Celebration of Freedom will honor document Emancipation Proclamation signing reaches 150-year mark
Posted: January 3, 2013
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was “something that changed lives,” said Larry Lamar Yates. “Different people saw it in different ways.”
Local residents can get a glimpse of how Union troops and the African-American community reacted, at a Celebration of Freedom, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Clarke County High School’s auditorium.
Two figures from the Civil War era, Union Gen. Robert Milroy, who read the proclamation in Winchester in January 1863, and Harriet Tubman, who guided hundreds of escaping slaves to freedom, will discuss the document that liberated those still living in the Confederate states. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation Jan. 1, 1863.
The event, sponsored by the Josephine School Community Museum — Clarke County’s African-American Center — is free and open to the public, said Dorothy Davis, the outgoing president of the museum board.
“We think it is an important event in the history of the country,” said Davis, “especially for those of us who are descendants of slaves.”
For others, the proclamation removed “a terrible blot on the history of the country,” she added.
The two performers, who will re-enact the 19th-century protagonists, also feel the public has much to learn about the historic document.
Yates, who will portray Milroy, says the Union general, who was one of the most hated men in Winchester during the war, was an abolitionist before the war started.
“He was serious about it. It was something he believed in,” Yates said.
While Milroy’s personality apparently rubbed the residents of the city raw back in the day, Yates said the general was the first person to try to administer Winchester “in a race neutral way,” until the 1960s. “He was ahead of his time,” he added.
Yates cites a story told during Milroy’s governance, where a white woman was incensed because the general did not stop talking to two African-American women, when she entered the room but asked her to wait instead.
“That was a major faux pas by the standards of Winchester in those days,” Yates said. It spread through the town and created “a major scandal.”
The fact that Milroy is still disliked by many in the town, sparked sympathy with Yates. “I became his champion,” he said, “So I’m delighted to do this.”
While this will be Yates’ first attempt at historical re-enacting, his counterpart, LaTasha Do’zia-Earley, is the “professional.”
“Theater is my life,” she said with a smile.
A native of Portsmouth and a descendant of slaves, Do’zia-Earley came to Winchester because of Shenandoah University and its theater-arts offerings. Her own work in children’s theater has kept her in the area.
Tubman, she said, was an amazing woman, a slave, with no education, who could not read or write, who made her own decision to live free and help other slaves find freedom.
Do’zia-Earley will talk about how the Emancipation Proclamation affected Tubman’s activities.
“She took it as a sign to continue,” Do’zia-Earley said.
In fact, after it was signed, she led a big raid into North Carolina and liberated about 700 slaves, sending them to freedom on three steamboats.
Yates said it was a military expedition, and Tubman definitely led it. She may have been the first woman to lead such a military action for the United States, he added.
Tubman was courageous, Do’zia-Earley said. Once, on a train, she recognized a former owner and quickly picked up a newspaper, held it in front of her face and pretended to read. Everyone knew the runaway slave Tubman couldn’t read.
When she encountered another former owner while near her old home plantation, she carried a chicken and pretended to be on an errand for a master, to escape notice.
“She was what we call ‘street smart’ now,” Do’zia-Earley said.
Yates said he hopes those who attend the Celebration of Freedom understand the importance of this proclamation, which happened to real people and was important locally, as well as for the nation.”
“We tend to look at it from a white perspective,” Yates said, and often credit the Union with taking the moral high ground.
“White abolitionists were a minor force,” he said.
But, said Do’zia-Earley, emancipation was actually a military strategy for the Union.
It’s important, she said, to tell the true story of emancipation as a military move and outline the efforts of enslaved people, like Tubman, to create their own liberty.
Yates quotes former slave and Civil War political spokesman for African-Americans, Frederick Douglass, who was the closest thing to a black adviser Lincoln had — “‘Everything comes from struggle.’ That’s reality,” he added.
This Celebration of Freedom offers people the chance, Do’zia-Earley said, to learn something they need to know.
— Contact Val Van Meter email@example.com