Niagara Gazette

September 25, 2012

BRADBERRY: Free at last ... but when?

By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — So, it turns out that President Lincoln’s initial Emancipation Proclamation was actually issued 150 years ago this week, not on Jan. 1, 1863, as has been taught for so long that we all believed it along with the wide-held myth that the Civil War was fought to unify the nation and not to end slavery.

Well, truth is, Lincoln released the lesser-known initial Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862 — 100 days before the final version was unveiled. The first document is finally earning the attention it deserves as historians like Edward Ayers, President of the University of Richmond among others have been preaching and more historians begin to recognize that the disputes over the expansion of slavery and the cry for abolition were the principle causes for the war, not just the preservation of the union.

"All our thinking about this has undergone remarkable recasting over the last 50 years," Ayers said. "People begin now with slavery as the fundamental fact and less with union as being the sole focus of attention."

Last Monday, with a forum moderated by Ayers at the Smithsonian Institution, a panel of experts discussed the steps that eventually led to the proclamation.

The only known surviving original copy of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln's handwriting is making an eight-city tour of New York State beginning last week at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City while other exhibits will feature copies of the final version in the months leading up to the January anniversary.

The 6500 square-feet exhibition will be on display in Buffalo Oct. 5-6 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Initially designed by Lincoln to convince the South to voluntarily abolish slavery, he eventually realized that he could not force the Confederacy to cease its "rebellion" against the United States and win the war without using his military power.

We now know that Lincoln drafted the preliminary Proclamation over the summer of 1862 but held off on announcing it because of the tide of the war; after the Battle of Antietam in late August, he finally decided to release it.

Historians, mired in debate and controversy for the past 150 years about Lincoln's painfully deliberative approach point out that neither version of the proclamation covered five slave-holding Union border states that were freed in separate federal actions, but as Ayers says, most scholars now view Lincoln as shrewd.

As Brett Zongker noted in his recent article, “Lesser-known Emancipation Document Gets Spotlight “ (Huffington Post, Sept. 21 2012), “Slaves also had decided by the time Lincoln was drafting his proclamation in the summer of 1862 that they had a role to play in the war”, says historian Thavolia Glymph of Duke University.

They were flocking to Union soldiers to declare allegiance with the north.

"The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation essentially affirms what the slaves have been saying all along – that you can't win it without us," Glymph said.

Lincoln had considered a number of ideas on how to end slavery. In 1861, though it was never enacted, he announced a plan for Delaware and other border states that would pay people to free slaves they owned, and, according to some historians, he also contemplated encouraging slaves to return to Africa.

By the 1970s there was considerably more information available about Lincoln, the Civil War, and the former slaves’ actual contributions to the development of the United States. This was the result, in part, of the civil rights movement's drive to infuse black history into the mainstream American consciousness through the media and especially in the classrooms.

Until now, there has been little written history available about the real connections between the pre-Civil War Underground Railroad, in the Niagara Falls region, African Americans and Afro-Canadians, for example.

Quite a few escaped slaves made it all the way to Canada and became true Loyalists, pledging their allegiance to the Queen of England rather than affiliating with a country that refused to acknowledge that they were human beings, a country which was enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law, which permitted their legal hunting and capture.

And, as we are now learning, quite a few escaped slaves who chose to remain on this side of the border worked here, a good number as waiters at the renowned Cataract House and at a number of other hotels in the city collaborating with quite a few abolitionists, black and white, to free people from slavery’s reign and to end that evil institution.

In fact, Lincoln and his family are known to have been visitors here as guests at the Cataract House as early as 1848 during the rising height of the simmering anti-slavery Free Soil Party, two years before the Fugitive Slave Act was signed into law by men seeking to stem the flow of escaped slaves seeking freedom in neighboring Canada.

Ontario recognizes its debt of gratitude for the sacrifices that many non-whites made to the founding of Ontario. United Empire Loyalists' Day is celebrated in Canada every June 19, the same day African-Americans celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, known throughout the United States as "Juneteenth."

New freedoms were found in Canada at the time of the Loyalists that were not to be found in either Britain or the United States. On July 9, 1793, the Legislature of Upper Canada passed an act that put an end to slavery. This was 50 years before the same thing happened in Britain and 70 years before the famous Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.

A substantial number of black former slaves had fought for the British Crown and had been freed. This group settled not only in Ontario, but Nova Scotia and other British colonies in the Caribbean.

Of course there remains a great deal more to be understood and celebrated about the contributions of Lincoln and the Africans to the development and rich history of the Niagara Frontier on both sides of the border.

One way to accomplish this might be to visit the exhibition while it is on display in Buffalo next week, or better still, help bring the original Emancipation Proclamation to Niagara Falls; it could eventually, if all goes as planned, some day be exhibited at the newly restored Customhouse which will house our Underground Railroad Interpretive Center.

Why not?

Contact Bill at