According to historian and Sag Harbor resident William Pickens III, the path to greater freedom has been gained only by insistence and persistence.
Mr. Pickens, whose grandfather was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, shared his family’s history on Saturday as part of a joyful yet sobering celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation—a celebration that began with a chorus of bells on Saturday afternoon on the steps of the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton, and ended with jazz and poetry readings.
In between the celebrations, a roundtable discussion took root at the Rogers Mansion about the long struggle of African-Americans to gain equal rights and respect since the proclamation was signed.
The Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order given by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, proclaimed all slaves in the Confederate territory to be free. Approximately 50,000 slaves were freed immediately as a result, and the rest of the 3.1 million slaves were freed as the Union Army advanced. While the Emancipation Proclamation did not outlaw slavery, it made the destruction of slavery a war goal and was the first national movement toward the abolition of slavery, which came in 1865 with the implementation of the 13th Amendment, according to panelists leading the discussion.
Mr. Pickens—who was joined by Natalie P. Byfield of Queens, an author and a professor at St. John’s University; Joan Baum of East Hampton, an author and retired professor of the City University of New York and Marymount College; and Carol T. Spencer of Sag Harbor, a former librarian and the founder of Diaspora Books—noted that race relations between African-Americans and white people deteriorated quickly in the mid-1800s and only got worse when slaves were freed across the country after the 13th Amendment took effect in 1865.
“My family was half free and half slave,” Mr. Pickens said of his ancestors. “The free part was able to percolate in America, early. The slave part had to wait.”
Mr. Pickens, who can trace his family back to the 15th century, is descended from an interracial romance of Richard Morrey, of the prominent Morrey family of Philadelphia in the early 1800s, and a slave named Cremona. The couple, who did not hide their relationship, married and had five children, according to Mr. Pickens.
The idea of an interracial marriage in the 19th century might seem unlikely, but, according to Ms. Byfield, the propagation of anti-black ideas didn’t occur until later, as a result of a way to control economic competition, primarily in the South. “Interracial relationships existed early on, but the fear that society cannot be controlled is part of what this society has been trying to manage for a long time,” she said.
Just after the Reconstruction Era, when the South was rebuilding what it had lost as a result of the Civil War, racial tensions skyrocketed because there was a new workforce to reckon with. “There was tremendous backlash when Reconstruction ended in 1877,” Ms. Byfield said. “The South still wanted control over black labor.”
As a result, those looking to re-institutionalize slavery, enforced “black codes” to control the level of freedoms African-Americans actually had, she added.
While much has improved in recent years, the struggle to create a multicultural society has been at large for a very long time.
“The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end slavery, but it laid the foundation for these things to happen,” Ms. Byfield said of strides made against slavery and racism. “It allowed blacks in the South to fight for their own freedom, and out of it we got the 13th Amendment and Reconstruction, which was a period of hope for change.”
Tying the Emancipation Proclamation to where the nation stands today, Ms. Byfield said the inauguration of President Barack Obama has laid the foundation to a create a more multicultural society. According to Mr. Pickens, he is unlike many of the black politicians who came before him, who had been “battered and beaten” during the civil rights movement. “We’ve got an unbloodied guy,” he added.
“The country turned to him,” Ms. Byfield said. “He is a unique figure in American history.”