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Amherst to celebrate 150th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation

At least 20 churches will ring their bells at that hour, including Grace Episcopal and First Congregational in Amherst and St. John’s Episcopal and Florence Congregational in Northampton, said organizer Robert Romer. Bells will also toll at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and the Peace Pagoda in Leverett, he said.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation at 2 p.m. on Jan. 1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. It declared that all slaves in the states in rebellion were “forever free” and affected an estimated 4 million people, energizing anti-slavery groups and lifting the spirits of African-Americans. Many slaves in the South were not freed until Union soldiers arrived, but the proclamation encouraged many to escape bondage, Romer said.

“Signing the proclamation made the permanent abolition of slavery an explicit Union war aim and all but guaranteed that if the North won the Civil War, slavery would come to an end in the United States,” he said.

Romer has done research at Forbes Library in Northampton to learn about local reaction to the proclamation. He found an editorial that the Gazette & Courier ran.

“It is undoubtedly the greatest event of the war and the most important movement that has taken place since the declaration of independence,” the newspaper wrote. “We are fighting for freedom and hereafter wherever the slave looks upon the stars and stripes, his shackles fall off.”

State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, went to the office of Gov. Deval Patrick Thursday to pick up an official proclamation about the anniversary. He will bring it to Tuesday’s Amherst event, he said.

Rosenberg is a member of the state’s Sesquicentennial Commission on the American Civil War. He helped launch a project to have public schools around the state work with local historical commissions to inventory artifacts from the war, especially those related to the abolition of slavery, he said. He also worked with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to encourage school systems to engage in study and activities related to the Emancipation Proclamation, he said.

“It is a critical document that records the ideals and hopes and dreams of this experiment, American democracy, and reminds us of the work that’s been accomplished and the work yet to be done,” Rosenberg said in an interview. “Here we are at the 150th anniversary and we’re still working to realize all aspects of what our Declaration of Independence set out for this American society.”

Rosenberg will also attend Springfield’s more festive commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation at midnight New Year’s Eve. The event will feature period food and beverages and gospel music, he said.

Next Tuesday, people at the gathering on the Amherst common will stand in a circle and each person will read a sentence from the proclamation, said Deborah Radway, the town’s director of human resources and human rights.

“If you can’t come to the common, stand wherever you are at 2 p.m. and ring a bell of your own to be part of the moment,” she said.

The Amherst Select Board has proclaimed Tuesday Emancipation Proclamation Day. Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz issued a proclamation on Sept. 22, the 150th anniversary of the day Lincoln announced that all slaves in Confederate states would be freed on Jan. 1 if the states did not return to union control by then.

“The announcement inspired a process that eventually fulfilled the promise of our Declaration of Independence,” Narkewicz wrote.

“And that process continues today through efforts to make justice a reality for all Americans, across all areas of civil rights since slavery in 1865, from gender to poverty.”

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