The incident that I would like to have witnessed is that described in Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment . He writes of a ceremony in South Carolina on January 1, 1863, celebrating the coming into effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. The ceremony was conventional and simple until Higginson got up to speak and waved the American flag before the audience of black soldiers, white civilians and officers, and a large number of slaves, who at that moment were legally receiving their freedom for the first time. As the flag was being waved, Higginson tells us, “there suddenly arose … a strong male voice (but rather cracked and elderly), into which two women’s voices instantly blended, singing, as if by an impulse that could no more be repressed than the morning note of the song-sparrow—
” ‘My Country, ‘tis of thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, of thee I sing!’ ”
The ceremony ended as the former slaves sang on, irrepressibly, through verse after verse. Higginson motioned the few whites who began to join in to be silent. The moment, as he said, was electric. “Nothing could be more wonderfully unconscious; art could not have dreamt of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it. …”
This incident epitomizes the most profound moment in America’s social history: that point when millions of people ceased to be slaves in the home of the free and set in motion the historic challenge that white America make real its own vision.