A Walk for Emancipation
BY ED JONES
For a document revered in American history, the Emancipation Proclamation can sound downright dull.
With legalistic references like “a fit and necessary war measure,” its language more often lands with a thud than soars with a prayer.
Some historians suggest the proclamation’s shortcomings extend beyond Abraham Lincoln having an off day with his prose. They argue that a limited measure, born as a strategic initiative, has been turned into a slavery-abolishing myth.
Historian Richard Hofstadter notes that the proclamation freed only those slaves over which the Union had no power. It targeted the Confederate states in rebellion and did not impact the slave-holding border states that had not seceded.
Thank goodness the closing reference to “an act of justice” was added at the last minute, after prodding from a member of Lincoln’s Cabinet.
Yet, despite all those criticisms, this legendary document, signed by Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, has earned its special place in American history. As historian Eric Foner has persuasively argued, the proclamation “marked a dramatic transformation in the nature of the Civil War and in Lincoln’s own approach to the problem of slavery.” Its issuance ensured that eventually slavery would not exist in the United States.
That’s why it is reassuringly appropriate that all are invited to gather on Feb. 16 in downtown Fredericksburg, a city that was loyal to the Confederate cause, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“From Reconciliation to Hope: A Service of Remembrance, Celebration and Witness” will be even more powerful, thanks to the participation of a national leader who has faced her own array of human-rights challenges—the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Much as Lincoln opened the door to emancipation while trying to hold together the nation, Schori has pushed the boundaries for women and minorities in a faith community scarred by divisions and secessions.
In many parts of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is part, women are not eligible to become priests, much less presiding bishops.
It seems there always will be inevitable tensions that go with efforts to tear down walls and open up opportunities. Those tensions will be reflected in the Feb. 16 events downtown.
Beginning at St. George’s Episcopal Church at 10 a.m., the service will include contributions, musical and otherwise, from many groups, including a choir from the city’s Shiloh Baptist Church (New Site).
The Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, will lead a Litany of Repentance. Schori will preside at the Celebration of Hope.
Then the Rev. Lawrence Davies, a former pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) and a former mayor of Fredericksburg, will join current Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw to lead a two-block Witness Walk from St. George’s to the slave block on William Street, and then to the nearby site where a new sculpture will be unveiled to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The sculpture is the work of the renowned artist Ayokunle Odeleye, a native of Fredericksburg who attended the old Walker–Grant High School before integration and graduated from James Monroe High School.
This 90-minute series of events will remind us that the process of reconciliation continues a century and a half after the Civil War. There is still much to be done.
On Feb. 16, those challenges will be addressed with the resounding power that comes from freedom and hope—hope for a future where racial and gender inequities will be superseded by acts and actions of justice. That’s the true legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ed Jones: 540/374-5401
Edward W. Jones is editor of The Free Lance-Star.
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