Obama's inaugural message of hope recalls America's 'Year of Jubilee'

Everyone stood still in our newsroom Tuesday to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

All of us wanted to hear what our first black president would say to the nation that once condoned slavery -- and then wouldn't let blacks vote.

His message of hope should remind us of a similar event in American history -- one that took place right here in Beaufort County.

On a crisp New Year's Day in 1863, a throng of 4,000 to 5,000 people crowded a platform built near the Beaufort River in Port Royal.

Most of them were slaves freed by Union troops on Hilton Head Island, St. Helena Island and in Beaufort at the outset of the Civil War.

The local event also involved the White House, because 45 minutes after the president signed the Emancipation Proclamation in Washington, the cork popped here at a grand public reading.

Hope on that day was indeed faith in things unseen. President Abraham Lincoln's proclamation came two years before the bloody war ground to a halt. It was two years before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially banned slavery. And it was a full century before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 set the course for Tuesday's inauguration by breaking the grip of state disenfranchisement of black voters.

But on that morning, hope saturated the Lowcountry.

Union generals sent steamers to Hilton Head and other islands to pick up blacks -- some who thought they had to physically be there to be freed, some who looked for the man in a tall black hat and some who refused to go because they feared it was another painful ruse.

Plugs of tobacco and barrels of molasses were rolled out. Hundreds of loaves of hard bread were baked, and a dozen oxen were roasted.

Bands rang in the "Year of Jubilee." A full dress parade ensued. A stage was filled with dignitaries, speeches, poems and gifts from up North in hand.

But that's not what explains the sea of humanity we witnessed at the Capitol on Tuesday, 146 Januarys later. This does:

"The very moment the speaker had ceased," Col. Thomas Higginson recalled, "and just as I took and waved the flag, which for the first time meant anything to these poor people, and suddenly arose, close beside the platform, the strong male voice (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!"