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Slave’s Letter Reveals Pace of Freedom

Your Take: Annie Davis’ plea speaks volumes on the 150th birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation.

(The Root) — On April 25, 1864 — 15 months after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 — Annie Davis sent this letter to the White House:

Mr. President
It is my Desire to be free. To go to see my people on the eastern shore.
My mistress wont let me.
You will please let me know if we are free. And what I can do.
I write to you for advice.
Please send me word this week. Or as soon as possible, and oblidge.
Annie Davis

My heart breaks — and breaks again — every time I read Annie’s letter. I do not know her age. Or how she dressed. Or what she saw outside her window each morning.

But my soul tells me that by the time the enslaved woman mustered the courage to dispatch this missive, she had spent every waking moment for a very long time yearning for liberty. Her envelope traveled just 70 miles from Bel Air, Md., to Washington, D.C., but her anguish endures through the ages.

By the spring of 1864, Annie believed she was entitled to freedom. But in truth, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation applied only to those secessionist Southern states “in rebellion.” As a slave-holding border state loyal to the Union, Maryland was not affected by the document. Annie and its other 87,000 enslaved residents remained in limbo.

But the Proclamation had made freedom inevitable. The signals had been mounting for months. On April 16, 1862, word traveled that the District of Columbia’s 3,100 slaves had been freed by Congress — and their owners compensated by the federal government. That July, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, which permitted the Union Army to enlist black soldiers and forbade the capture of runaway slaves. On Sept. 22, 1862, Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Throughout 1863 and 1864, black families in Maryland simply had begun to walk away from the masters who owned them, making Annie’s desperation all the more acute.

Now, 150 years later, as we commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, I can’t help thinking of Annie and all our ancestors. I reflect on how they agitated for their own freedom through protest, revolt, escape, prayer and petition. I am reminded that this observance is about not only the stroke of Lincoln’s pen but also the vision of Harriet Tubman, the appeal of abolitionist David Walker and the genius of Frederick Douglass.

This year I’ll spend most of New Year’s Day at the National Archives — where Annie Davis’ letter is housed — watching families waiting in line to see the original five-page Emancipation Proclamation.

I’ll be wondering what became of Annie and how she developed her fighting spirit. Was she motivated to write her letter because she’d somehow heard that the U.S. Senate had passed its version of the 13th Amendment just 17 days earlier? Was she ever reunited with her people on the Eastern Shore? Could she possibly be the same Annie Davis who appears in the 1870 census in Easton, Md.?

I’ll wonder … and I’ll be grateful to Annie and all the ancestors whose “desire to be free” was stronger than any force they faced.

Author and journalist A’Lelia Bundles (aleliabundles.com) is the chair and president of the board of directors of the Foundation for the National Archives.

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