October 18, 2012

Documents by great American orators on exhibit


---- — PLATTSBURGH — The New York State Museum’s traveling exhibit “The First Step to Freedom, Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation” offers a rare opportunity to view a rare Civil War-era document.

The 19th century draft was penned by President Abraham Lincoln and edited by Secretary of State William Seward, a former New York governor and abolitionist.

Lincoln’s executive order, issued on Jan. 1, 1863, granted freedom to enslaved people of African descent in the rebellious, or Confederate, states. However, it did not free slaves in the Border States — Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia — who fought with the Union Army. 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Commemoration speech will also be in the traveling exhibit, which is on display Friday only, in the Burke Gallery.

“The state of New York decided, given the anniversary of this event at 150 years, they would circulate the document around the state on a very limited basis,” said Cecilia Esposito, museum director.

“They wanted to reach all the different areas of the state. With the work that I have done with the state of New York and one of the regents — Dr. James Dawson is at Plattsburgh State — they asked Plattsburgh State to host for this region of the state,” Esposito said. “It’s traveling to Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton, New York City at the Schomburg Center and Plattsburgh.”

The Burke Gallery met the criteria for the exhibit space.

“We need to limit the light level because of the sensitivity of the document. We can only have 5-foot candles of light,” she said.

The exhibit is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Viewers can pick up tickets beginning at 9 that morning in the Myers Fine Arts Building.

“This is extremely important,” Esposito said. “It’s a major opportunity that should not be missed. They don’t have this document available often for viewing. It’s in Abraham Lincoln’s hand. The final document in Lincoln’s hand was destroyed by fire. This is the only document in his hand in relationship to the Emancipation Proclamation.” 

The unique relic is in the collections of the New York State Education Department’s Office of Cultural Education.

“In 1864, Lincoln donated the document to the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which is now the Red Cross,” Esposito said. “It was raffled off at the Albany Relief Bazaar to help raise money for the Union war effort. Abolitionist Gerrit Smith won the raffle after buying 1,000 tickets at $1 apiece. Smith then sold the document to the New York State Legislature with funds going to the Sanitary Commission. Then, the legislature deposited the document in the New York State Library where it remains today.”

The exhibit includes pylons with text and images from the collections of the New York State Library and the New York State Archives as well as 3,500 brochures and interpretative materials for schools.

On Sept. 12, 1962, King delivered his speech on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in New York City.

“New York state Gov. Rockefeller invited Dr. Martin Luther King to give the speech. New York is quite fortunate to have these documents, and we’re really fortunate that New York has agreed to allow them in larger places around the state,” Esposito said.

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation may not circulate for another 50 years.

“It’s a real opportunity, and people will take advantage of the opportunity to see it,” Esposito said.

Email Robin Caudell:

IF YOU GO WHAT: "The First Step to Freedom: Abraham Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation." WHEN: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. WHERE: Burke Gallery, Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Myers Fine Arts Building, SUNY Plattsburgh. ADMISSION: Free.