The Emancipation Proclamation: A Public Document

For the 150th birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Archives is displaying the original document for members of the public to visit. A'Lelia Bundles, chair and president of the board of directors of the Foundation for the National Archives, viewed the Proclamation Sunday; she discusses what the document did — and did not do — for slaves.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

One hundred fifty years ago today, in the midst of America's deadliest war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. To celebrate the anniversary, the National Archives initiated a special display of the document that continues through 5 PM today. A'Lelia Bundles is chair and president of the board of directors for the National Archives and joins us now by phone from her home here in Washington. Happy New Year. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

A'LELIA BUNDLES: Well, thank you. I'm delighted to be here from the Foundation for the National Archives.

CONAN: And, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation is an immensely important document, immensely more important moment in American history. But as, of course, we learned most recently in the film "Lincoln," it did not free all the slaves.

BUNDLES: Well, absolutely. The things that we learned in elementary school and high school about the Emancipation, was not quite the whole truth. In fact, only the slaves who were in states that were in rebellion, where Lincoln actually really had no jurisdiction, were technically freed. But it did open the door and create a wedge for freedom to finally come with the 13th Amendment.

CONAN: You wrote a piece for The Root that appeared this morning, and in it, you quote a letter that was sent to President Lincoln, I guess, about a year and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation. I wonder if you could read it to us.

BUNDLES: Absolutely. This is a letter that was written on April 25th, 1864 from a woman named Annie Davis, who was an enslaved woman who lived in Bel Air, Maryland. And she wrote this letter 15 months after the Emancipation Proclamation. She wrote: Mr. President, it is my desire to be free to go to see my people on the Eastern Shore. My mistress won't let me. You will please let me know if we are free, and what I can do. I write to you for advice. Please send me word this week, or as soon as possible, and oblige. Annie Davis.

CONAN: Those who aren't familiar - the Eastern Shore is part of Maryland, across the Chesapeake Bay. That's a heartbreaking letter.

BUNDLES: It is heartbreaking. Every time I read it, I think I - the first time I read it was two years ago. And it appeared again on the National Archives' blog this week, reminding me of the power of this letter, and my heart broke again.

CONAN: How did you find it?

BUNDLES: When the National Archives opened an exhibit on the Civil War two years ago, this was one of the documents that was in that exhibit, and it's something that wonderful historians and curators at the National Archives pulled out of this wonderful collection of billions of federal records that are housed in the building at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue.

CONAN: And it brings to mind the terrible conundrum that President Lincoln had as he approached the passage of the 13th Amendment. He needed that, he thought, to make his Emancipation Proclamation stick.

BUNDLES: Well, exactly because he had to go to Congress and get Congress to pass this bill. That's the centerpiece of Spielberg's movie "Lincoln," because slavery really had not ended in most part of the South and in many border states like Maryland.

CONAN: And there were people like - did - do we know anything other than that letter, about Annie Davis?

BUNDLES: I have tried to find some - I looked at the 1870 census, and I found a black lady named Annie Davis in Easton, Maryland on the eastern shore. Of course, with a name like Annie Davis, there's no way to be certain, but one thing that I just sort of feel in my bones that this woman - I don't know if she could read or write herself. I don't know if somebody else wrote this letter, but I know she had the wherewithal and the resourcefulness to be able to get somebody to write the letter or write it herself, the courage to send it.

And so I want to believe in my heart and in my soul that Annie Davis, like so many other enslaved people during that era and before, made their way out of slavery through their own agency. And while it took that stroke of a pen from Abraham Lincoln to create that tipping point, people were walking and fleeing and praying and escaping on their own long before that.

CONAN: And tell us about this display, this special event you're holding at the National Archives.

BUNDLES: Well, the Emancipation Proclamation that - the handwritten copy that Abraham Lincoln signed on the afternoon of January 1, 1863, there is only one original copy. That is housed in the National Archives. There are other copies that are around, but the original copy is at the archives. But unlike documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it was not written on parchment. It was written on everyday paper, and it's very, very fragile.

And through these last 150 years, it was often displayed without proper lighting and proper humidifying, and so this document is so fragile that the preservationists, the conservators at the National Archives will only allow it to be shown for 36 hours a year. And we have clustered those 36 hours into these three days - Sunday, Monday and Tuesday - of this week. So until - at 5 o'clock today, whoever is in line will be able to see it, but it is such a precious document. And more than 7,000 people have seen it in the last few days.

CONAN: And I understand there was a special delegation last night at midnight.

BUNDLES: Oh, you know, we were totally surprised. Yesterday morning, leader Nancy Pelosi came to the archives with her family, and she was so moved by it that she came back after Congress was out last night with at least 40 other members of Congress. They were there at midnight when we rang the New Year in with the bell ringing by Harriet Tubman and - reenactor, and we listened to the beautiful, beautiful voices of the Washington Revel Jubilee Singers who were dressed in period costume and sang spirituals and Gospel music, and it was just an amazing, moving, magic ceremony.

CONAN: It sounds like a great place to ring in the New Year.

BUNDLES: It was.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today.

BUNDLES: My pleasure.

CONAN: That was A'Lelia Bundles, chair and president of the board of directors of the Foundation of the National Archives. We're going to go now to the archives themselves. Ibrahim Balkhy is one of our producers, is there, with us. And, Ibrahim, what's the scene there at the archives right now?

IBRAHIM BALKHY, BYLINE: Hi, Neal. It's really crowded out here. There's about hundreds and hundreds of people waiting in line, and I'm kind of been walking around a bit. It's pretty brisk, about 45 degrees and staying just before the rain comes, I would say. And when I first got there, I saw some people who had been coming from Illinois, a woman who got off at 7 A.M. this morning to come and wait in line. She actually waited before the doors opened and entered at 8:15.

CONAN: And I - we've asked you to pull some people aside to talk to. Is there anybody there with you?

BALKHY: Yeah. Actually, I've got Dietrich right here, and he's going to talk with us right now.

CONAN: Dietrich, are you there?

DIETRICH: Hi. This is Dietrich. I'm from Alexandria, Virginia. And it's just a great time of the year to come and see the exhibit. I come from Richmond, Virginia, and (unintelligible) to the area to locate (unintelligible) areas. It's a great overall experience basically because of the historical standpoint. I was a former (unintelligible) of the Confederacy, as well as coming up to (unintelligible) area and (unintelligible).

CONAN: A lot of people would not take time out of their holiday to do this. Why is this so important to you?

DIETRICH: Why is it so important for me? It's important for me because (unintelligible) experiences in the past. Then with a lot of the issues as far as ultimate struggle and also competing in life, as well as my own. So just coming from that area, I'm able to pay - take advantages of a lot of opportunity to be here, and it's been very beneficial towards me and my success.

CONAN: And how much longer are you going to wait before you can actually get in to see the document?

DIETRICH: I'm going to estimate another bit. I will just estimate about another hour or so at most.

CONAN: I hope you're warmly dressed.

DIETRICH: Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Can you - go ahead.

DIETRICH: I'm sorry. What did you say?

CONAN: No, I was just saying go ahead.

DIETRICH: Yeah. The thing about is it's just worth it overall I think to be able to see this document itself, 150-year anniversary, of course. And I just want to be a part of that, so that I could say I was fortunate I was here, able to experience that overall. It's an experience that you really can't place a value on. Just, you know, just overall, it's just a great moment.

CONAN: Dietrich, thanks very much. Can you give the phone back to Ibrahim? Thanks.

DIETRICH: Yes. Thank you.

BALKHY: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Ibrahim. Anybody else there?

BALKHY: We have Audrey with us as well. She's been waiting in line, and she's got (unintelligible).

CONAN: Audrey, are you...

AUDREY: Hello?

CONAN: Hello, Audrey.

AUDREY: Hello.

CONAN: You're on the air. Where are you from, Audrey?

AUDREY: All right. I'm down here at the archives to see the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that's signed by Abraham Lincoln.

CONAN: And why are you taking the time out on this first day of the year, on this holiday to do that?

AUDREY: Well, I wanted to come and see it because, one, I wanted to see the original document that was written by Abraham Lincoln in his own hand and signed with his signature.

CONAN: This is something that we all read about when we were in grade school. Do you remember the first time you heard about the Emancipation Proclamation?

AUDREY: I don't remember the first time, but I probably was in elementary school.

CONAN: And the idea that this actually happened, that this is an actual piece of paper that you can see, that's almost amazing, isn't it?

AUDREY: Yes, it is quite amazing that it was written, they said in the newspaper, on a poor quality paper. And I'm surprised that they would not have recognized way back when he original - wrote it that it was on a - it was a significant document, and you would have thought that they would have used a more endurable paper and handled it in a better way than was the paper says that they had done.

CONAN: You'd think so. But, well, I guess, even as smart and, well, genius as he was, Abraham Lincoln couldn't foresee everything. Thank...

AUDREY: Hello? I can't...

CONAN: Audrey, thanks very much. And could you give the phone back to Ibrahim?

AUDREY: OK. You want me to return the phone?

CONAN: Yes, if you would. Thank you.

BALKHY: Hello?

CONAN: Ibrahim, how many people would you guess are waiting on line to see the Emancipation Proclamation?

BALKHY: I would say that there is at least three to 400, maybe uppers of five to 600.

CONAN: But just remembering the size of that block, they must be turning the corner.

BALKHY: Well, I started on Pennsylvania Avenue when I got to the site and basically rounded the corner, saw another set of line of people and rounded it again. So the line actually snakes more than half of the building.

CONAN: We're talking with our editorial assistant, Ibrahim Balkhy, who's at the National Archives, where people are lined up to see the original Emancipation Proclamation as signed by Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Anybody else we could talk to?

BALKHY: We've got Thomas here, and we can talk to him right now.

THOMAS: Hey. Good afternoon. How is it going? This is Thomas Furnell(ph).

CONAN: Hey, Thomas. Nice to talk to you. Where are you from?

THOMAS: I'm originally from Columbia, Maryland, but my wife and I live here in D.C. now.

CONAN: And why did you decide to take the time out today to wait in the cold to see this document?

THOMAS: Actually, about three months or so ago, I went up to Gettysburg as part of a master's program, and probably like a lot of Americans that's probably taken Abraham Lincoln for granted and just going up there and the Gettysburg Address and having to go back and review that and just Abraham Lincoln's conviction on the Emancipation Proclamation to emancipating the slave.

CONAN: Gettysburg is a very moving experience, isn't it?

THOMAS: It is. And it really goes to the gravity of the decisions that he had to make at that time. And going back to the whole idea that we're taking it for granted that, you know, it was so important for him. And you can almost feel the weight of the world on his shoulders keeping the Union together. And the Emancipation Proclamation was - the emancipation of the slaves was kind of a side note, but it was always part of his theme, and said he was going to circle back and say, you know, I'm going to keep the Union together. And, oh, by the way, I'm going to emancipate the slaves as well.

CONAN: There...

THOMAS: So he - go ahead.

CONAN: There's also the sense that we think of history as somehow being inevitable, that these things would have happened anyway. When you go to Gettysburg, to Little Round Top, to The Bloody Angle, you realize how a close-run a thing that was. And when you're going to see this document, you realize you could have gotten out of the war without the slaves being emancipated.

THOMAS: Correct. And that's why it's important. I actually saw the Emancipation Proclamation is probably - I would say about 20 years ago or so, that they opened it up. But I hadn't really studied Lincoln and it's one of those things. I was in my 20s, and now that I'm in my 40s and I'm thinking about, again, the weight of the world that man's shoulders and everything - how important it was for him to go forth and emancipate the slaves.

CONAN: I assume you got...

THOMAS: And he didn't have to do it. It's probably what's going to happen at some point. But in the readings that I've done recently, he did what he thought was right. And I think that's important, and I think that's important for us Americans to understand it. That having leaders that have convictions in doing what it feels is right.

CONAN: I assume you've seen the movie.

THOMAS: I have not seen the movie. We're just talking about that. My father had seen it, and my cousin and I were just talking about it. I will find some time over the next, hopefully, week or so to go see the movie.

CONAN: I think it would be worth your while.

THOMAS: I can't wait.

CONAN: Thanks, Thomas, very much.

THOMAS: OK. Have a great New Year.

CONAN: You too. Ibrahim?

BALKHY: Hello?

CONAN: Ibrahim, are you there?

BALKHY: Yes, I'm here.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. And you can come on back to the shop now: or you can get in line and go see the Emancipation Proclamation, if you'd like.

BALKHY: I think if I got in line, it would take me much longer than work hours to get through and back.

CONAN: Well, you're not getting overtime for it, so that's on you.

BALKHY: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Ibrahim Balkhy, one of our editorial assistants, joining us by cellphone from the line outside the National Archives, where they're holding a special viewing of the Emancipation Proclamation. One hundred-fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln signed the document and freed those enslaved and the slaves in secession states, in rebellious states.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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