The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is recognizing the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In honor of this important moment, the museum encourages visitors to reflect on the words featured in early copies of a handheld pamphlet of the Emancipation Proclamation, an original signed copy of President Abraham Lincoln’s Executive Order and an original handwritten signed copy of the 13th Amendment, all on display in the museum’s “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment are two of the most important documents in the nation’s history. They helped the country fulfill the highest ideal of liberty by ensuring a more inclusive manifestation of freedom. For more details and to learn more, visit nmaahc.si.edu/emancipation.
“It is important that we remember the hard-fought battle for freedom and what it took to ensure freedom for all,” said Mary Elliott, curator of American slavery at the museum. “The Emancipation Proclamation did not free all enslaved people. Yet, it was foundational in the march toward freedom, and it struck a mighty blow to the system of slavery. The 13th Amendment finally knocked out slavery in the nation.”
On Sept. 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. In local churches, enslaved and free people awaited the midnight hour for the Emancipation Proclamation to go into effect. The occasion became known as “Watch Night.”
Under his wartime authority as commander in chief, Lincoln ordered that, on January 1, 1863, all enslaved individuals in all areas still in rebellion against the United States “henceforward shall be free.” Pastor John C. Gibbs of Philadelphia’s First African Presbyterian Church declared, “The Proclamation has gone forth, and God is saying to this nation by its legitimate constitute head, Man must be free.” The Emancipation Proclamation also enabled African American men to enlist in the armed forces. The war to preserve the Union became a war to end slavery. The proclamation was limited in scope but revolutionary in its impact.
The 13th Amendment completed what free and enslaved African Americans, abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation set in motion. On Dec. 6, 1865, the U.S. government abolished slavery by amending the Constitution to say:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”