Editor’s note: What follows is a speech by Richard Nelson on the anniversary celebration of Emancipation on June 19, 1871. Nelson was an African American newspaper publisher and political leader. He was a federal customs inspector in Galveston and postmaster for Virginia Point. In 1880, he was secretary for the Republican state convention and later he ran as an independent Republican for the U.S. House of Representatives. He owned, edited and published The Representative in Galveston, which was the state’s first black-owned newspaper, and later the Freedman’s Journal. Nelson died in Galveston on Aug. 7, 1914.
I feel the weight of the honor conferred upon me by the kind partiality of my friends in selecting me to speak to you on the anniversary of the birthday of our freedom; and while I feel sensibly indeed, that my feeble abilities are overtaxed, I shall not shrink from the task, well knowing, that the same kindred spirit which animates my heart on this occasion, thrills with ecstasy each throbbing heart within the sound of my voice, and that the same partiality which called me here will protect me from too severe a criticism in this new field of labor and of love.
Had I been called upon to plow the field, to plant, to toil, to labor under the direction of some master, such would have been an old familiar calling. But to be called upon to speak to you of that bright boon, so brilliantly foreshadowed in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created with the equal right to life, to liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that such rights are unalienable;” I’m filled with wonder and amazement that my race was so long denied the boon so boldly proclaimed as belonging to all creation alike.
Ninety-five years ago, American independence was declared, and five years ago that sweet sound reached our ears in the proclamation, we this day celebrate as one of emancipation from slavery.
Memory itself must forever punish us if we can forget that blessed boon so dearly bought, yet so freely given. It’s not saying too much when we as a race, declare our never-ceasing gratitude to that noble Union Army that plucked us as brands from the burning and made us free. All hail the Proclamation of Emancipation.
My fellow freemen, why do we linger round the sacred thought that life is only worth itself when possessed in freedom? Because it’s the birthright of every sacred element of mankind. Without freedom, man is not man; he is but a thing, an animal, a slave. But in this land, now we’re realizing the full inspiration that animated the fathers when they penned the Declaration of Independence nearly 100 years ago.
Let us this day renew our love of that spirit which came hovering over our heads in the words of our Declaration of Freedom from the head and heart of that God-given inspiration, of that martyred, now sainted President Abraham Lincoln, and teach our children to honor his memory, as the white man’s father taught his children to revere the name of the beloved Washington. He is to us, what Washington is to our white brethren. He gave to them liberty and freedom, and Lincoln gave to us the same.
Let us not forget either to honor always that noble soldiery who went forth with life in hand and death in the van to win our freedom. I never seen a Union soldier that I don’t want to grasp him by the hand and say I thank you from an honest heart. But I’m too tedious.
I will close with a call from three cheers for freedom and equal rights to all, and I say all honor to the Proclamation Day. May we live many years to celebrate the anniversaries as they come and go, each one lending a brighter ray to freedom’s cause. Remembering, that on this day throughout this now land of perfect liberty, nearly four million of one race are this hour holding a jubilee and a thanksgiving as a rich tribute and a boon to freedom’s cause.