To most people, February 1st is viewed as the beginning of the Black History Month, but the day has a much deeper meaning. It all started in 1863 when the then-president Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves. But, he knew that just a piece of paper would not be enough– leading to the creation of the 13th amendment. This amendment formally abolished slavery and was officially approved on February 1, 1865. A hundred years later, the day became known as National Freedom Day. The day was first lobbied by a former slave from Georgia, Major Richard Robert Wright Sr. who argued that there should be a day set aside to celebrate and memorialize the signing of the resolutions proposed in the 13th amendment. His efforts were successful and even though the day isn’t recognized as a federal holiday, it marks a special month for the African American Community in the United States.
Wright was born at a time when slavery was still legal and widely practiced in 16 states. He grew up watching the campaign around the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment picking momentum and finally being enacted. Although born into slavery, these two pieces of legislation would be a turnaround for his life. He began attending school immediately after he was legally a free man, sometime after the 13th amendment’s ratification which was on December 6th, 1865, Wright grew up to be a leader in politics, in the military, academics, and business.
Wright had an expansive career, he was the first president of the Savannah State University, a civil rights lawyer, and an author. It would take him 86 years (1942) (according to the National Constitution Center) to begin a serious action to create the National Freedom Day. He would celebrate the day at the base and would even go on a nationwide lecture tour while working with the lawmakers to recognize the day. He would die without realizing his dream, in 1947, a year before the day was set in the federal code. Wright was a prominent member of Georgia’s African American Republican Party in the 1890s. In the late 1890s, President McKinley appointed Wright as the first African American major of the United States Volunteers in the U.S. Army. he then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and decided to take a course in business at the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 67.
In 1941, Wright founded the National Freedom Day Association. With that, Wright had a channel to gather the national and local leaders in Philadelphia to recognize the date the 13th Amendment resolution was signed by President Lincoln. The bill to commemorate the day was signed into law by President Truman in 1949. The holiday is celebrated on February 1st every year, predating the Black History Month, which wasn’t recognized by the U.S. government until the 70s.
As African Americans, we hold this day with so much pride, remembering all the sacrifices that we’ve made to earn our freedom. Even though true freedom is yet to materialize, at least we can look back through history and smile about the possibilities the future holds for us. President Truman wrote a proclamation that citizens should “pause” on that day and think about freedom. Which is what I would also urge all African Americans to do. Pause, reflect and ask yourself this, am I really free? True freedom for African Americans will be that day when there will be equal opportunities between the Hispanic Whites and African Americans. Together this is possible, as a community we need to come together and speak about the opportunities we need to take advantage of. There needs to be a national dialogue, else, economic freedom for our people will be just a dream.
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