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Lincoln's Handwritten Emancipation Proclamation Goes on Display in Harlem

By Jeff Mays | September 21, 2012 10:12pm

HARLEM — Looking at two drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Friday, high school students Asiah Thomas, 16, and Mecca Jabar, 15, were both struck by how short the four-page document was that freed more than 3 million slaves.

"It"s really important for African Americans because it's our heritage. It's what our families went through," said Thomas, a junior at Thurgood Marshall Academy.

"Our generation would have not made it far without it," added Jabar, also a junior at the school.

For the first time in 150 years, the only remaining version of the Emancipation Proclamation handwritten by Abraham Lincoln is on display with the official preliminary copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that gave the president's historic decrees the force of law.

"In 150 years these documents have not sat next to each other since they were in the presence of Abraham Lincoln," Schomburg Director Khalil Gibran Muhammad said.

He said the documents, drafted and signed in 1862, "meant the ability to love, cherish and live in harmony with one's family."

"Freedom was the precondition for actualizing one's most precious dreams," Muhammad told students gathered to view the document.

Saturday will mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's signing of the official preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

The documents will remain at Schomburg for viewing through Monday before launching on amulti-city tour.

"It's such a powerful and important piece of history that is made so much more by seeing the document written in Lincoln's own hand," said John B. King Jr., commissioner of the New York State Education Department, who authored the exhibit with Muhammad and Harold Holzer, chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

Lincoln donated the preliminary handwritten document to the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which raffled it in Albany to raise money to support the Union war effort.

New York State purchased the preliminary handwritten copy from abolitionist Gerrit Smith. He had purchased 1,000 raffle tickets at $1 apiece to win the document. The official preliminary copy is kept in the National Archives.

The document shows Lincoln navigating the political turmoil of the time as he sought to maintain the Union, using the ending of slavery to do so. Lincoln's fingerprint smudges were even present on the preliminary document, written in July. It served as a warning to the states of Lincoln's intentions.

The official preliminary document was signed on Sept. 22, 1862. Lincoln signed the formal Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the South on Jan. 1, 1863.

"What we see are the political calculations that unfolded in those four months," said Muhammad. For example, hundreds of thousands of slaves swelled the Union's military ranks after hearing about the guarantees of freedom in the Emancipation Proclamation.

Also on display with the documents is a draft of a speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave in 1962 in honor of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. In it, King calls upon the nation to "make its declarations real."

"The first step to freedom with the Emancipation Proclamation was just the beginning, not the end, of a journey that continues," said Muhammad.

King, the education commissioner, said the document is more timely than ever.

"Lincoln was able to navigate the Civil War and preserve the Union, and the election of our first African-American president symbolizes the completion of a journey," King said.

"The Civil War was fought to resolve an unanswered question in America's founding. Now you have the election of an African-American president which signals that America is a place where people are defined by their talents and ideas," he added.

Travone Williams, 17, a junior at Thurgood Marshall Academy, said it was enlightening to see how Martin Luther King Jr's speech connected with the Emancipation Proclamation.

"You read about the Emancipation Proclamation and how it freed us but it didn't. In King's time and even today we are still struggling with certain issues," Williams said.

"It shows that it takes steps to get to where you want to be," he added.

"The First Step to Freedom," sponsored by the Board of Regents, the New York State Museum and Schomburg will be on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Lenox Ave. at 135th Street, through Sun., Sept. 24. Call (212) 491-2200 for more information.