“No event in American history matches the drama of emancipation.” - Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867.
Some communities will likely wait until the sesquicentennial of Appomattox, or even later to begin thinking about how they might commemorate the emancipation of four million enslaved humans. That’s quite understandable, but everyone should be aware that emancipation stories began before that.
For example, on August 1, 1864, Harriet Jacobs spoke before an audience in Alexandria about the anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved humans in West India. The Abolition of Colonial Slavery Act had abolished slavery in the British Colonies, effective August 1, 1834.
Certainly not everyone in bondage there was freed by the act. But just as enslaved humans in the South were joyous upon hearing the news of President Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (September 22, 1862), which also had limitations, so too did those in shackles in the West Indies receive the news with jubilation.
The echoes of joy did not not fade. As Mitch Kachun (“Festivals of Freedom”) points out, “by the 1850s a vibrant commemorative tradition centered on August 1 observances of West Indian Emancipation had taken shape throughout the free states, and the freedom festivals became crucial institutions in African American political culture.”
In the summer of 1864 in Alexandria, there was not a lot of joy. Freed refugee slaves called “contraband” were pouring into the Federal City, as well as Union-occupied Alexandria. The influx of refugees created a humanitarian crisis. Disease and hunger would take the life of more than 1,700.
Harriet Jacobs was an extraordinary woman. Born in North Carolina in 1813, she brought about her own emancipation by escaping to Philadelphia in 1842. In 1861, she wrote “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Her narrative is the most widely read woman’s slave story.
A year after the publication of her book, Jacobs traveled to Washington. Such a return southward took courage, for Jacobs risked being captured and put back into slavery.
Jacobs stepped into Alexandria in 1863 and spent considerable time and effort helping the refugees who desperately needed food, clothing and shelter. Jacobs helped provide those as well as establishing the “Jacobs Free School,” located at North Pitt and Oronoco streets, where a shantytown called “Petersburg” or “The Berg” had sprung up. The school opened in January 1864.
On August 1, 1864, Jacobs gave an inspiring speech at L’Ouverture Hospital in Alexandria. Surrounded by Duke, S. West, Prince, and S. Payne streets, and spread out with more than a dozen buildings, the facility was named after Toussaint L’Ouverture, the hero of Hispaniola’s (Hayti) successful slave revolt.
The occasion for the gathering was Alexandria’s first commemoration of the British West Indies Emancipation. Author Jean Fagan Yellin picks up the story, telling us the afternoon began when a band marched on to the hospital property. Convalescing black soldiers marched in ceremonious strides. Reverend Albert Gladwin, Superintendent of Contrabands, previewed the commemorative events.
After a prayer and the band’s rendition of “Hail, Columbia,” Jacobs stepped up to the podium. She ceremoniously handing a flag to the hospital’s Surgeon in Chief, which was then briskly hoisted to the top of the flag pole. Jacobs made reference to the emancipation of enslaved humans in West India and thanked the soldiers. “You have made," she said, “the flag a symbol of freedom for the slave.”
Meanwhile, the war raged on. Grant and Lee continued to slug it out around Richmond and Petersburg, the death toll reaching staggering proportions. In Alexandria, the freed contraband, which numbered around 20,000, were dying of exposure and disease. Over 1,700 were laid to rest at the cemetery on the southern edge of the seaport.
The new bronze panels there record the losses as reflected in the Gladwin Record. It took a dozen tall panels with each one holding over 100 names to document their story.
Unfortunately, many more souls would be taken before emancipation would lead to freedom and equality walking hand in hand. We owe it to each and everyone of them to commemorate their stories in the coming years when similar anniversaries invite us to look back and examine what happened after the Civil War was over.