National Freedom Day
annually on February 1st (since 1949)
National Freedom Day, which celebrates the freedom that Americans share, takes place on the anniversary of the date in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln signed a joint House and Senate resolution that proposed the 13th Amendment, which would go on to outlaw slavery after being ratified by the states. Not only does the holiday celebrate freedom, but it honors the signing of the resolution. Lincoln did not live to see the resolution ratified, as he died the following spring, but it was ratified on December 6, 1865, and the amendment was adopted on December 18, 1865.
Richard R. Wright Sr.—not to be confused with his son or with the novelist—was a nine-year-old slave in Georgia when the resolution was signed. He went on to become a community leader in Philadelphia and was involved in commemorations such as the fiftieth anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation in 1913 and the "Seventieth Anniversary of Negro Progress" in 1933. He wanted a day for freedom for all Americans, being inspired by President Roosevelt's call for Four Freedoms in the early days of World War II, before the United States had entered the war. He wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune that in order for Americans to be free, African Americans had to be included in that freedom. He then created the National Freedom Day Association and invited leaders to a Philadelphia meeting to come up with plans for a day. This predated the Civil Rights Movement by over a decade, and segregation was still legal at the time.
The first National Freedom Day was celebrated on February 1, 1942, although the day was not officially recognized by the government at the time. That year, 3,500 people gathered at Philadelphia's Academy of Music, the Pledge of Allegiance was recited in front of the Liberty Bell, and there was a parade. Wright continued to promote the day. He went on a national speaking tour, and lobbied Congress over the next five years, until his death in 1947.
On June 30, 1948, Congress passed a joint resolution designating February 1 as National Freedom Day, and President Truman signed it into law the same day. Although National Freedom Day did not become a federal holiday, as Wright had wanted, it is a part of the U.S. Code. President Truman issued a proclamation for the day on January 25, 1949, and it was first officially celebrated that year.
Some cities have festivals, parades, or other events on the day. Delegates have gathered at Independence Hall and Congress Hall in Philadelphia, and a wreath is laid at the Liberty Bell each year. Some people reflect on the freedoms we have in the United States and the importance of having them. Lessons about the topic of freedom and the significance of February 1, 1865, to American history are used in classrooms.
Although National Freedom Day was proclaimed nationally by the president, for many years it was more of a localized holiday in Philadelphia, and did not become as widespread as holidays such as Black History Month, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Juneteenth. In more recent years, it has gained more popularity online. Additionally, in 2010 and in subsequent years, President Obama designated January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and had it culminate with National Freedom Day.
How to Observe
Celebrate the day by checking for festivals or other events in your city. You could reflect on freedom by reading the 13th Amendment or other documents that address the subject, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, or President Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech. You could also read a book that explores personal and political freedoms. If you are able to travel, attending the laying of the wreath at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is a good way to spend the day, as would be seeing the Statue of Liberty in New York City. If you are an educator, incorporate National Freedom Day and the 13th Amendment into your lesson plans for the day.