Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On February 1 of this past year, a day of crisp blue skies and mild chill, voices swelled above the Liberty Bell as they have every first day of February for the last fifty-five years. With prayer and in song – and in remembrance, determination, and hope – African Americans in Philadelphia celebrated National Freedom Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery. For the former slaves and their descendants, however, freedom has meant an ongoing struggle for full participation in American, society. National freedom Day commemorates such struggle at two icons of American freedom, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Today, the event commemorates not only the Thirteenth Amendment, but honors its founder, Richard Robert Wright Sr. (1855-1947).

Wright had lived a long,remarkable life by the 1940s, when he conceived of a national holiday to commemorate the end of slavery. Born into slavery in Dalton, Georgia, Wright attracted attention even as a young student in an American Missionary Association school in Walton Springs, near Atlanta. In 1869, General Oliver Otis Howard, commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau, visited Wright’s school, an event committed to verse by poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892).

And he said: “Who hears can never
Fear for or doubt you;
What shall I tell the children
Up North about you?”
Then ran round a whisper, a murmur,
Some answer devising;
And a little boy stood up: “General,
Tell ’em we’re rising!”

The little boy was Richard Robert Wright. Wright later entered Atlanta University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, graduating first in his class in 1876. He also received a master’s degree, no small feat for an African American at the time. During the following forty-five years, Wright rose to prominence in educational and political circles not only in Georgia, but in the nation. He taught, founded the first public high school for blacks in Georgia, and for three decades served as president of the State College of Industry for Colored Youth and the Mechanic Arts in Savannah. (“Man, you’re not rising,” U. 5. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote to Wright, “you’re risen!”) Contrary to the views of the college’s white trustees, he advocated for black students not only manual training, but also education in literature and the arts. He became active in Republican Party politics, attending both state and national conventions. In recognition of his political acumen and influence, he won appointment as a paymaster in the army during the Spanish-American War, after which he was known as Major Wright.

In 1921, at the end of his tenure as college president, Major Wright moved to Philadelphia, joining a wave of migrating southern blacks. They moved to northern cities in search of better living conditions and jobs, especially during World War I. Philadelphia’s African American population more than doubled between 1900 and 1920, numbering more than one hundred and thirty-four thousand – nearly seven and a half percent of the city’s residents – by the time Wright arrived. Four of Wright’s children had moved to Philadelphia, including Bishop R.R. Wright Jr. of the African Methodist Episcopal Church who, in 1913, had organized an exposi­tion to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Although sixty-six years old at the time, Major Wright had no intention of retiring in Philadelphia. He arrived with plans to establish a bank, open to all but owned and operated by African Americans. At the corner of Nineteenth and South Streets, a predominantly African American neighborhood lacking paved roads and street lights, Wright and two of his children remodeled an old building and opened the Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company. (The building no longer exists, but the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected a state historical marker in 1991 to mark the site of Wright’s venture.) Wright traveled throughout the country to raise one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars in capital for the bank. When Philadelphia bankers advised against the venture, citing his lack of experience, Wright and his son Emmanuel enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Finance. And as a bank president, Wright rose once again to prominence – this time in Philadelphia.

Wright’s Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company quickly became a community institution by satisfying the needs of small depositors. One dollar was sufficient to open an account, and the bank remained open until nine o’clock for customers who worked late in the evening. With educational programs and incentives, such as lectures and savings clubs, Wright promoted the importance of saving money among migrants from the rural South, where barter had been more common than cash. Meanwhile, money flowed out of the bank as loans to small businesses, schools, and churches. Wright’s influence helped the neighborhood obtain paved roads, streetlights, and traffic signals.

Wright, who had witnessed slavery, emancipation, discrimination, and segregation in the South, and the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the principle of “separate but equal,” developed a keen interest in African American history. During his career as an educator, he had written books about black education in the South and the contributions of black explorers in North America. In 1919, he had sailed to Europe to collect information about black servicemen for the Georgia Archives. The process of emancipation particularly intrigued him. While in Savannah, he had raised two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to celebrate the 1913 anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, organized in Philadelphia by his son Bishop Wright, and in 1939 he succeeded in having a postage stamp issued to commemorate the Thirteenth Amendment. During a research trip to Washington, D.C., he acquired copies of the documents he considered “the Nation’s real Bill of Rights”: the Emancipation Proclamation and the Constitutional amendments after the Civil War that ended slavery and extended full citizen­ship and voting rights to all races.

Like many African Americans, Wright was aware that as the United States approached the mid-twentieth century, the rights promised by the Constitution with its Thirteenth, Fourteenth1 and Fifteenth Amendments had riot been fully implemented. The vote was being denied to southern blacks, and equal opportunity was being denied in both South and North. “If ever there was a time when the nation should be forcibly reminded that Colored American Citizens should be protected in all their citizen rights, it is NOW,” Wright urged in a 1941 newspaper column. He believed that a national holiday, celebrat­ed on February 1 of each year – the anniversary of the date Abraham Lincoln signed his approval and sent to the state legislatures Congress’s proposed Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery. Just months before the United States entered World War II, the eighty-six­-year-old Wright launched his movement for an observance to call attention to the need for freedom at home.

African Americans had long com­memorated emancipation with a variety of local celebrations. Many communities celebrated the date that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation; some commemorated January 1, when slaves covered by the proclamation were freed; and still others observed the dates when their states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. Many of these commemo­rations continue today, including the Juneteenth celebration in Texas on June 19, the date the Lone Star State emanci­pated slaves in 1865. Wright sought to unite African Americans in commemo­rating freedom on February 1, the date Lincoln signed the congressional resolution for the Thirteenth Amend­ment. He also hoped for a different kind of holiday. Unlike these local commemo­rations, which often featured boisterous festivities and athletic events, Wright instead envisioned a solemn, highly ceremonial occasion, replete with governors’ proclamations, delegates from throughout the nation, inspirational speakers, prayers and hymns, and the laying of a wreath at the Liberty Bell.

On Sunday, February 1, 1942, scarcely two months after the decima­tion of Pearl Harbor, Wright’s dream sprang to life in the streets of Philadelphia. On this, the first Freedom Day, a motorcade of five hundred automobiles carried participants and delegates representing twenty-eight states from the neighborhood near the Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company to Independence HaU. Upon entering Indepen­dence HaU, the celebrants crossed more than a physical threshold. Early in the nine­teenth century, whites had chased black Philadelphians out of Independence Square on the Fourth of July; in the 1850s, fugitive slaves were jailed and tried in municipal buildings on the square. When the Fifteenth Amendment passed in 1870, blacks celebrated by serenading the city council, then meeting on the second floor of Independence Hall – but they first asked permission to enter the square. Although the Liberty Bell had been adopted as a symbol of the abolitionist movement, blacks in Philadelphia often viewed Independence Square as the antithesis of liberty. With the creation of Freedom Day, African Americans were able to inject their own definition of freedom into independence Hall and its most famous object, the Liberty Bell. While celebrating the ideals that both building and bell represented, Freedom Day also called attention to the contra­dictions between such ideals and the experiences of blacks in the United States.

Wright’s commemoration identified the origins of freedom not in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. “The Constitution itself was meaningless until the addition of the Thirteenth Amendment,” the Tribune, Philadelphia’s African American newspa­per, opined in its coverage of the inaugural Freedom Day. “For while it provided for the freedom of all American citizens on one hand, it permitted the enslavement of a part of them on the other.” Major Wright noted later during World War II that while President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was championing the Four Freedoms, true freedom in the United States did not exist until all were free.

On the first Freedom Day, participants moved from laying a wreath at the Liberty Bell to the adjacent Congress Hall. Seated in the chamber once occupied by the U.S. House of Representatives, speakers discussed current issues and African American contributions to the United States. From Congress Hall, the assembly moved next to the opulent Academy of Music, where public officials – black and white – rose to endorse Freedom Day as a vehicle for encouraging racial cooperation. Congressman James P McGranery announced that he had introduced a resolution requesting President Roosevelt to proclaim February 1 a national holiday. But the audience reserved its most thun­derous applause for J. S. Clark, president emeritus of Southern University.

“In every denomination, civic organi­zation, business or profession, the Negro has played his part,” Clark declared. “In every war he has shed his blood and is prepared to shed more. His women have sacrificed at home …. During the past war they spent their hard earned dollars in the Liberty Bond drives and they will do it again.”

“We will be willing to go the full journey, regardless of cost to maintain our freedom and that of the world. We are part of America and we are American citizens, regardless of prejudice. We only ask the chance.”

National Freedom Day occupied the last five years of Major Wright’s life. He engaged in extensive correspondence with government officials, including Pennsylvania Governor Edward Martin, whose papers held by the Pennsylvania State Archives include many letters written by Wright. Although congression­al legislation calling for a national holiday lay dormant during World War II, each year Wright presided over a massive commemoration in Philadelphia. He enlisted notable speakers: the presidents of Tuskegee Institute, Atlanta University, Wilberforce University, and Tennessee State College all took the stage in 1943, as did the president of the National Baptist Convention. More than twenty-five hundred attended the second program at the Academy of Music. In 1946, a combined Freedom Day program and celebration of the end of World War II drew ten thousand people to Philadelphia’s Convention Hall.

The 1947 Freedom Day program was Wright’s last. Five months later, on July 2, he died at the age of ninety-two years. Philadelphia newspapers, as well as the New York Times, recounted his life story as former slave, educator, banker, and Freedom Day founder. Accord­ing to a biographer, Wright’s last utterance – a dying wish – was “National Freedom Day.” His wish was fulfilled in 1949 by President Harry S. Truman, who issued a proclamation designat­ing the first of February as National Freedom Day, a national holiday. Congress, however, did not enact legislation to make it an annual holiday.

For more than five decades in Philadelphia, Freedom Day commemora­tions have mirrored African American concerns. Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), who overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” and served as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991, spoke at Freedom Day in 1955. Coretta Scott King took part in 1957, and two years later Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. participated. Major Wright’s son Emmanuel, his successor as president of the National Freedom Day Association and the Citizens and Southern Bank, stressed economic opportunity during the sixties and seventies. Speakers in recent years have stressed political participation in the continuing struggle for freedom.

While it endured in Philadelphia, National Freedom Day never did blossom into the nationwide commemoration that Major Wright envisioned. More widely known are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month during February. Delegates from throughout the nation no longer throng to Philadelphia, but Freedom Day has evolved into a significant local civic event. Each year in Philadelphia, the National Freedom Day Association awards scholarships to high school students. Elementary students write essays on “What Freedom Means to Me,” and the R. R. Wright Elementary School, named for Major Wright, conducts an annual Freedom Day celebration. The current board of directors of the National Freedom Day Association hopes to build on these activities to re-establish national recognition of Freedom Day.

On February 1, 1997, prior to a Freedom Day luncheon attended by two hundred and fifty people, a children’s choir from the R. R. Wright Elementary School joined about three dozen adults near the Liberty Bell Pavilion, The children sang God Bless America, Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Lift Every Voice and Sing. In keeping with tradition, high school students recited the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The Reverend Anthony Booker of St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church offered a Freedom Prayer for “rededication to the call of freedom, for as yet all people are not free.” He envisioned a day when freedom would be achieved and the crack in the Liberty Bell mended. Competing with the din of traffic on busy Market Street, W. Cody Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Philadelphia radio station WHAT, spoke of two hopes for the future: a day when attendance at Freedom Day would be so great that Market Street would need to be dosed, and another day when Freedom Day might not be necessary because freedom would be realized by all. The president of the National Freedom Day Association, Lorenzo Cruger, directed his remarks to the children. The ceremony at the Liberty Bell had two purposes, he told them: to keep alive the three amendments, and to educate the young. The students would take the wreath to the Liberty Bell and pose for photographs, he said, so people in the future would know about their dedication to freedom for each and every person “born or naturalized in the United States.”


Readers interested in learning more about the annual observance of National freedom Day in Philadelphia may write: National Freedom Day Association, Post Office Box 8188, Philadelphia, PA 19101-8818.


For Further Reading

Hall, Clyde W. One Hundred Years of Educating at Savannah State College, 1890-1990. East Peoria, Ill.: Versa Press, Inc., 1991.

Haynes, Elizabeth Ross. The Black Boy of Atlanta. Boston: House of Edinboro, 1952.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. Anti-Slavery Poems: Songs of Labor and Reform. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Wiggins, Williams H. O Freedom! Afro­-American Emancipation Celebrations. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.


The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the PHMC, the assistance of archivists of the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Independence National Historical Park Archives, and the cooperation of the National Freedom Day Association in prepa­ration of this article.


Charlene Mires, assistant professor of history at Villanova University, is at work on a book about Independence Hall in public memory. She is a former scholar in residence of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).