Posted on February 1, 2016
There are several holidays surrounding the freeing of the African American slaves, such as Emancipation Day and Juneteenth.
Today, I introduce another: National Freedom Day, celebrated on February 1, commemorates the date when Abraham Lincoln signed a joint resolution that proposed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing slavery. Lincoln signed the resolution on this date in 1865.
The first time National Freedom Day was celebrated was in 1942; a wreath was laid by the Liberty Bell as a part of the ceremony. That wreath became an annual tradition.
When I read that this holiday was created due to the efforts of a former-slave, I wondered about him...
Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr., was born into slavery in Georgia in 1855. When the slaves were emancipated, Wright's mother and her son walked 200 miles to get to a place where a freedman could attend school. Wright went to the Storrs School, which was at first held in an abandoned railway car (!), but which became Atlanta University. Wright became the valedictorian at Atlanta University's very first graduation ceremony!
Wright earned both bachelor's and master's degrees.
Wright did a ton as an adult. He became principal of a school, bought a white newspaper and started one of the first African-American-owned newspapers in Georgia, served in the U.S. Army and rose to be Army Paymaster, which made him the highest-ranking African American in the Army. He established the first tax-supported public high school for African Americans in Georgia and founded an industrial college. He conferred with leaders and developed curricula and founded organizations and served as a delegate to national conventions. When he was 67 years old, he became a banker, and the bank that he founded became the largest African-American owned and operated bank in the North (at that point in his life he he had abandoned Georgia for Pennsylvania).
Wright lived to be 92 years old. The last chapter of his life, he worked to get National Freedom Day as an official commemoration, and he lived long enough to celebrate National Freedom Day five times!
It seems that Wright's efforts to create this holiday are what led to February being Black History Month!
Another contribution from Wright...
While he was still a child in school, a retired Union general named Oliver Howard spoke to the assembled students. At the end of his speech, he asked the children what message he should take back to the children of the North. Wright stood up and said, “Sir, tell them we are rising.”
Those words, “tell them we are rising,” were simple yet hopeful. They made a big impact on many, especially when they were immortalized in a John Greenleaf Whittier poem called “Howard at Atlanta.” That poem reads as extremely condescending and racist, today, but it is interesting that the white poet took inspiration from Wright's words. After quoting Wright (not by name, he spoke of him as “a little boy”), Whittier wrote:
O black boy of Atlanta!
But half was spoken
The slave's chain and the master's
Alike are broken.
The one curse of the races
Held both in tether
They are rising,--all are rising,
The black and white together!
Eventually Wright's granddaughter wrote a book with the title Tell Them We Are Rising.
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