remember what the Emancipation Proclamation actually
Lincoln wrote in
part: “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said
designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward, shall be
He went on to
say the military would recognize the freedom of slaves, that freed slaves
should avoid violence and that freed slaves could enlist in the U.S. armed
forces. It did not immediately free a single slave, though, because Lincoln
didn’t have the power to enforce the declaration in the Confederacy. Still,
many slaves had already been freeing themselves, and the document gave them
protection, said Reginald Washington, an archivist of African-American
history at the National Archives.
“It was a first,
important step in paving the way for the abolishment of slavery with the
ratification of the 13th Amendment,” he said.
It also brought
“a fundamental change in the character of the war,” Washington said. “With
the stroke of Lincoln’s pen, a war to preserve the union had overnight
become a war of human liberation.”
became a symbol of hope for nearly 4 million slaves and a confirmation that
the war should be fought to secure their freedom, said Washington, who is
retiring from the Archives after nearly 40 years. Some historians and
scholars have come to view to proclamation as one of the most important
documents in U.S. history.
proclamation has been rarely shown because it was badly damaged decades ago
by long exposure to light. After it was signed at the White House, it was
kept at the State Department for many years with other presidential
proclamations. In 1936, it was transferred to the National Archives.
Records show it
was displayed between 1947 and 1949 in a “Freedom Train” exhibit that
traveled the country. Then it was shown briefly in January 1963 to mark the
100th anniversary of its signing.
It wasn’t until
1993 that the Emancipation Proclamation has been shown more regularly to the
public. In the past decade, it has been shown in 10 other museums and
libraries nationwide for no more than three days at a time to limit its
exposure to light. A 2011 exhibition at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn,
Mich., that was open around the clock drew lines amounting to eight-hour
waits to see the document.
rotate which of the five pages are shown to limit their light exposure. In
Washington, they will display pages two and five, which is Lincoln’s
signature page. High-quality copies are shown in place of the other original
shown, and that’s part of our strategy for preserving it and making it
accessible,” said Catherine Nicholson, an archives conservator. “Our goal is
to keep its current condition so that it can be enjoyed not only by people
today, but by future generations.”