African slavery came to America with Christopher Columbus, and it took several centuries and a terrible war to end it. When slaves were freed, it was their Day of Jubilee, their day to rejoice and reclaim themselves. They have no one day to celebrate, but many days. This is the story of some of those days, as the South was forced to give up slavery by a war that all but destroyed the nation, and left scars in minds and hearts for generations.
Nicholas Biddle was a 65 year old fugitive slave living in Pennsylvania, but when he heard Lincoln’s call to arms in 1861, he joined one of the companies being formed. On April 18, when the soldiers were moving from one train station to another in Baltimore, Maryland, a mob formed when they saw a black man among them. Biddle was struck in the face before he could get onto the train. He was the first man to be wounded in the war, yet he and other blacks were not permitted to enlist, but traveled with companies as cooks, porters, laborers, doing anything they could to bring that Day of Jubilee a little closer to reality.
In 1862, Union soldiers freed Mary Barbour’s family. Her parents woke their three children in the middle of the night, and they dressed in the dark, confused, not understanding what was happening. They snuck out of the house without making a sound, and walked quickly to a thicket hiding a mule and a wagon. They drove through the night until they reached Union lines, and the soldiers told them that they were freed. It was their Day of Jubilee.
Elizabeth Keckley went from being a slave to being Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, and used her position to help the thousands of freed slaves living in Washington with no home, no food, and no idea how to cope with freedom. She helped make their Days of Jubilee real and successful.
January 1, 1863. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and even though it left thousands in the South still enslaved, in the North it was Jubilee. And when the news spread to the South, they fled in droves, heading for Union lines and freedom, just as Mary’s family had done, eager to celebrate their Jubilee. Many were helped by Elizabeth Keckley. Slavery was finally coming to an end.
But the war was not over. Many more people, black and white, would fight and die before peace could be achieved. They left behind their stories of pride and struggle, sorrow and Jubilee. Let them tell you about the bloodiest war our country has ever fought, and about their Days of Jubilee.