Saturday, May 21, 2005

A historical document that forever changed American culture attracted hundreds of schoolchildren, scholars and history buffs to the District for the Founder’s Day Weekend Celebration.

The four-day celebration continues today with tours and reenactments. On Friday, the Emancipation Proclamation was unveiled during a ceremony and displayed at the African American Civil War Memorial Museum at 1200 U St. NW.

The document, which officially outlawed slavery and was signed by President Abraham Lincoln and other lawmakers on Jan. 1, 1863, is worth $1.5 million, and a private collector in New York collector owns it.

“The Emancipation Proclamation … altered the fundamental relationships between blacks and whites and we still find that reverberating in American society today,” said C.R. Gibbs, a historian and author of “Black, Copper & Bright: The District of Columbia’s Black Civil War Regiment,” published in 2002.

Mr. Gibbs, a presenter yesterday at a Howard University symposium, “Interpreting the Emancipation Proclamation through the Eyes of the Enslaved,” said the display is a rare opportunity to see a national treasure.

“There is a copy that is occasionally displayed at the National Archives, but this way, people have an opportunity to study it and more intimately understand the importance of the document,” he said.

Mr. Gibbs said the document is to many people, particularly those of African descent “just as significant as the Declaration of Independence.”

Frank Smith, founder and director of the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation, noted the document allowed blacks to join the armed services and said the museum was privileged to display such a piece of history. “We dream about things like this and associate them with the Smithsonian and the J. Paul Getty Collection,” he said.

Niilante Mills and his 11-year-old grandson, David, examined the document at the museum and agreed that Lincoln’s signing it was the most important act in his presidency.

They also examined the memorial and found the last name Reed. “If we do our research properly, there’s a possibility this person could be one of our ancestors,” Mr. Mills said.

The African American Civil War Memorial Museum lists the names of the 209,145 soldiers who enlisted in the United States Colored Troops. About 150,000 were enslaved when the Civil War started.

M. Mims of Northwest also brought her two grandchildren to the museum to see the document, framed and displayed on the museum’s second floor.

“I just came down here because it’s a piece of living history, and that’s why I brought my grandchildren,” Ms. Mims said. “Clearly, they’re too young to understand, but it’s about exposure. Given the divisive climate around the world, I look at this document as a reminder of what division does, in the hopes that the past is never repeated.”

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