Silas X. Floyd, Augusta, Georgia, January 1, 1909
On New Year’s Day 1863, African Americans at Beaufort, South Carolina, witnessed the moment when the Emancipation Proclamation became law. Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson went before the assembled crowd and solemnly read the president’s proclamation. He remembered that “there suddenly arose…a strong but rather cracked & elderly male voice, into which two women’s voices immediately blended “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty…” the quavering voices sang on, verse after verse; others around them joined;…I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap…the life of the whole day was in those unknown people’s song.”
As soon as the war ended, many whites organized to oppose black freedom. By the 1890s, southern states passed laws legally segregating black and white Americans. During the darkest days of Jim Crow segregation, black Americans continued to press for full citizenship. Each Emancipation Day, African Americans organized parades reminding the black community and the entire nation of a commitment that remained unfulfilled. These local celebrations set the stage for the national push for freedom in the 20th century. Building upon the legacy of their forebears, Americans gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to realize the promises set in motion by the Emancipation Proclamation.