January 1, 2013, will mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In my new book, The Road to Frogmore: Turning Slaves into Citizens, that day became a crucial turning point for my characters. In one way or another they all witnessed the first reading of the proclamation and realized that their lives had changed forever. One spontaneous incident in particular stays with me. Here are two reactions to that incident taken from the book. The first contains an actual quote from the journal of the white commander of the First South Carolina Colored Regiment:
Reverend Mansfield French had just presented Colonel [Thomas Wentworth] Higginson with the new flag of his regiment. Higginson unfurled it and held it high for all to see. Then, from somewhere within the crowd, an elderly black man with a wavering and cracked voice began to sing, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” One by one, the people around him joined in. Those on the platform, startled at first by this unscheduled moment, stood transfixed as the notes swelled and flowed around them.
Higginson wrote of the moment in his diary: “It seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed. Nothing could be more wonderfully unconscious; art could not have dreamed of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting . . . Just think of it!—the first day they had ever had a country, the first flag they had ever seen which promised anything to their people.”
The second is a monologue spoken by a Gullah woman, a former slave, who witnessed the moment from crowd's perspective:
Den we hasta walk some mo to de big army camp uh de new colored troop. Who’d a blieved dat dere could be a whole camp full uh colored soljers, all dressed up in uniforms an actin like white folk? Hastins, he say he know where we be gwine cause he kin smell de beeves a cookin.
It were a sight fuh behold. All dem black people dere, all dressit up in dere Sunday best, an de black soljers in dey uniforms, an de white folk ridin in on dere horses an carriages. Dere be a band on de platform in front, makin hand-clappin music, an eberbody be in a good mood.
Course, de white officers, dey all hasta make speeches, mostly bout what a great day it be, an why we should all be happy an grateful. Hastins mumble dat he be grateful when he git sumptin fuh eat, but I tells him fuh hush. Den dey start wavin flags round, an dat ol man Zekial, from Mr. Eustis’s place, he start singin “Muh Country ‘Tis uh Dee.” Eberting gots real quiet, an den folk start joinin in. Eben I starts singin, an Lawd know I caint sing much.
Bout den, dis all start makin sense fuh me. Dey sayin we be really free, an dat nobody caint hinder we no mo. I bin singin dose words long time, but I neber blieved dem fore. I looks round an sees people cryin fuh joy. Aint dat be sumptin!