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On This Day, September 22: Lincoln Announces Emancipation.

Emancipation had been going on for decades. And after the celebrated “Procalamation” of Emancipation, it went on still decades upon decades more. Some say it’s still going on. The actual Emancipation Proclamation– now more famous than the Constitutional Ammendment itself, did not immediately free a single slave, but it did fundamentally transform the character of the Civil War, and eventually help swing its tide toward Union victory.
President Abraham Lincoln called his cabinet together and issued the Emanicipation Proclamation On This Day, September 22, 1862. He had already signed a bill, of questionable legality, on April 16 of that year, but now he held to his guns and confirmed On This Day that by the coming January 1st, all slaves from all rebel states were free to emancipate—leave—and travel northward to safety. They came northward, many to Buffalo and other similar welcoming cities in the north.
Buffalo had been an increasing stage for the reaches of emancipation. Anti-slavery sentiment, rebellions, and pleas for emancipation were already growing for decades, like a river overtaking a shrinking island, and Buffalo played its own significant role. Consider Buffalo’s famous links to the Underground railroad, and to its hearty welcome emancipation debates, such as when after 1843, the “Appeal to Colored Citizens of the World” (begun in Boston in 1829) was republished and distributed from Buffalo by a former slave and Presbyterian Minister, named Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. From Buffalo, Garnet also distributed his own “Address to the Slaves of America”. His “Address” called for an immediate violent revolution.
Garnet’s “Address” was originally submitted as a proposal to a national convention of Black leaders in Buffalo, but was vehemently (yet only temporarily) opposed by the great Fredrick Douglas who pronounced it “too radical”. Its powerful delivery no less inspired the black northern communities to a more militant and organized response. It was also widely read by the abolitionist organizations, which by that time had exceeded one quarter of a million registered members.
Even when Emancipation’s “Proclamation” arrived, not all southern states’ slaves were emancipated. The tug of war elements of an evolving society who would eventually eliminate slavery has no pivotal day when one way of living ended and another began. Presidents from Washington to Jefferson, then Millard Fillmore to Abraham Lincoln, all suffered and struggled with leading a country divided on the issues and economics of slavery.
Lincoln’s order enfreeing slaves meant only those slaves from Rebel states, and not from the loyal border states. It also precluded freedom of slaves from states already under northern control. In a way, this news takes some of the hearty sentiment that the “Hallmark Card” romanticized notion of Emancipation Proclamation has become. In truth, Lincoln necessarily sided with the prudence of politics, in his omittances, not wishing to upset the tide of loyalties too swiftly, as painfully illogical on the moral side as it would seem now looking back.
Emancipation’s physical rule meant “Run for freedom, Slaves! And if you can get away, and if you can make it here alive, you’re welcome to stay, and help us fight.” Over 500,000 southern slaves would emancipate northward, and many came to Buffalo, and many joined the Union forces here. Of these 500,000 men, women and children, over 200,000, slaves-turned free men, became soldiers and sailors, and fought valiantly to help the north win the war. Both black and white slaves came northward.
White slaves? While not too great in numbers, they were there too. Slavery had been well known to all northern states only a half century earlier, where between the 1770’s and 1804, states had passed outright abolition or gradually allowed emancipated laws to enfree slaves—many of whom had been white political prisoners, or wage slaves, and sons of wage slaves. This however maintained its presence in the south.
How slavery crossed multi-racial lines comes under many forms and bending of rules. There was outright, abject white slavery, and there was more often the fine-tuning of speculations that a white mother bearing a white child, whose ancestry may have some apparent racial mixed blood, however small that amount, could bear ruling that the white child is a legal slave.
In an 1864 edition of “Harper’s Weekly” the picture appeared with the headline: “Emancipated Slaves, White and Colored.” It went on to describe white slaves as follows: “Rebecca Huger is eleven years old…. To all appearance she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood…. Rosina Downs is not quite seven years old. She is a fair child, with blonde complexion and silky hair…. She has one sister as white as herself…. Charles Taylor is eight years old. His complexion is very fair, his hair light and silky….this white boy…has been twice sold as a slave.”
The war season in 1862 was very precarious right about now (at this very time in mid-September)— Lincoln thought the emancipation of the slaves would help build morale in the North. The nation was approaching its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
The Union Army had just beat back the Confederates at Antietam, in the bloodiest single day of the war. All in good timing, Lincoln waited until five days later, when On This Day he read the Emancipation Proclamation.
Slaves had already acted to secure their own liberty from the very first days of the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation only confirmed their own insistence that the war for the Union was also their war for freedom. Emancipation’s Proclamation, its intent and its extent of reach may have had its flaws, but its effect added the needed moral force to the Union cause and it strengthened the Union both militarily and politically.
The road to slavery’s final destruction, both here in America, and throughout the world, continues in small to larger ways still. The American Emancipation Proclamation is a major human milestone in that journey, and has assumed a place among the great documents of human freedom.
Only months before he died, Lincoln rightly said “[The Emancipation Proclamation] is the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the 19th century.”
Frederick Douglas, perhaps the Ben Franklin diplomat of the emancipation struggle, stood tall and wise from his Buffalo podium years earlier, whence he dreamed of a day of freedom for all slaves. It didn’t come in 1863, nor in 1865, however. It was a hundred years after Emancipation, that President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, furthering the ongoing emancipating process.
Poet Robert Hayden wrote a tribute to Frederick Douglas’ life, spirit and times, in 1966, which reads as follows:
Frederick Douglas
”When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”
….And that’s the news from On This Day from Buffalo.

Written by Bill Zimmermann

Bill Zimmermann

Bill runs Seven Seas Sailing school, and is a staunch waterfront activist. He is also heavily involved with preserving, maintaining, and promoting the South Buffalo Lighthouse. When Bill first started writing for Buffalo Rising, he wrote an article a day for 365 days - each article coincided with a significant historic event that happened in Buffalo on that same day.

View All Articles by Bill Zimmermann
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