February 1st signifies the day that kicks off Black History Month — the time of year that America highlights the rich and often forgotten history of Black people in the United States.
But what many don’t know is that there was a precursor to Black History Month’s annual tradition.
In 1948, President Harry Truman declared February 1st “National Freedom Day” — a day dedicated to commemorating the historic signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln on February 1, 1865.
Although the day was not recognized as a bank holiday, President Truman wrote that he wanted “the people of the United States to pause on that day in solemn contemplation of the glorious blessings of freedom which we humbly and thankfully enjoy.”
But the idea for National Freedom Day did not stem from President Truman. It was, in fact, the culmination of a years-long campaign by accomplished African-American activist, academic, military officer, educator, and banking entrepreneur Richard R. Wright.
Richard R. Wright was born into slavery on May 16, 1855, in Dalton, Georgia. He was 9-years-old when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, at which point his mother packed up and moved the family to Cuthbert. As a child, Wright attended Storrs School (now known as Clark Atlanta University), where he received an exceptional education.
When a retired Union general paid a visit to the school, he asked what message the young Black boy would like to relay to the Northerners; the legend goes that Wright told the older gentleman: “Sir, tell them we are rising.” The exchange went on to inspire the poem “Howard at Atlanta” by Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier.
But this poetic turn-of-phrase was just the first of many of Richard R. Wright’s contributions to American culture. Wright was a Renaissance Man in every sense of the word. In his lifetime, he founded two schools, one bank, became a high-ranking military officer, and of course, established the unprecedented National Freedom Day Association.
Wright was headed into his nineties when he became determined to commemorate the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed — a day that formally ended the evil practice of slavery on American soil and ensured that no person would ever be forced into slavery in this country again. 86-year-old Wright founded the National Freedom Day Association to lobby the U.S. government to officially recognize February 1st as “National Freedom Day.”
It took six years for the U.S. government to recognize the value of such a day, and both Congressional houses finally agreed to make February 1st National Freedom Day in 1948. Unfortunately, Wright was not alive to see his dream become a reality — he passed away a year earlier at 92.
Without Wright’s tenacious lobbying, “National Freedom Day” would have never made way for Black History Day, which eventually made way for Black History Month. Wright was a pioneer and a visionary for African American rights and recognition. America owes him a debt of gratitude.