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Alabama Voices Lincoln: ‘The Great Emancipator’ by Richard Bailey

New Year’s Day 2013 marks the sesquicentennial of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most significant documents in American history.

Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation immortalized Pres. Abraham Lincoln. For example, a 2009 C-Span poll of 64 historians reaffirmed a poll of 2000 that rated Lincoln as the best president ever. In addition, 42 cities, five national parks (the highest among presidents), a national holiday, and Ford Motor Company’s luxury vehicle have been named for Lincoln. A coin and a postal stamp also bear his likeness.

Black Americans call him the “Great Emancipator” and credit the party of Lincoln for black suffrage. Through the Reconstruction Act of 2 March 1867, former slaves in Tuscumbia became the first black voters in Alabama when they participated in a municipal election on 1 April 1867.

Through a supplementary act of 23 March, military commanders enrolled new black voters statewide and supervised an election for a constitutional convention for November. These voters became the first black voters in state history, the 45 black registrars who enrolled these 88,243 voters became the state’s first black officeholders, and the 18 constitutional convention delegates became the state’s first black lawmakers.

Appearing in north Alabama in 1863, the Union League gave former slaves enormous reasons to help organize the Alabama Republican Party. Black votes also helped to elect William Hugh Smith of Randolph County as the state’s first Republican governor in February 1868.

Black appreciation for Lincoln continued on 12 February 1900, when James Weldon Johnson recited his “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” to introduce guest speaker Booker T. Washington for a Lincoln birthday celebration; the black-owned and  –operated Lincoln Motion Picture Company of Los Angeles relied on an all-black cast to produce six family-oriented films between 1915 and 1921; and in 1926 Carter G. Woodson placed Black History Week in February to coincide with the birth dates of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Similar to the Lincoln Chapel School, Lincoln Cemetery was an asset to Primrose Heights. Ida Barnett of 516 S. Ripley Street began selling lots in 1907, months before the cemetery’s opening in March 1908; company manager R. L. Dillard sold lots for $25.00, with $1.00 down and $1.00 monthly from his Dexter Avenue office; and D. L. Brown, a later manager at the relocated N. Lawrence Street office, constructed vaults and headstones at his Tatum Street plant.

In addition, Talmadge DeWitt Bryant of Wetumpka survived a torpedo attack and the sinking of the President Lincoln in June 1918, and US Navy Cmdr Marquis Patton of Sylacauga served aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2008.
Businessman Ed Weiss of Demopolis was one of six statewide agents for the Birmingham-based Lincoln Reserve Life Insurance Company, nicknamed also called the “Giant of Dixie.”

Dentist W. F. Watkins and businessman W. J. Robinson represented Montgomery at the permanent organization of the Lincoln League of America that assembled at the Pythian Temple Theatre in New Orleans in June 1919. It sought protection for blacks regarding voting, violence, and public accommodation.

After the president signed the proclamation, he realized its limited direct effect in freeing the slaves. His proposal in the 1864 Republican Party platform called for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. He called the 13th Amendment “An Act of Justice.”

Yet southern blacks could not observe the proclamation, since the nation was still at war. That situation soon changed, too. At 7 AM on 12 April 1865—exactly four years after southern forces fired on Fort Sumter to begin the war –Mayor Walter L. Coleman and 10 councilmen surrendered Montgomery. Gen Edward McCook later spoke near the same spot where Jefferson Davis had taken his oath of office. Rejoicing blacks realized freedom had arrived.

Emancipation celebrations in the South began in earnest in 1866. Alabama celebrations have occurred in such locales as Waugh, Dothan, Mobile, Plateau, Greenville, Birmingham, Union Springs, Mount Meigs, and Madison Park.

They are usually celebrated on New Year’s Day; however, Montgomery’s 1884 celebration occurred in April, and the city’s 1911 celebration occurred on 2 January, since New Year’s Day was a Sunday.

Themes have emphasized morality, frugality, and equal rights. Some programs have urged audiences to “harbor no ill feelings towards their white brethren.” Programs include a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and a speech by a prominent person. Early celebrations were preceded by parades–with brass bands, fire companies, and local organizations–that usually began at the court house or a church. The first Emancipation parade in Montgomery began on Commerce Street and ended at the southeast corner of Mildred and Holcombe Streets—three blocks from the spot where Gen James H. Wilson had set up his command at Moulton and Church Streets in 1865 to conclude the first march from Selma to Montgomery.

These programs would not have been possible had there been no proclamation. But at 10:30 that New Year’s Day morning, the proclamation was brought to the president for his signature. He noticed an error and marked his revision. Shortly past noon, President Lincoln used the stroke of his small-barrel Gillott pen to affix his name, saying he never “felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” In fact, one historian has called it the most momentous decision an American president has ever made. (Mr. Lincoln’s pen is on loan to the Smithsonian Institution.)
Back in Alabama, Ethel L. Glenn, a Montgomerian and a Fisk University student, captured the essence of the signing with her 1907 poem, “Abraham Lincoln and His Pen,” stating,

“Aye, He signed that Declaration
Freed the Negro’s life from sin.
Aye, that noble Christian Lincoln
Signed it with his feather pen.”

Another Alabamian observed on the eve of the 1912 celebration, “He [Lincoln] will forever live in the memory of a grateful people.”

Richard Bailey chairs the Montgomery Historic Preservation Commission.

Originally Published:
Montgomery Advertiser, 1 January 2013

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