On Jan. 1, 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an announcement that all slaves in the Confederate states were now free.
According to Prof. Anthony Pinn, director of the Center for African and African American Studies at Rice University, “Lincoln used the freeing of enslaved Africans as a way to turn (the tide of) the Civil War, hoping to give an advantage to the Union forces.”
The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in many other states.
While it did not completely end slavery, it began a movement that changed the face of the Civil War, which enlisted nearly 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union Army and America’s freedom.
That led to the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution by Congress a little more than two years later on Jan. 31, 1865, and its ratification by the required 27 of the then 36 states on Dec. 6, 1865, which ended slavery in the US.
“The 13th Amendment changes the Constitution – the guiding vision of collective life based on rights, opportunities and liberties – to reflect this new status for the formerly enslaved,” said Pinn, “and also forced the country to wrestle with a population of Americans who could no longer legally be…dealt with through property law.”
As America celebrates Black History month in February, Pinn believes it is important to recognize the 13th Amendment some 157 years after its enactment to free enslaved Africans.
“But it didn’t end racism, it didn’t end white supremacy, and it didn’t end white privilege,” Pinn emphasized. “I think it’s important to remember that the 13th Amendment allowed bondage in the case of crimes. And this loophole was used to further debase and control African Americans.”
While Pinn acknowledged the importance of the 13th Amendment, he also pointed out that African Americans were free, “but this freedom didn’t come with economic resources, strong political safeguards and social inclusion.”
“The 13th Amendment didn’t prevent whites from issuing false charges to imprison freed African Americans and in this way secured virtually free labor. Others were coerced into working on the farms where they had been enslaved, and this with low wages that kept them economically bound to the land owner,” he said.
In that regard, freedom for Blacks must be taken into perspective and given context, according to Pinn.
“The freedom promised by the 13th Amendment didn’t result in African Americans having full opportunities and full inclusion in the promises of this country.”
When Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president of the US in 2008, he became the first African American to hold that office, which was considered a milestone in American history.
As important as Obama’s achievement was to the Black community, that alone did not solve the problems African Americans face in the US, said Pinn.
“The presidency of Obama didn’t mark an end to racism. These are individual examples of success in a country still guided by white supremacy and that still advances white privilege. Blacks in prominent positions didn’t stop the killing of innocent Black people in so many other locations.”
So what would America look like today if the 13th Amendment did not exist?
“It is hard to say,” said Pinn, “particularly when we keep in mind the ways in which white supremacy continues to damage Black life through various forms of violence. Think about the murder of people like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and George Floyd.”
Pinn said dehumanization of Blacks has taken place throughout history, before and after the Civil War. He does not downplay the importance of the 13th Amendment, but he says inhumane treatment of Blacks, in many ways, is no different today, despite the abolition of slavery more than a century ago.
“Black life before and after the 13th Amendment is marked by violence, marginalization and too many forms of death,” he said.
While there are societal truths America must face with the realization that freeing slaves does not equate to being free from racism and discrimination, Pinn urged Americans to celebrate the many contributions African Americans have made to the US.
There are many prominent Black leaders and icons who have influenced the foundation and growth of America, from pioneers to poets, from activists to athletes, from ministers to musicians, including Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Arthur Ashe, Michael Jordan, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
Pinn said these pillars of America must never be forgotten, because without these African Americans and their enslaved ancestors, the US would not exist.
“Black History Month provides an opportunity to reflect on the importance of African Americans to the social, political, economic and cultural life and development of the United States,” he said. “This has to involve more than simply remembering the freeing of enslaved Africans. It has to involve recognition of the role African Americans have historically played in the development of this nation.”