01/02/2013 02:18 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Emancipation Day in New York and Brooklyn

January 1, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

On January 1, 1863, after almost two years of uncertainty, questioning and debate, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in rebelling states as a war measure. While only a few thousand out of three million enslaved Africans were initially affected, there was a wave of celebration in African American communities, especially in the twin cities of New York and Brooklyn.

The January 1, 1863 issue of the New York Times described a "GRAND EMANCIPATION JUBILEE" on New Year's Eve at Shiloh Presbyterian Church on the corner of Prince and Marion Streets in what is now Soho.

"By 9 o'clock in the evening the church was filled to overflowing, nearly one-third of the audience being white. Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of Shiloh Church presided, and among the speakers were Rev. S.C. Jocelyn, C.C. Leigh, Edward Gilbert, Junius C. Morell, and others." Garnet was a leading Black abolitionist for over two decades whose family had escaped from slavery when he was a child. Jocelyn, Leigh, Gilbert and Morell were all prominent local White abolitionists.

"The ceremonies were opened at 10 o'clock by prayer from Rev. Danl. H. Vandewoort, colored. After this came a hymn, and the Chairman then introduced Rev. G.S. Jocelyn, who spoke of the progress of Emancipation throughout the world... The most loyal people in this country he said were the blacks, and if the president's Emancipation Proclamation had been issued on the firing of the first gun at Fort Sumter the nation would have been saved the deluge of blood that had since flowed throughout the land." Jocelyn's comments were greeted with loud applause.

At five minutes to midnight, Reverend Garnet interrupted the speaker, Edward Gilbert, a prominent New York lawyer and white abolitionist, and announced that "the audience would unite in silent prayer... A solemn dirge was then played on the organ. At the close of which the whole audience knelt for five minutes in silent prayer. At the expiration of that time the choir sang the hymn commencing, 'Blow, ye trumpets blow, the year of jubilee has come;' in which the audience joined."

"Blow ye the trumpet, blow
The gladly solemn sound,
Let all the nations know,
To earth's remotest bound:
The year of Jubilee has come,
Returning ransomed sinners home,
Returning ransomed sinners home."

Reverend Garnet "then read a dispatch from Washington, saying that President Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation at 12 o'clock M., to-day. This announcement was greeted with the most tumultuous cheers, which lasted some minutes, and were followed by three cheers for Abraham Lincoln, three cheers for freedom, &c., &c."

After the cheers had subsided, Gilbert resumed speaking. However, he "threw a damper on the enthusiasm of the audience by commencing to grumble and find fault because the Proclamation was to be 'issued as a military necessity, and not as an act of justice.' His audience did not appear to sympathize with his troubles in that line, and he soon dried up. Other speakers followed, and the jubilee was kept up to a late hour in the evening, the audience singing 'Old John Brown' and other similar songs, shouting, praying and rejoicing."

The same evening, the black population of Brooklyn, which at the time was an independent city across the East River from New York City, gathered for a three-day celebration of freedom at the Bridge Street AME church. Its pastor, Reverend James Gloucester, presided. Speakers included the prominent such as William Wells Brown and Theodore Tilton, a representative from the near-by Plymouth Congregational Church, and a man identified as a "contraband," or runaway slave.

The Brooklyn Eagle, a Copperhead Democrat newspaper unsympathetic to emancipation, printed the statement by the escaped slave in dialect, probably as a way of mocking the ideas of freedom and equality. However there is religious reverence as well as passion and poetry in his words that echoes down through the decades.

"Bruddern and sistern -- I tank God for all the mercies that he gave to be; I am very happy to say to you tonight that here's my heart and here's my hand and I specs [expects] to meet you all in de heavenly land of Jesus... I tank God what I know dat I am free, I bless God what I am not ashamed to own up to you breddern, dat I did wear de fetters, oh, yes, I was subject to the white man. I was, slave to him, when I serve him faithful and honest, and when I serve de devil... Oh, my dear breddern you don't know what slavery am. I know de Souf because you see I am a Southerner myself. My massa told me down dare, before I run away, dat if I come norf I would die. I hab come nort--no tanks to him, and I still lib. I will try to be, here, an honest man and I know dat you white people will give me work and tool; you will not turn me away, will you. Oh, beloved bruddern and sistern, way of da nation suffering so much for now, wit a war and bloodshed. It am because slavery have poisoned de hearts ob de men and ob de women both North and South."