Emancipation Day

In honor of Black History Month, SCDNP looks at influential people and events in the African American community of South Carolina throughout the month of February.

On January 1, 1863, the dawn of the third year of a gruesome civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “all persons held as slaves” within any state of rebellion from the Union to be “thenceforward, and forever free.” Although this proclamation had many limitations and did not immediately free slaves within the Confederacy, its issuance shifted the goal of the Civil War to explicitly include the abolition of slavery in the United States to the war’s original objective of preserving the Union.

Many newspapers printed the full transcription of the Emancipation Proclamation such as the New-York Daily Tribune (New York, N.Y.), January 3, 1863.

For South Carolina – the first state to secede from the Union, the state upon whose ground the first shots of the war rang out, and the state whose black population was twice that of its white population by 1860 – the Proclamation had both immediate and lasting implications. Unlike other Union-controlled Confederate locations, South Carolina was in no way exempt from the provisions of the Proclamation (border states that never seceded as well as states already under the control of the Union army were not included).

Although it took years for slaves in South Carolina to see full freedom, the impact of the Proclamation started immediately. At Camp Saxton in Port Royal, South Carolina, thousands of African Americans gathered to celebrate Emancipation Day on the very day the Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln. Many traveled far distances to the plantation owned by John Joyner Smith to be a part of the day-long celebration that included speeches, singing, feasting, and above all, the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. An article in the Cleveland Morning Leader details the events of the occasion. According to this account, the day began with an opening prayer and the performance of an original song composed for the celebration. The Proclamation was read aloud so that all attendees could hear of their new legal status. Many speeches were given and the day concluded with a barbecue of oxen. For many of the celebrators, this was, as the article claims, “the happiest New Year’s day that has ever dawned upon them.”

“Emancipation Day in South Carolina” depicts the first celebration in 1863 (via Library of Congress)

This occasion would start a trend throughout South Carolina and other states as Emancipation Day celebrations continued on through the remainder of the war and into the Reconstruction Era. While the types and sizes of celebrations varied from location to location, they each drew large crowds and gave African Americans the chance to publicly celebrate their freedom. In December 1865, the South Carolina Leader included an announcement regarding the upcoming Emancipation Day celebration in Charleston. A few weeks later, a more detailed account of the ensuing celebration was printed.  A year later, on January 13, 1866, the same newspaper published an article relaying the events of a recent Emancipation Day celebration in Boston, Massachusetts.

The headline of an article detailing Charleston’s upcoming celebration in the South Carolina Leader (Charleston, S.C.), December 23, 1865

An announcement on December 21, 1901 in The People’s Recorder (Columbia, S.C.) for an upcoming Emancipation Day celebration

In some places, Emancipation Day celebrations are still held to honor this day and its meaning. It remains a truly significant event in the history and culture of the African American community.

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