Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Ben and Black History Month

On January 1, 1863, 152 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. A five-page document cherished by some, ignored by others, 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. He thought that he could teach himself to read, so he did, practicing on street signs, and fruit and vegetable signs.

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 Ben, but quiet comfort in his heart. He knew his mother would be proud of how 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, look for it at This continues to be 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. Yes, this is repeated from Jan. 2013 in honor of Black History Month.
---Lois Sibley