150th Anniversary of the Ratification of the 13th Amendment to our Constitution was Commemorated December 6th
by Dr. Carla Knorowski, Chief Executive Officer, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation
On December 6, 2015, our nation commemorated the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment to our Constitution permanently ending slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. It was a glorious way to end the year.
The Thirteenth Amendment.
Yes, 150 years separate us from a culture of slavery. A May 11, 1867 letter from former slave Hawkins Wilson to the chief of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Richmond, Virginia, reveals that while freedom was won with the abolishment of slavery, much was lost because it ever existed. In Hawkins’ letter, he states he is looking for family members from whom he had been separated after he escaped slavery some 24 years earlier. His family was split up, sold off to various slave owners. Hawkins’ heart-wrenching search reveals the insidiousness of slavery, for although it had been abolished, its effects were still being felt and would be for generations to come.
Consider the questions that plagued Hawkins for more than two decades and quite possibly the rest of his life. Where are my sisters Martha, Matilda, and Jane, my brother-in-law Charles, and my nephews and niece Robert, Charles, and Julia? Where are my Uncle Jim, Aunt Adie, and cousin Jack? Where indeed? They were sold like cattle, scattered to the winds, more specifically to multiple slave owners of the day. When Hawkins learned of Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, he no doubt was buoyed by the prospect of one day being reunited with his ten family members. And while Hawkins may have been dancing in the streets, on December 6, 1865—ratification day—clearly the insidious effects of the scourge were still omnipresent on May 11, 1867 as he sought to be reunited with his family—family—the womb of safety and security for us all, regardless of race, color, or creed. Only history knows whether Hawkins ever found his family or if they were lost to slavery.
ALPLF CEO Carla Knorowski and artist Bill Chambers unveiled his portrait of the Little Rock Nine, which will join the gallery of portraits of Lincoln Leadership Prize recipients in Springfield, Illinois.
Fast forward about a century later and we find ourselves a nation free from slavery and involuntary servitude, but entangled in a fight for civil rights. Clearly the work which Lincoln had begun almost 100 years earlier was unfinished. We had to rededicate ourselves to complete the work that the Great Emancipator had “thus far so nobly advanced.” Enter the Little Rock Nine: Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo. They were not unlike Hawkins Wilson’s family members for they, too, were products of their culture, environment, and times, being barred from entering Little Rock Central High School, not because they lived out of district, not because they were academically unprepared, but because of the color of their skin. Like Hawkins’s family some 100 years earlier, they faced a culture that sought to hold them back, deny them the very freedoms and liberties guaranteed them under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. With Brown versus the Board of Education as their blanket and shield, they eventually entered Little Rock Central High School under a constant barrage of persecution, hate, and ignorance. As Ernest Green, the first black to graduate from Little Rock Central stated, “The first one through the wall is always the bloodiest.” He and his fellow members of the Little Rock Nine should know and in the end they triumphed. Through their courageous and heroic actions, schools across the nation were desegregated. “Separate but equal” gave way to “together and equal.” We were humbled and grateful to have honored the Little Rock Nine this past May, presenting them with the much-deserved Lincoln Leadership Prize for their unwavering commitment to social justice and for their self-sacrifice in attending to that “unfinished work” our 16th President called upon us to do.
Tragically, less than two months later, we were once again faced with the reality that there is still “unfinished work” before us as nine peace-loving, devoted churchgoers were murdered—their lives snuffed out as they worshipped in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—gunned down by an assassin bent on sparking a 21st-century race war. Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson. What shall we call them, the Charleston Nine? And what shall we call Hawkins Wilson’s family, the Richmond Ten?
Let us be grateful for what we have accomplished thus far in the name of social justice, civil rights, and humanity, but let us be cognizant of the unfinished work that lies before us. As the aforementioned 19th, 20th, and 21st century examples show us, we can legislate out slavery and segregation, but we cannot legislate out racism, hate, and intolerance. That must be enculturated. In the name and honor of the 28 courageous individuals I have shared with you in this column, and in the name and honor of countless others whose person and courage have been or sadly will be invisible to us over the years, let us strive on to complete the “unfinished work” and “let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”