I approached another guard (almost all of them were African American) to ask where to find the Emancipation Proclamation. Her face lit up, pleased to answer me, and gave me directions.
Unlike the DI, there is no glass case with back lighting for the Emancipation Proclamation, which was mounted on a wall that was easy to overlook. But as I got close, a choking sound wrenched from my throat and I covered my mouth, aware that I was going to shriek with pain, with joy, I wasn't sure. Another patron was already standing close to the EP, and gave her space at first, but my feet moved me up close. I couldn't see the faded handwriting on the brown-with-age paper for the tears in my eyes. The woman who had been looking beside me pointed out the words I most wanted to see: .... shall be henceforth and forever free...
I knew that the document was a replica, the original too delicate for display, but it didn't seem to matter to the spirits surrounding me. I was hiccupping and feeling the hysteria of spirit possession. The woman gave me a tissue. I took one more intense look at the document, at Abraham Lincoln's firm signature, wiped my eyes and quieted.
I put my palm close to the surface of the security glass, and acknowledged the ancestors who had waited so long for this, the beginning of the end of chattel slavery in the U.S. The guard who had given me directions gave me a tender smile as I passed to go to the Archive shop to buy a souvenir copy of the E.P. What had happened to me? My heart was light and I felt transported. Stumbling around the shop, I worked to get my bearings emotionally and spiritually. I found Juadine and she took me to the bus stop to return to Philadelphia.
There was and is a lot of controversy about the value of the Emancipation Proclamation. Then and now, Lincoln gets as much criticism as praise for it: politicians then and historians now have as much respect as contempt. And with each revelation, I have wavered myself.
But the visit to the National Archive trumped all the thinking. I knew I had engaged with the hope of my ancestors as they felt it at the time. That moment for them was a giant first step. And it is
that moment that we celebrate.
Please join us Saturday morning for the celebration of that moment and to refortify ourselves for the battle for freedom that continues.