(TriceEdneyWire.com) – The church rocked to the sounds of gospel music, and people danced in the aisles at the freedom celebration on New Year’s Day.
The event: Richmond’s worship service to mark the 150th anniversary of the President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — the landmark Civil War edict he issued Jan. 1, 1863, freeing slaves in Virginia and nine other rebel Southern states fighting to uphold human bondage. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, whose un-American mission was to preserve slavery and destroy the United States.
“When I see what God has done for us, when I think of where we were and where we are, I know that God is still working miracles,” Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones, also a Baptist minister, told the nearly 700 people who packed Fifth Baptist Church in the West End.
The service was the only area event — and the largest in Virginia — to mark the proclamation that paved the way for full abolition two years later with the passage of the 13th Amendment and also opened the door for the enlistment of 180,000 Black soldiers who were pivotal in the Union victory over the Confederacy and slavery.
In welcoming participants, the Rev. Earl M. Brown, pastor of Fifth Baptist, held up a recent edition of the Richmond Free Press in which the newspaper devoted a full page to feature the full text of the Emancipation Proclamation. Rev. Brown said the newspaper’s editor/publisher, Raymond H. Boone, had provided hundreds of copies, “particularly for the young people” in attendance.
The minister urged participants to take copies to share with their children and grandchildren, citing the newspaper’s inclusion of photos of President Lincoln and the great abolitionist advocate Frederick Douglass. In the same edition, the Free Press also recognized Dr. W. L. Ransome, the late founder of the annual proclamation worship service and civil rights advocating pastor of First Baptist Church of South Richmond, of which the mayor is now the senior pastor.
Mayor Jones was among a handful of elected officials who attended the three-hour service hosted by the Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Richmond and Vicinity to mark the great occasion. This was the 74th service since the annual program began in 1940. Others included Richmond Delegates Betsy B. Carr and Jennifer McClellan, Richmond state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III and Henrico County Supervisor Tyrone E. Nelson, also pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Jackson Ward.
Sen. Marsh told the audience, “I teared up” in thinking back to the horrors that people endured before slave auction blocks were completely dismantled — begun by the proclamation. “This is just a tidbit of what African-Americans went through,” Sen. Marsh said.
He said that the state commission he chairs, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, planned to host events over the next two years to celebrate the proclamation and also is seeking to establish a Richmond monument to the great document. In a city of stone markers “to the generals who lost, it is time we do something to celebrate those who won.”
The power of faith from slavery to modern times was a major theme at the service, including the remarks of the main speaker, Dr. Leonard N. Smith, senior minister of Mount Zion Baptist Church of Arlington and past president of the Virginia Baptist State Convention, the state’s oldest organization of black churches. Citing verses from the Book of Isaiah, he said that God had been there through the “dark times then” and is there in the “dark times now” as too many suffer from unemployment, violence and poverty.
The event also included a performance of excerpts from a cantata, “Changed My Name,” in which a choir and actors recalled the brutality of the slave auctions where people for generations were bought and sold.