One-hundred and fifty years ago, on New Year’s Day, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln, freeing enslaved people in states that were at war with the Union.

To commemorate the anniversary, the National Archives is offering the public a rare opportunity to view the document. From Dec. 30-Jan. 1, the proclamation will be displayed at the National Archives Rotunda Gallery in Washington D.C.

Officials said the document is so delicate that it can only be handled rarely and exposed to light for a few hours each year.

The proclamation was shown to reporters at a news conference on Dec. 22. Officials explained its history and handling since it became a part of the nation’s historical record. The pages have deteriorated with time and the ink has faded, though the scrawling print is still visible. The signatures of Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward and the Seal of the United States are discernible.

“You get the opportunity to see the document up close and personal,” said Reginald Washington, the National Archives archivist. “You get a chance to read the document and decipher what it did and didn’t do…It’s a great thing to have it on display.”

According to the National Archives website, “issuance of this Proclamation clarified and strengthened the position of the Union government, decreased the likelihood of European support of the Confederacy” and led to the enlistment of about 200,000 Blacks, both formerly enslaved people and freemen, in the Civil War.

“The Emancipation Proclamation linked the preservation of American constitutional government to the end of slavery, and has become one of our country’s most treasured documents,” the website said.

Washington said seeing the document was especially significant to him as an African American.

“The first time I saw the document was an exciting and thrilling time,” he said. “I had heard about the document and had read about it, but seeing it gave me an appreciation for what our ancestors may have endured when enslaved and then to have that change when nearly 4 million slaves in the country were freed with one stroke of Lincoln’s pen.”

Washington said the most common misconception “is that it freed the slaves.”

The proclamation clearly states that slavery was outlawed in the states at war with the Union, including the southern states that were fighting hard to preserve the brutal institution. Washington pointed out that enslaved people in the border states—Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky and Delaware—were not set freed until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865. The 13th Amendment is the document that effectively ended slavery.

Washington said issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation caused a clamor around the country, both among those who were ecstatic about the demise of slavery and those who were dismayed to see the cruel tradition come to an end.
“The Emancipation Proclamation’s contents were sent out over the wire all around the country,” he said. “Newspapers were writing about it and contained all the provisions within it. There were celebrations about it. There was a great deal of excitement. You can imagine being enslaved and now having the opportunity to be free to do…things that had been withheld from you, how much joy that would have brought.”

National Archives Foundation Chair and President A’Lelia Bundles said the significance of “this document that changed the course of American history” is even more pronounced as the nation approaches President Obama’s second inauguration.

“It’s true that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves, but it did set in motion a course of action with would change the course of America,” she said. “What it did was to allow African Americans to be part of the Union army, for Black mothers and fathers to realize that their children would be free and to set the stage for the13th Amendment. As we approach this second inauguration of Barack Obama, it is really amazing to see how far this country has come in 150 years.”

The National Archives public entrance is located near the corner of 9th Street on Constitution Avenue, NW. The Emancipation Proclamation will be on display:

• Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012 – 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
• Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 – 10 a.m. – 1 a.m.
• Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013 – 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.


Avis Thomas-Lester

AFRO Executive Editor