Emancipation Proclamation Sesquicentennial
years ago, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation
Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. On April 25, 1864 — 15 months after —
Annie Davis sent this letter to the White House:
It is my Desire to be free.
To go to see my people on the eastern shore.
My mistress wont let me.
You will please let me know if we are free.
And what I can do.
I write to you for advice.
Please send me word this week.
Or as soon as possible, and oblidge.
My heart breaks every time I read Annie’s letter. I do not know her
age. Or how she dressed. Or what she saw outside her window each
But my soul tells me that by the time the enslaved
woman mustered the courage to dispatch this missive, she had spent every
waking moment for a very long time yearning for liberty. Her envelope
traveled just 70 miles from Bel Air, Md., to Washington, D.C., but her
anguish endures through the ages.
By the spring of 1864, Annie
believed she was entitled to freedom. But in truth, Lincoln’s
Emancipation Proclamation applied only to those secessionist Southern
states “in rebellion.” As a slave-holding border state loyal to the
Union, Maryland was not affected by the document. Annie and its other
87,000 enslaved residents remained in limbo.
Proclamation had made freedom inevitable. The signals had been mounting
for months. On April 16, 1862, word traveled that the District of
Columbia’s 3,100 slaves had been freed by Congress — and their owners
compensated by the federal government. That July, Congress passed the
Second Confiscation Act, which permitted the Union Army to enlist black
soldiers and forbade the capture of runaway slaves. On Sept. 22, 1862,
Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Throughout
1863 and 1864, black families in Maryland simply had begun to walk away
from the masters who owned them, making Annie’s desperation all the more
Now, 150 years later, as we commemorate the
sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, I can’t help thinking
of Annie. I reflect on how they agitated for their own freedom through
protest, revolt, escape, prayer and petition. I am reminded that this
observance is about not only the stroke of Lincoln’s pen but also the
vision of Harriet Tubman, the appeal of abolitionist David Walker and
the genius of Frederick Douglass.