New Year's Day brings special promise to the Lowcountry today.
It brings a celebration of freedom that was a turning point in American history and a highlight in Beaufort County's long story.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of one of the first public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, which took place on the shores of the Beaufort River in Port Royal.
On that unseasonably warm day, thousands came to celebrate beneath the oaks of what had been Smith's Plantation. Today, it is on the grounds of the Naval Hospital Beaufort. In 1863, it was a camp for the federal troops that had taken control of Beaufort County shortly after the Civil War began. There, under Gen. Rufus Saxton, the First South Carolina Volunteers would prove that African Americans would and could fight for America. And there, the Army organized a grand celebration on this day to mark a proclamation of freedom that long preceded both the end of the Civil War and the Constitutional amendment banning slavery. The New York Times called it the "first dawn of freedom."
Most of the crowd was black. Steamers were dispatched to outlying islands, including Hilton Head Island, to bring people to the celebration. Some were hesitant, thinking it was a ruse to enslave them again. Some thought they had to see President Abraham Lincoln himself to be freed. It was a confusing time for everyone. But America's slow march toward the equality championed in its Declaration of Independence had to start somewhere, and it started right here.
It will be celebrated today with a special service at 10 a.m. at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, 911 Craven St., in Beaufort.
Bus trips then will be available to the site of the proclamation reading, followed by a meal at the church.
By the time the original celebration took place 150 years ago, more than 50 teachers had come from the North to lay freedom's foundation with knowledge. The planned village of Mitchelville had been established on Hilton Head, where the formerly enslaved put into place elections, compulsory education, entrepreneurship and the laying of the community's oldest cornerstone, the First African Baptist Church. On St. Helena Island, Penn School was in its infancy. Land ownership and military service for the formerly enslaved were beginning in fits and starts. The entire process would be called the Port Royal Experiment.
The abolitionists in leadership positions in the Army, and the "Gideonites" who volunteered to come here as teachers, saw the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation as a major victory for mankind.
A dozen oxen were roasted, and molasses, hard bread, tobacco and sweetened water were brought in for the occasion. A platform was built and a long line of dignitaries offered speeches, prayers, hymns and poems. They accepted gifts from Northern supporters and tapped their toes to a stirring military band.
But something most remarkable happened as Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was unfurling a flag stitched with "The Year of Jubilee has come!"
"There suddenly arose, close beside the platform, a strong but rather cracked and elderly male voice, into which two women's voices immediately blended," Higginson wrote in his diary.
From the lips of the formerly enslaved came this:
"My country 'tis of thee. Sweet land of liberty ..."
That's why New Year's Day arrives with such promise in Beaufort County.