Engraving by Thomas Nast, circa 1865
Library of Congress

One hundred and fifty years ago this Sunday, the shackles of bondage were finally shorn from every former slave in the United States. Now a group of influential African Americans are seeking to have Dec. 6 formally recognized as “Abolition Day.”

“Abolition Day marks a key moment in history and should not be overlooked,” says Judge James Wynn of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “It isn’t often we can look at a specific date and say evil ended that day. That is why we would like citizens to petition the government to formally recognize Dec. 6 as Abolition Day.”

NAACP President Cornell William Brooks calls the day a moment that speaks to who we are as a country. “As we grapple with some of the most challenging civil rights issues of our times,” he says, “we take note of the fact that while the president’s pen inscribed the 13th Amendment into the pages of history, it is the blood, sweat and tears of Americans that keeps this moment alive in the heart of this country.”

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On Dec. 6, 1865, the U.S. Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It formally abolished slavery in the nation, reading in part: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Two years before that, on Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring, “All persons held as slaves … are and henceforward, shall be free.” But it applied only to the states that had seceded during the Civil War.

“Most people think the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves,” explains John Whittington Franklin, senior manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

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But it didn’t.

Slaves in Washington, D.C., had been freed even earlier than that, on April 16, 1862.

“It made it an attractive place for enslaved people in the vicinity,” Franklin says, “so folk flocked to Washington.”

But not until the 13th Amendment was ratified was the end of slavery nationwide grounded in the Constitution.

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“At the time it was written, African Americans weren’t free, unless they had been freed by other means,” Franklin notes. “Everyone else lived in a society that celebrated freedom … that had freedom as a core doctrine but was denied to African Americans. … Only when the 13th Amendment was passed were all people free.”

The Smithsonian’s Franklin notes that two other nations, both the United Kingdom and France, have days commemorating the abolition of slavery. The United Nations recognizes Dec. 2 as the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. That marks the day in 1949 when the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.

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“Today, governments, civil society and the private sector must unite to eradicate all contemporary forms of slavery, including forced labor,” said U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon in a statement. “Together, let us do our utmost for the millions of victims throughout the world who are held in slavery and deprived of their human rights and dignity.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, says he is attempting to persuade House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to support what he calls “an appropriate commemoration” in Congress. “We want to highlight the importance of this momentous occasion, and make sure every American knows how important this is,” Butterfield says.

The group is trying to get 100,000 signatures on WhiteHouse.gov by Dec. 19, asking the government to formally honor “this significant date in history by officially recognizing December 6 as Abolition Day.” As of close of business on Dec. 4, there were fewer than 300.