Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ben, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Black History Month...

On January 1, 1863, 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. A five-page document, cherished by some, ignored by others, it was a surprise to a young slave, apprenticed to a tailor in Charleston, South Carolina. His father had taught him a few letters of the alphabet but he warned Ben not to let anyone know, as slaves were not allowed to read.
As Ben moved around the city on errands for his master, he looked at street signs and learned their names. In the market place, as he purchased items for his master’s wife, he knew the names that went with boxes of fruit and produce that she asked him to get for her. He thought that he could teach himself to read, so he did.
When Ben visited his mother on the plantation where she was a slave, she showed Ben a precious gold coin for which she had saved by doing extra jobs. She promised Ben he would have it when he learned to write. So he found scraps of paper, made a kind of watery ink, and practiced as he washed floors and windows, making letters and words and then washing them off before anyone noticed. And at Christmas, his mother gave him the gold coin.
But suddenly the Civil War came to Charleston. There were gray uniforms everywhere and many residents were fleeing, including the tailor to whom Ben was apprenticed. Ben was sent to live in a slave prison. Other slaves who knew he could read often begged him to read to them, and to teach them how to read. One night they woke Ben up, brought him a torch, and several pages of a newspaper. "Read it, read it," they begged. "President Lincoln wrote it," they said. Ben was surprised but he began to read. "Stand up." "Speak louder." And so he did. "All persons held as slaves...shall be thenceforward and forever free...." There was loud cheering all around him, but quiet comfort in Ben’s heart. He knew his mother would be proud of the way he read that night.
Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation is a true story, well-written by Pat Sherman and beautifully illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers,, this remains one of my favorite books.
Sherman adds that Ben’s name was Benjamin C. Holmes. He later worked in Tennessee, where he was drafted into the Confederate Army. After the war, he held several jobs, then attended the new Fisk University in Nashville. He sang with Fisk’s Jubilee Singers and traveled with them in America and Europe. He died in the 1870s, possibly from tuberculosis. Ben is one of many men and women, boys and girls we remember during Black History Month.

---Lois Sibley