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"The Day We Celebrate:" Emancipation Day in Charleston, Then and Now

On December 23, 1865 the South Carolina Leader, an African American newspaper based in Charleston, SC posted the following announcement [1]:

Barbecue -- January first, Emancipation Day, will be celebrated by a procession of the different organizations of the city. A barbecue will be held at some convenient locality during the day. July 4th is the anniversary of our national independence. January 1st is the anniversary of our national freedom. It is the day we celebrate.

Watch Night and the Emancipation Proclamation

The anticipated celebration marked the third anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by president Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. After the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln warned that if states within the Confederacy did not rejoin the Union, he would issue a decree on January 1, 1863 making slaves in rebellious states forever free.

On December 30, 1862, in churches throughout the Confederate states, enslaved congregations gathered for Watch Night in anticipation of Lincoln's decree. Together they prayed the old year out and the new year in with fervent hope of the promised emancipation. On January 1, 1863 Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves in the Confederate states forever free.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free slaves in the Confederacy, as it was unenforceable in those states, but the decree effectively shifted the focus of the Civil War from a war to preserve the Union to a war to end slavery in the United States [2].

Image: "Watch Meeting, Dec. 31, 1862--Waiting for the Hour," Library of Congress Digital Print LC-DIG-ppmsca-10980. No Known Restrictions on Publication.

Charleston's First Emancipation Day Celebration

Charleston's first Emancipation Day celebration on January 1, 1866 included a parade, barbecue and ceremony with addresses by Union military officers and leaders of the Charleston African American community. The celebration, attended by thousands of the city's residents, was organized by a committee composed of Charleston's African American community leaders.

Conditions for the parade and barbecue were not ideal. Heavy rains in the days before had left the streets and fairground muddy and wet, and the day was overcast, but that did not dampen the spirits of those present. The procession began at the Battery and made its way up Meeting, Hazel and King streets, ending at the city's Race Course.

Troops from the 33rd United States Colored Troops provided the escort followed by organizations including the Union League, Good Fellows Elect, Young Men's Brotherly Association, Planters and Mechanics Benevolent Society, the Ashley, Niagara and Comet Fire companies, Home Guard Company B and the Drum Corps of the 33rd United States Colored Troops.

The South Carolina Leader described the scene:

The throng of people followed the procession until they came to the place of the barbecue. There must have been an area of some ten acres of ground covered by the densely crowded mass of humanity. The scene, as viewed from the speakers' stand, was grand and sublime. As far as the eye could reach was one vast living, moving panorama.

For the next four hours, celebrants were regaled with speeches given by military and community leaders [3].

Charleston's Emancipation Day celebration became a tradition, one that continues to the present day.

Jubilee Project: Emancipation Day Celebration, 2013

This year, the College of Charleston's Jubilee Project, a collaborative academic and cultural project of the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) program at the College of Charleston, will combine traditional Emancipation Day celebrations with special one-time events in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Today, December 31, 2012, the City of Charleston's New Year’s Eve celebration will be followed by “Watch Night” services all around Charleston. On the stroke of midnight churches with bells will ring them out loud and clear to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation.

Tomorrow, Jan 1, 2013, the annual Emancipation Day parade will be followed by a special church service in Morris Brown AME Church at 13 Morris Street, Charleston, SC.

For more information on today and tomorrow's Jubilee Project events, please visit the Jubilee Project website at http://jubileeprojectsc.wordpress.com/.

References Cited

[1] "Barbecue." The South Carolina Leader, 23 Dec 1865, Page 2. Chronicling America, database online at Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025783/1865-12-23/ed-1/seq-2/, accessed 30 Dec 2012.

[2] "Watch Night Tradition Reaches 150th Year." Washington Times, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/dec/30/watch-night-tradition-reaches-150th-year/, accessed 30 Dec 2012.

[3] "The Day We Celebrate: Grand Jubilee. Procession and Barbecue." The South Carolina Leader, Saturday, 6 Jan 1866. Chronicling America, database online at Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025783/1866-01-06/ed-1/seq-3.pdf, accessed 30 Dec 2012.

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