How the Emancipation Proclamation Influenced African Americans


By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University

On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863. But for the enslaved, this was not the long-awaited Day of Jubilee. The Confederacy ignored the president’s decree, and the order didn’t apply to those held in areas that remained under Union control. In truth, the Emancipation Proclamation freed no one.

Painting of Abraham Lincoln and others reading the Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation freed no one after signing but had other effects. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Implications of the Emancipation Proclamation

Symbolically, though, it was important—the North was now fighting to end slavery. Strategically, it mattered, too—European powers were unlikely to side with a slavocracy over a government fighting to end slavery. 

It was most significant, though, as a military measure because it allowed African Americans to enlist in the armed forces. And enlist they did. About 185,000 Black men donned Union blue, determined to deliver a death blow to slavery.

The “Marching Song of the First Arkansas Negro Regiment”, set to the same tune as “John Brown’s Body” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, captured the fighting spirit of Black soldiers. As these volunteers went off to battle, they sang:

See there above the center, where the flag is waving bright,

We are going out of slavery; we’re bound for freedom’s light;

And we mean to show Jeff Davis how the African can fight,

As we go marching on!

Yes they said, “Now colored brethren, you shall be forever free,

From the first of January, Eighteen hundred sixty-three.”

Yes, we heard it in the river going rushing to the sea,

As it went sounding on.

Father Abraham has spoken and the message has been sent,

The prison doors he opened, and out the pris’ners went,

To join the sable army of the ‘African descent,’

As we go marching on.

They will have to pay us wages, the wages of their sin,

They will have to bow their foreheads to their colored kith and kin,

They will have to give us house-room, or the house will tumble in!

As we go marching on.

Glory, glory hallelujah.

Glory, glory hallelujah.

Glory, glory hallelujah.

As we go marching on.

This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

African Americans Fought Any Way They Could

Image of African Americans in a contraband camp
Some African Americans refused to work, while others fled to contraband camps. (Image: Mathew Benjamin Brady/Public domain)

These Black soldiers helped turn the tide of the war, fighting with bravery and determination despite facing discriminatory treatment from their side, including unequal pay, and receiving no quarter from the other side. If captured, Black soldiers would be enslaved or outright massacred. 

Several hundred Black men were slaughtered at Fort Pillow in Tennessee in April 1864 after their white commander surrendered—against their desperate pleas not to—to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Beyond the battlefield, enslaved African Americans engaged in a general strike, refusing to work at the same pace and in the same way as they did before. Others continued to flee, bound for the contraband camps that sprang up in the shadow of Union encampments, some of which evolved into free Black communities like Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

The Day of Jubilee and Its Consequences

The Civil War came to an end in April 1865 at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. But word of the Confederacy’s defeat took time to spread. 

Enslaved African Americans in Texas did not learn about it until June 19, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston with the good news. Two and a half years after Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the Day of Jubilee had finally arrived. From that day forward, Black Texans would mark the occasion with picnics and parades as a part of their annual Juneteenth celebrations.

The significance of emancipation in African American history cannot be overstated. It marked a critical turning point in the Black experience. Prior to emancipation, the primary focus for African Americans was abolition. Whether enslaved or free, Black people understood that no one could be free unless everyone was free.

Freedom Rights Are Human Rights

After emancipation, the focus shifted. Now the aim was securing freedom rights. Freedom rights were those rights that African Americans identified as the essence of freedom. Without them, emancipation would be meaningless.

Freedom rights combined two kinds of rights. The first were civil rights, or rights conferred by government and enumerated in law, such as the right to free speech, the right to vote, the right to keep and bear arms, and the right to due process under the law.

The second set of rights were human rights, or rights inherent to all people regardless of their status in society, such as the right to form families, the right to personal safety, the right to adequate food and shelter, the right to learn to read and write, and the right to enjoy the fruit of one’s labor.

Common Questions about How the Emancipation Proclamation Influenced African Americans

Q: What were the strategic benefits of the Emancipation Proclamation for the Union during the Civil War?

One of the most important benefits of the Emancipation Proclamation was that Black men could now volunteer as soldiers and be sent to the battlefield. Also, foreign countries were less interested in supporting the side that was in favor of slavery.

Q: Why is June 19th marked as Jubilee Day?

Two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Black Texans found out that they were free, even though the Civil War had ended prior to that. June 19th was the day Black Texans received the good news.

Q: Why did African Americans focus on freedom rights after the Civil War?

Without freedom rights, the Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t mean much. These rights were of two kinds. The first were civil rights such as free speech and the right to vote. The second were human rights, such as the right to marry and establish families.

Keep Reading
Lincoln’s Emancipation Plan—Three Main Features
Dismantling Slavery: The Emancipation Proclamation
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