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National Freedom Day

by Andrew Roush
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The central document of the U.S. government, the Constitution, does not require the approval of the president in order to be amended. One amendment, however, was signed by a president: the thirteenth amendment. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, it officially made slavery illegal in the U.S. While the well-known Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves living in the Confederate states, the Thirteenth Amendment formally and permanently made the practice against the law of the land across the nation.

The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865, when Georgia became the 27th state to approve it out of the then-total 36 states. Iowa was the 31st state, voting for ratification on January 15, 1866. The document shown here is the joint resolution passed by Iowa’s House and Senate and printed on March 30. It lists the names of all the Iowa legislators in the general assembly who voted for ratification, and includes a few small engravings depicting allegorical symbols of liberty and other patriotic images. (Source: https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/ratifying-thirteenth-amendment-1866)

In honor of the amendment, National Freedom Day is commemorated each Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, throughout the U.S. Find resources for teaching and celebrating the occasion below.

Honoring History

It was a former slave who led the movement to create National Freedom Day. Born in 1855, ten years before the thirteenth amendment was ratified, Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr. was a remarkable businessman and community activist. Wright began advocating for a day to celebrate the freedoms of all Americans in 1941. In 1947, a year after Wright’s death, Congress passed a resolution making National Freedom Day official.

  • Learn more about Major Wright in this brief profile from the Library of Congress.
  • You can also check out this profile of Wright, originally published in the Wharton Alumni Magazine from the University of Pennsylvania.

Exploring the Amendment

Understanding the legal, political, economic, and social conditions during the Reconstruction period of American history is an important part of building an understanding of the historic day. A number of digital resources can assist you and your students in discovering this vital history.

  • The National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution project includes the text of the amendment, interpretations of its meaning, and A/V resources related to the amendment, including blog posts, podcasts, videos, and more.
  • FacingHistory.org shares an in-depth unit on the Reconstruction era, complete with videos, primary source documents, video lessons, and many more tools to teach a complete unit.
  • The Annenberg Guide to the United States Constitution includes the text of the amendment and an interpretation of it, along with many other resources for exploring the Constitution, its impact, and perspectives on how it’s been interpreted over time.
  • The University of Maryland Baltimore County Center for History Education has a full lesson plan on the topic, “Helping to Move On? An Analysis of the Reconstruction Amendments,” perfect for secondary grades.
  • Explore the document and the amendment’s journey to ratification on this page from Teaching American History.
  • Check out this lesson guide, including related links, documents, and video, from PBS Learning Media.
  • Teachers with younger learners might enjoy the description and links provided at MrDonn.org.
  • Go in depth with this activity-filled lesson from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 
  • Students in the upper grades can explore the Reconstruction amendments and voting rights in this lesson from Teaching Tolerance.

Contemporary Reflections

Recent film projects have discussed the history and effects of the thirteenth amendment and other Reconstruction and civil rights laws. In 2016, the documentary film “13th” explored an enduring “loophole” in the amendment and how it continues to affect Americans today. 

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole. This clause, which allowed that involuntary servitude could be used as a punishment for crime, was exploited immediately in the aftermath of the civil war and, [“13th” producer] DuVernay argues, continues to be abused to this day.

Source: Ide, Wendy. “13th review – fiercely intelligent prison documentary” https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/09/13th-review-bracing-fiercely-intelligent-prison-documentary-ava-duvernay

Check out the links below to learn more about films related to this topic.

  • This lesson plan from Ann Michaelson helps educators looking to watch the “13th” documentary as part of their teaching.
  • You can find a short description of “13th” here, which Teaching Tolerance recommends for upper grades and professional development. 
  • Teaching with Movies offers this detailed lesson plan based around the film “Lincoln,” itself based on Doris Kearnes Goodwin’s groundbreaking historical book Team of Rivals.

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Photo by Ronê Ferreira from Pexels

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