The Emancipation Proclamation was issued and signed by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, granting freedom to slaves in the Confederacy.
Nearly a century and a half later, African-American residents in Liberty County still celebrate the momentous occasion annually, ringing in the New Year by remembering difficult journeys in the past and looking toward future growth and progress.
On New Year’s Day, 148 years after the historic document went into effect, a crowd gathered at noon at Good Shepherd Missionary Baptist Church in Allenhurst. Several attendees, Mother Dorothy Brunson, who is 101 years old, Mother Mary Baggs, who is 100 years old, the Rev. Ollie Howard and the Rev. B.T. Smith have never missed an Emancipation Proclamation commemoration service. Churches throughout the area take turns hosting the event from year to year.
The Rev. Dr. C.L. Anderson, pastor of Good Shepherd, presided over this year’s program. “We are certainly glad to host the Emancipation Proclamation program this year,” Anderson said. Music, courtesy of the church’s mass choir, filled the sanctuary.
Several other speakers took turns at the podium, including the Rev. Dr. Hermon Scott, pastor of Baconton Missionary Baptist Church in Walthourville and President of the Liberty County Emancipation Proclamation Observance Day Committee. He expressed his appreciation for the community’s continued support of the Emancipation program.
“As we celebrate the 148th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, I fear we are on the verge of amnesia. We must never forget the one-room school houses where those newly freed Negroes learned to read and write.
“We must help rekindle the education flame in the hearts of our youth, especially our males. With your help, we awarded nine scholarships last year — four to young, intelligent, promising men — and anticipate doing the same this year,” he said.
The Rev. Thurmond N. Tillman, pastor of the Historic First African Baptist Church in Savannah, the oldest African-American congregation in North America, was the keynote speaker.
His message, he said, carried a “lest we forget” theme, which the pastor expanded on with a scripture reading from James 1:22-25: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do.”
Tillman, whose church operates a museum that displays memorabilia dating back to the eighteenth century, is no stranger to learning lessons from history.
“What a wonderful occasion it is today — the celebration of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation,” he said. The pastor described the string of events that eventually led to the issuance of the liberating document.
“I have given you a brief history lesson about how we got to the Emancipation, which was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in September 1862 and went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. While the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves under federal control — with few exceptions — I want us to know that it was God who did it. We must remember God did it,” Tillman said. “We must never forget where God brought us from, where He is taking us, what He has done and what He is capable of doing.”
The speaker told the audience there are three things they must never forget to do, no matter how busy or stressful life becomes.
“We must never forget to pray,” he said. “We had praying forbearance. They were praying for God to move in His special way. Even before the slaves were free, they believed if they put God first, He would take care of them. They believed in the words of Matthew 6:33, which says, ‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’ They believed in putting God first. We used to come together as a church family and people would come and pray and pray.”
“Never get too busy to know who God is. Never get too busy to know that you can take everything to God in prayer. Never forget to say, ‘Father, I stretch my hands to thee. No other help I know. If thou withdraw thyself from me, ah! Whither shall I go?’” Tillman said.
Finally, he reminded those in attendance, “We must not forget to prepare. We come from a people who prepared themselves. Our forefathers were not able to legally read and write, but they were looking for a better day. They prepared themselves for when they would be free.”
Tillman told the story of Susie Baker King Taylor, the first African-American to openly teach former slaves in Georgia. King, born Aug. 6, 1848 in Liberty County, established a school in the county in 1867. She was also a nurse, and she published memoirs of her wartime experience. King was an example of how to prepare oneself and act accordingly, Tillman said.
“God has called us to be more than hearers of the word. We must be doers of the word. If we want to be set free, if we want to be emancipated, it is the word of God that sets us free,” he said.
Each year during the Emancipation program, awards are given to area residents for their service to the community. Oraetta Henderson of Hinesville, known to her peers as “the community musician,” received an award. Marcus Barrett, a senior at Bradwell Institute, received the youth award, and the president’s award went to Henry Relaford of Riceboro, a longtime community activist and World War II veteran.