(The Root) — Most of the time, the original Emancipation Proclamation is put away for safekeeping, but for a few days each year, the handwritten document that formally established the freedom of all slaves in the rebel states is on display.
Marking the 150th anniversary of one of the most important American documents, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is giving the public a chance to view it from Dec. 30, 2012, through Jan. 1, 2013. That includes a late-night vigil until 1 a.m. on New Year's Eve — a tradition now referred to as Watch Night that can be traced back to Dec. 31, 1862, when abolitionists and slaves gathered together in anticipation of the issuance of the proclamation at the stroke of midnight.
We spoke to Reginald Washington, the Emancipation Proclamation expert at the National Archives, about the significance of President Abraham Lincoln's proclamation "that all persons held as slaves" within the Confederate states "are, and henceforward shall be free"; little-known facts about the historic document; and why he urges everyone who can — especially African Americans — to come and see it in person.
The Root: What were the major differences between the preliminary and final Emancipation Proclamations?
Reginald Washington: The preliminary was issued Sept. 22, 1862, and it was basically a warning to those states that were in rebellion that if they didn't return back to the union within 100 days, all the slaves in those states … would be set free.
The final Emancipation Proclamation actually invited African American men to join the military, to be a part of the Navy. It, of course, took away those things that were found in the preliminary proclamation, like Lincoln's ideas about colonization, gradual emancipation, compensated emancipation and so forth. So it appears that during those 100 days, President Abraham Lincoln evolved to the point where, while he still talked about some of those ideas, he certainly didn't feel that they would be something that would be necessary in the final proclamation.
TR: What were some of the things people are most surprised to learn about the document?
RW: Most people don't know all the ins and outs of the documents. Also, they know that it freed the slaves, but they don't know that black soldiers were invited to be a part of the freedom effort — to free not only the slaves but to free America as well.
Black men were now serving in the military to carry on the fight for freedom. I think that helped with the war because black soldiers fought valiantly, and they certainly made significant contributions. But the thinking, too, was that now they could become not only people who were being freed but people who were participating in the war.
TR: What's your most important message to African Americans to know about the document?
RW: I'd encourage them to take any opportunity to view the document themselves.
TR: Why is the experience of seeing it in person important?
RW: It's very important for people to come see it, particularly young people, because I don't know how well it's being taught in school. They get a better perspective of their freedom — how their ancestors toiled during slavery, the impact of their [ancestors'] involvement and being freed and how it impacts [young people] today.