Inauguration Day approaches, and we're all familiar by now with the
fact that 2013, which kicks off with the second inauguration of Barack
Obama on Martin Luther King Day, also coincides with the 50th
anniversary of the March on Washington, and the 150th anniversary of
the Emancipation Proclamation. So many anniversaries. Is it just a
curious coincidence? The connections are deeper than that.
To start with emancipation. The declaration, effective 1 January 1863,
proclaimed all those enslaved in Confederate states to be forever
free, but there had been emancipations before. In the Revolutionary
war, enslaved Africans were promised emancipation if they fought with
the colonies against the British. Others later won their freedom
through dint of hard work or escape, or both.
Emancipation wasn't quite what it was cracked up to be. For one thing,
the 1863 declaration didn't cover people enslaved in Union states. In
Kentucky and Delaware, 40,000 people had to wait two years for the
13th Amendment for their freedom. Even in the Revolutionary years,
there was a problem: legal freedom didn't necessarily come along with
any means to freely live.
Eleanor Eldridge, the daughter of a fighter in the Revolutionary war,
gives an account of her father and his brother, slaves who fought
bravely against all odds, and who were promised freedom and land in
what was then Mohawk territory. She wrote:
"What were toils, privations, distresses, dangers? Did they not
already see the morning star of freedom glimmering in the east? Were
they not soon to exhibit one of the most glorious changes in nature?
Were they not soon to start up from the rank of goods and chattels,
At the end of the war, the Eldridge brothers were in for a shock.
Massive inflation and a financial crash made their reward money
essentially worthless. To quote Eleanor Eldridge again:
"At the close of the war they were pronounced free; but their services
were paid in the old money, the depreciation, and final ruin of which,
left them no wealth but the one priceless gem, liberty … They were
free. Having no funds, they could not go to take