Thirteen bell rings signaled the commencement of morning and afternoon sessions of Peterboro Emancipation Day 2015. Thirteen recognized the Sesquicentennial of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which was introduced in Congress January 31, 1865 and ratified December 6, 1865, abolishing slavery in the United States.
August 1, 1834, was the first Emancipation Day in the British colonies and was the target date for the African-American community in Central New York to celebrate Emancipation Day in Peterboro NY in the 1920s and 30s.
Using the format of previous generations, cousins Jim Corpin and Max Smith, Co-Chairs of the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark event, opened the morning assembly with announcements and song, followed by A prayer of reconciliation by Rev. Jim Fletcher, minister of the Peterboro and Perryville United Methodist Churches. Rev. Fletcher wrote and delivered the prayer for the 2013 community commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Descendants of slave families who came to Peterboro carried the two Emancipation Day wreaths (created each year by event co-chair Carrie Martin) in the Processional to the cemetery. One wreath was laid at the simple grave of wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith and one on the grave of Harriet Russell whose stone reads “Born a Slave; Died a Freed Woman.” Descendants of Russell and other freedom seekers listened to the history of Smith’s search for Russell, and the challenge of bringing the Russell family to freedom.
The last session of the day examined current events, and the part Peterboro Emancipation Day could play in decreasing racism. Drea Finley, Assistant Dean for Administrative Advising, and Director of the First Generation Initiative at Colgate University in Hamilton NY, moderated a panel with Al Riley (Madison County NY Sheriff), Jackie Nelson (President Rome NY Area NAACP), Max Smith (Mayor of Oneida NY), and John Smith (Director of the Middle School at St. Ann’s, Brooklyn Heights NY).
The members of the panel shared their experiences growing up in Central New York, and while discrimination against them may have been without the violent experiences witnessed on television news, their life and opportunities were, and are, significantly compromised by being a person of color. The audience engaged enthusiastically in discussion with the panel members.
The consensus of the group was that starting the community conversation was a step toward the Second Abolition – the eradication of racism, part of the mission statement of the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum, which arranged the afternoon sessions for the 2015 Peterboro Emancipation Day event in the building where New York State abolitionists formed the NYS Antislavery Society in 1835.