Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.
Morning Star, December 17, 2017, pg. 3
Coming up on January 1 will be the 100th anniversary of the first Emancipation Day event celebrated locally by our African-American community. It was held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church at 725 W. Cass St. on Tuesday, New Year's Day, 1918 beginning at 6 pm. That date referenced the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, 55 years earlier. Of course, subsequent observances were moved to the summer months in keeping with the timing of national observances to coincide with England's proclamations abolishing slavery in the 1840s, but this first observance in Albion was on January 1.
This was the first such formal celebration of that day in this part of Michigan. It attracted persons from Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Jackson, Ann Arbor, and Detroit. The local committee in charge of organizing the event was a "who's who"of the black leaders who had come to Albion as part of the "Great Migration."
The Albion Recorder reported, "The committee wish it emphasized that the program is for both white and colored people and the color line will not be drawn. Mr. Aurelius B. Leggett, secretary of the local committee states that they expect to provide for a crowd of around 800 people and that an effort will be made to care for all who come. Bert Pierson will be master-of-ceremonies. The welcome address will be given by James E. Leggett. Orations will be given by Allen Haynes, William L. Beck, Mrs. M. A. White, and James E. McIntosh."Rev. J. E. White was chairman of the committee. Regarding Mr. Leggett, the Recorder mentioned that "Aurelius Leggett, secretary of the committee, spent three years at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington."The celebration included musical quarters, duets, solos, violin numbers, congregational singing, and readings.
One prominent speaker that evening was local black leader Willie L. Beck (1882-1958). The Albion Recorder stated, "Try me,"said Mr. Beck, "is the cry that is coming up from the black men in 48 states. Let me paint you a picture. I read the other day that a colored man had stolen $800 worth of clothing from the Hahn Brothers store; then in a few days I read that $18,000 was stolen from the bank at Concord—and that ladies and gentlemen, was stolen by white men. All we want in Albion,"concluded the speaker,"is a fair chance. We will try to be worthy and to make good in this community." Note: It is Mr. Beck who is pictured in the center of that memorable May 1, 1927 Emancipation Day photograph taken in Albion ten years later that is on the cover of my book "Albion in Review."
The main speaker for the evening was industrial professor Oliver S. Lee of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Lee subsequently became the second African-American hired on the Fort Wayne police force, in 1919 as a patrolman. In his nearly hour-long address he stated, "The Emancipation Proclamation is the greatest paper ever signed by mortal man, greater than the Declaration of Independence."Lee also encouraged participation in our election system. He stated, "Every Negro should use his ballot as a sacred thing. The colored man usually voted the right ticket, and that ticket was the Republican ticket."Such were the politics of those days.
Following the celebration program, the schedule stated, "Following the formal program a smoker will be given by the young men's business league."From our Historical Notebook we present a photograph of the special speaker, Oliver S. Lee.
Oliver Lee, Dec. 31, 1917 Albion Recorder
All text copyright, 2020 © all rights reserved Frank Passic