February 1 marks two important dates for Black people in America—while most associate it with the start of Black History Month, this day is also known as National Freedom Day. Today is also the result of a decades-long push by a Black man who was committed to celebrating our freedom from the institution of slavery.
National Freedom Day commemorates the date President Abraham Lincoln signed a joint resolution that would go on to become the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
In comparison, its predecessor, the Emancipation Proclamation, “declared ‘that all persons held as slaves’ within the rebellious states ‘are, and henceforward shall be free.’” This pronouncement was limited in scope because it exempted the North, border states, and the secessionist states already under control of the North.
As an executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation was subject to judicial review and could have potentially been overturned. In addition, the promise of freedom was dependent upon the Union winning the war over the Confederacy.
It was only because of the 13th Amendment that freeing the slaves became a nationwide policy. But it did not have an easy path—it didn’t pass the Senate until April 8, 1864 and the House in the following year on January 31. Then, the next day on February 1, 1865 President Lincoln signed “the joint resolution of both bodies that submitted the amendment to the states for approval.”
The amendment was officially ratified on December 6, 1865, becoming “the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments, adopted between 1865 and 1870 following the American Civil War.”
But this day became an official holiday, largely in part due to the efforts of a former slave, Major Richard Robert Wright Sr. “He believed that there should be a holiday for celebrating freedom for all Americans.”
Born in 1855, Wright is widely celebrated for his work as a banker, civil rights activist, educator, military leader, and politician. A few of his accomplishments include being the highest ranking Black officer during the Spanish-American War, the first president of the HBCU now called Savannah State University, and the person who “chartered the only Black-owned bank in the North, Philadelphia’s Citizen and Southern Bank and Trust Company.”
To accomplish his dream of establishing a national holiday, Wright created the National Freedom Day Association, and on February 1, 1941, “Wright invited national and local leaders to meet in Philadelphia to come up with a plan to the first of February a day to memorialize the signing of the 13th Amendment as the day to celebrate.”