Sherry L. Howard
is cofounder of a blog network for women over the age of 40 (weareblackwomen.com), and author of the blog www.myauctionfinds.com
The document was not what I had expected. It was supposed to be yellowed, its edges torn and worn from the hands that had folded and unfolded it through the century. It didn't, as I had expected, awe me with a sense of its history, its importance.
At first, I marveled at the copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in the glass case before me. It was an easily readable document on almost crisp paper, the words free and freedom clear enough to read.
This was two weeks ago, at the Library Company of Philadelphia. I had come for my first look at a copy of the proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to free enslaved Africans, including the families of my great-grandfather Green and his wife-to-be Rebecca (he was 10 at the time, and she was 7) from their slaveholders in Georgia and South Carolina. I just had to see and read the words for myself.
The document was on a sojourn to three East Coast cities before settling in New York for a Sotheby's auction to benefit the estate of Robert F. Kennedy. The auction house was expecting a big payoff based on the document's provenance from Lincoln to Kennedy, who was an admirer of the 16th president. Kennedy was the U.S. attorney general when he purchased it for $9,500 in 1964 in the midst of the civil rights movement.
It was one of 48 souvenir copies that Lincoln signed in 1864 to be sold for $10 each at Philadelphia's Great Central Fair to benefit Union soldiers. Twenty-five copies have survived. The original is in the National Archives.
At the Library Company, I watched as each person approached the document - respectfully, carefully, taking time to read every word or discuss it with a friend or someone nearby. It was a short document; the president wrote sparingly.
One man told the Sotheby's reps on hand that he didn't realize that it was restrictive, and applied mostly to the errant Southern states that had seceded and were listed by name. Did I know that? I wondered. I combed my memory for an elementary school history lesson from where I may have learned that fact.
Lincoln was morally opposed to the notion of slavery, and used the Emancipation Proclamation as a way to cripple the South's economy and bring those states back into the fold. He knew that they depended on slavery to fuel their economy and help them sustain the war. Freeing the slaves would eliminate their source of free labor and stifle their war effort, he surmised.
The document did not entirely abolish slavery. That would not come until the 13th Amendment in 1865.
The copy of the proclamation at the library was in good company among other period works pertaining to it, including an engraving of a slave family that projected an intensity of feelings that was overwhelming.
Called "The Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation," the engraving shows a Union soldier reading the words to generations of a slave family under a fiery torch held high by a young boy. A grandmother leans forward, her hand outstretched, not sure she is hearing the words correctly; a mother clasps her hands in prayerful hope; a teen whoops his hat in the air, rejoicing; a little girl and her brother reach to their mother, unsure.
When I finally read the proclamation, it didn't evoke any fullness of heart for me. It was like reading from a history book, the words as crisp as the sheet they were printed on. No matter, though, because being able to read it - unfettered, at my own pace, without fear - was what this document and others like it were about.
Unlike the family members in the engraving and my own ancestors, I could "read" the words for myself, because to a large degree, I'm living the "forever free" that Lincoln had written for them. In his autobiography Up From Slavery, educator Booker T. Washington recalled the tears streaming down his mother's cheeks after hearing the words. She leaned over and kissed her children, happy for them and for herself for having lived long enough to see this day. Her son went on to become a resourceful man - the founder of Tuskegee Institute 25 years later.
By the way, the Kennedy proclamation sold for $3.7 million last week.