Emancipation Proclamation Declaimed

They don’t come near the soaring words of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural or the poetic rhythms of the Gettysburg Address. In fact they are dull governmental bureaucrat-ese of an executive order that was largely politically and militarily motivated.

Yet the Emancipation Proclamation in a stroke freed tens of thousands from slavery and redirected American history down a new path of civil rights, for all.

Those were some of the lessons celebrated Saturday morning as actor Norman Thomas Marshall read the words of the proclamation to 40 people gathered under a bright sky at Long Wharf Pier.

They were there to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its promulgation and to link it to the earlier 1839 civil rights victory in the trial of the Amistad mutineers, which organizers celebrated as the “first human rights case in U. S. history.”

Click here for the complete text of the proclamation, and commentary.

At the time, and since, it has been the subject of controversy in part because it applied only to slaves in states that had seceded from the Union; in addition, by the proclamation’s terms, if a state decided to cease rebelling, it could keep its slaves.

Click on the video at the top of the story to hear the sixth and seventh paragraphs of the nine-paragraph document that concludes: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

Allan Appel PhotoThe event was a public history lesson in particular for Yolanda McIver of New Haven, who was attending in part to fulfill a two-to-four-page essay assignment for her class in African American history at Gateway Community College.

She had to write about the Amistad trial or the Emancipation Proclamation. To that end she had found the very best place in town to bring herself Saturday morning, along and her three kids, Matthew, Millicent, and London.

Al Marder of New Haven’s Amistad Committee and the Connecticut Freedom Trail was the chief organizer of the event.

Marder began what was in effect a public history seminar by citing how appropriate a location Long Wharf Pier was for the commemoration. “This pier was built by William Lansom, an ex-slave,” so that vessels with heavier cargo could unload closer to the Farmington Canal, whose New Haven section Lansom also helped to build, Marder noted.

Next up to continue the lesson was Fredrica Gray of Amistad Freedom Schooner America. (The replica ship was to be in New Haven, but mechanical problems prevented it.) She asked how many kids in the audience knew who Sengbe Pieh was. (He was the West African rice farmer who led the revolt on the Amistad. and went on trial in New Haven in a landmark civil-rights case.)

No one in the audience raised their hands.

“I read that his [President Lincoln’s] hand was shaking when he signed [the Emancipation Proclamation]. Fear and courage, I guess, go hand in hand,” she said.

“We tend to forget what causes pain, like slavery,” said state Sen. Toni Harp, another of Saturday’s speakers. “As African-Americans we’re told to be ashamed of slavery.”

By the time the gathering dispersed and Yolanda McIver went off to tour the deck of the Schooner Quinnipiack (which was substituting for the Amistad), she had gathered a lot for her paper.

And her kids now knew who Sengbe Pieh was.

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