Black Reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation

This post is part of our Black History Month blog series.

Though many black leaders decried Lincoln’s tardy efforts to act definitively on slavery, when he finally did release the Emancipation Proclamation, both the freed and enslaved African-American community rejoiced at this decisive step towards freedom. Today’s black history month post will highlight a few of these responses.

As late December came and it appeared Lincoln would follow through on finalizing the Emancipation Proclamation, freed and enslaved blacks were cautious yet optimistic about the future. As the Chicago Tribune printed on December 28 “Old Abe’s Proclamation is beginning to work. The Negroes are counting the days and hours when the 1st of January shall come. They meet in little knots, and talk over the whole matter, and lay their plan for going. The day of Jubilee they think, has surely come.” As an Illinois Sergeant Major noted “Intelligence of ‘Massa’ Linkum’s emancipation proclamation has doubtless reached every negro household from Mason and Dixon’s line to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Artists also depicted this intense anticipation of the moment of freedom. For example W.T. Carlton painted Watch Meeting: Waiting for the Hour, just a few months after the Proclamation went into effect in1863, and eventually it was printed as a carte de viste.

 Watch Meeting: Waiting for the Hour (1863)

When Lincoln did sign the Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing slaves across the Confederate territory, widespread joy developed throughout the African-American community. As Frederick Douglass described it: “The scene was wild and grand. Joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression, from shouts of praise to joys and tears.” Then in 1876, reflecting back on the momentous moment, he said: “Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the president had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the president all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.”

Just like before the Proclamation was actually finalized, the moment of slaves learning of their freedom became a common trope of Civil War era artists. Perhaps the most striking of these is “Reading the Emancipation Proclamation,” from 1864. In this black and white print three generations of slave look admiringly at a Union soldier reading the Proclamation.

Reading the Emancipation Proclamation (1864)

As these and other images show, the reading of the Proclamation was happily received by the four million slaves in the country, even those that weren’t directly affected. Though the effects of the Proclamation wouldn’t be completely felt until the war ended and all slaves in America were free as per the 13th amendment, the Proclamation signaled a change was gonna come.


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