In their thought-provoking article in the Richmond Times Dispatch last month –- linked directly from the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia –- Roice D. Luke and Stacy Burrs ask: “Is the Emancipation Proclamation a significant national symbol?”
Essentially, they are asking whether it truly can be said to be an expression of the core values of our country, to the extent that we can actually take an honest look at American history with an objective eye — to encompass both the great and the not-so-great; the most valiant and the most regrettable –- in order to move forward as neighbors and citizens in the present day, in a self-governing nation.
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America …
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …
Dr. Luke and Mr. Burrs remind us:
On the Fourth of July, this nation not only celebrates its declared independence from England but reconfirms its commitment to Jefferson’s immortal words, as set forth in the Declaration, “that all men are created equal” and that men (and women) are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However powerful and inspirational Jefferson’s words may be, we all know that they stand in sharp relief against the racial chasm that divided our nation at its founding.
Who among us does not feel unease knowing that while many of our Founders railed against “absolute Despotism” — “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations” and “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” — their slaves back home cared for their crops, animals, children and properties, saw their own families torn asunder, bore the repeated lash and endured many other cruelties?
Indeed, do not our nation’s historic contradictions cry out for a strong counterweight in our national symbols and commemorations, if for no other reason than to shore up our claim to special standing in the world?
The Proclamation does that for us, and does so powerfully.
In many ways, the Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most important documents in American history – not only for Americans of African-American descent, but for all Americans, and in some sense for all those who cherish liberty around the world:
“… I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free;
and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”
It would be two years more until the 13th Amendment was passed, and five more years before the passage of the 14th Amendment — over-ruling the Supreme Court’s Dred Scot decision, that those of African descent were not eligible for citizenship in the United States.
It would be more than a hundred years more, until the nation assumed responsibility for enforcement under President Kennedy, of those Constitutional Amendments.
The Civil Right Act of 1964, made unlawful all major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women. However, It would take the execution of power though the federal government to protect those rights, as some of the states continued to oppose desegregation. These entitlements were subsequently reinforced in the following year, again, in the Voting Rights Act of 1965,
Last year – as the commemorative epic “Lincoln” was being made in Richmond, a film which above all demonstrates the significance of the passage of the 13th Amendment – the Black History Museum and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond collaborated in a project to explore more fully and to better understand the impact of slavery. The results of that collaboration, entitled “Shackles,” were shared with the public in an exhibit which ran from February through the end of June at The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.
The building currently occupied by the Museum – which had long been the only library for African Americans in Richmond, located at 00 Clay Street in the Jackson Ward area is now outgrowing its present purpose due to space limitations. There are now plans in place to move the Museum to the Leigh Street Armory, the oldest of three armories in the nation built specifically for African American Militias. The move should increase the amount of exhibition space from 8,000+ square feet, to about 22,500.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has approved the Leigh Street Armory, located at 122 West Leigh Street, for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Registry. The Greater Jackson Ward website reports:
Before the establishment of the modern National Guard, American cities sponsored militia organizations that could be called up by the governor in case of emergency. These were not only military groups, but also social clubs; and membership implied high social status. The editor of Richmond’s African-American newspaper, John Mitchell, Jr., lobbied hard for funding and construction of the Leigh Street armory, knowing its importance as a demonstration of equality with Richmond’s white militias and their facilities.
After its function as an armory was discontinued, the Leigh Street Armory served for many years as a Richmond public school. It also became a home away from home for thousands of black G.I.s as a USO center during World War II, providing an overnight stay, a hot meal, and a shower for troops traveling through Richmond by train.
Museum officials expect not only to draw tourists and townspeople, but to interact fully with the surrounding community, and create a unique educational experience. Anyone wishing to support the effort is encouraged to visit the Museum’s website.
The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is open Friday and Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; and from Tuesday to Thursday, by appointment for groups of 15 or more. Group reservations are required by calling 804.780.9093 The Museum is closed Sunday and Monday