February is National African American History Month, also known as Black History Month in the United States. One significant event in African American history happened 151 years ago. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, announcing “that all persons held as slaves” in rebellious areas “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” While this Executive Order only freed slaves living in Confederate states during the Civil War, it nevertheless ultimately paved the way for the eventual abolition of slavery in America and became an important aspect of President Lincoln’s legacy.
In his proclamation of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 2013, President Barack Obama encouraged all Americans to acknowledge and celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and “reaffirm the timeless principles it upheld.”
Image: Illustration of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, in Washington. Source: AP
As we honor African American heritage this month, I’m reminded of the Emancipation Proclamation and the “timeless principles” President Obama was speaking of.
A symbol of equality and justice
The significance of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Proclamation during the Civil War was two-fold for African Americans. As mentioned earlier, not only did it lay the foundation for the eventual freedom of all slaves, it also allowed black men to enlist in the Union Army and Navy. This strategic Presidential “war measure” provided African Americans the opportunity to join in the fight for their freedom, in effect enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.
As history teaches, the Civil War was initially about preserving the Union; however, the Emancipation Proclamation also made it about freeing the slaves– “an act of justice” that would grant African Americans, and generations to come, equal citizenship in the U.S.
For this reason, the Emancipation Proclamation remains a widely recognized symbol of freedom in American History that will forever be revered in Black History.
Image: Engraving by W. Roberts with the text of the Emancipation Proclamation. Source: Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID pga.04067.
GPO’s role in the Emancipation Proclamation
But the Emancipation Proclamation also played a significant role in GPO’s own history. Did you know… the then newly established Government Printing Office printed the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation for President Lincoln as one of its first major tasks? The original printer’s proof version was displayed for six months at GPO’s 150th History Anniversary exhibit that opened in June of 2011. I (along with many other GPO employees and visitors) was given an extraordinary opportunity to personally view the original historic document, which contained the printer’s actual proofing marks with requested changes!
Image: Former Public Printer William Boarman views original GPO printer’s proof copy of the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation with Washington DC Mayor Vincent Gray at the GPO history exhibit. In 1862, GPO printed the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation in general orders format, issued as an Executive Order from President Lincoln in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. GPO printed 15,000 copies for the War Department, which were distributed to military commanders and their troops and diplomats in foreign countries. The copy displayed at GPO contained proofing marks; those corrections were made in the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Source: GPO
The GPO history exhibit is currently open to the public with free admission, Monday through Friday from 8am to 4:30pm at GPO’s Washington, DC, headquarters at 732 North Capitol Street NW. Unfortunately, the landmark document, which was on loan for six months from the Library of Congress, is no longer available for viewing, but many more historic exhibits are on view for free.
To learn more about GPO’s role in the printing of this historic document and other important Federal publications, read GPO’s 150th anniversary history book, Keeping America Informed: The United States Government Printing Office 150 Years of Service to the Nation.
However, you can view and/or read the entire Emancipation Proclamation online at the National Archives website or visit the National Archives in Washington, DC, to see the original signed document.
Teaching the Next Generation about the Emancipation Proclamation
To help parents and educators teach children about the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation and its role in Black History, the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) published the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation: Commemorative Coloring Book: Forever Free.
Image: Buy the family friendly 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation: Commemorative Coloring Book: Forever Free.
This 150th anniversary commemorative publication about the Emancipation Proclamation is not a typical children’s coloring book. The wealth of information contained within this great little read makes it useful as a history book for the entire family, not just for kids. For example, I learned about the origins of “Watch Night”:
On December 31, 1862, many enslaved African Americans gathered in churches and prayed. Throughout the night, they waited for the moment when the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect. This special night became known as “Watch Night,” and continues to be celebrated today in many African American churches on New Year’s Eve.
The publication opens with a brief history about President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It also provides portraits and short biographies describing historical events involving African Americans, such as Harriet Tubman, a former slave and Union spy who also helped recruit black troops, and Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist who helped Abraham Lincoln recruit black troops during the Civil War. It even includes a reference to this famous image:
Image: By torchlight, a Union soldier reads the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ to a room of slaves and their children, 1860s. The image was published as part of the ‘Life of Lincoln: Additional View’ series by the C.W. Briggs Company. Photo credit: George Eastman House/Getty Images
Other short biographies of important figures in black history covered in this book include Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and President Barack Obama.
The National Park Service also has produced another children’s publication focusing on black history and mentioning the Emancipation Proclamation: Discovering the Underground Railroad: Junior Ranger Activity Book. Young children ranging from ages 5 to 10 and older are taught about the history of the Underground Railroad and the struggles African Americans endured in their quest for freedom. Activities include a wordsearch of terms related to the Civil War; a maze routing the journey to freedom; and a timeline highlighting significant events in Black History, such as the Emancipation Proclamation and much more. Upon completion of the activities, children are encouraged to send in their completed booklet for an official Jr. Ranger Badge. [Read about this and other Underground Railroad publications in our blog post: "The Underground Railroad Leaves its Tracks in History".]
How can you get these publications?
- Shop Online Anytime: You can buy these and other publications with FREE Standard Shipping worldwide from the U.S. Government Online Bookstore website at http://bookstore.gpo.gov:
- Buy the “150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation: Commemorative Coloring Book: Forever Free.“
- Buy “Discovering the Underground Railroad: Junior Ranger Activity Book“.
- Buy “Keeping America Informed: The United States Government Printing Office 150 Years of Service to the Nation.”
- Click here to shop our entire Black History Month collection.
- Shop our Retail Store: Buy a copy of any print editions from this collection at GPO’s retail bookstore at 710 North Capitol Street NW, Washington, DC 20401, open Monday–Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Federal holidays, Call (202) 512-0132 for information or to arrange in-store pick-up.
- Order by Phone: Call our Customer Contact Center Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5:30 pm Eastern (except US Federal holidays). From US and Canada, call toll-free 1.866.512.1800. DC or International customers call +1.202.512.1800.
- Visit a Federal Depository Library: Search for these in a nearby Federal depository library.
About the author: Guest blogger Trudy Hawkins is a writer and marketing specialist in GPO’s Publication & Information Sales Division supporting the U.S. Government Online Bookstore (http://bookstore.gpo.gov).
Images and additional content provided by Government Book Talk Editor Michele Bartram. Bartram is Promotions and Ecommerce Manager for GPO’s Publication and Information Sales Division in Washington, DC, and is responsible for online and offline marketing of the US Government Online Bookstore and promoting Federal government content to the public.