Emancipation Proclamation is rarely on display


The Emancipation Proclamation is on tour with an exhibition called “Discovering the Civil War.” On Feb. 11, museumgoers got a close look at the historic document at the Tennessee State Museum. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)
February 22, 2013

The Emancipation Proclamation isn’t as easy to see as some other important documents in U.S. history. The National Archives has the original, but you may not find it on display — as you can with the Constitution — the next time you visit Washington.

“It’s very fragile,” said Jennifer Johnson, who works in the Archives museum.

The document, which was written on plain paper — not stronger parchment paper — has faded since it was written 150 years ago. It would be further damaged if it were exposed to light for long, Johnson said. So the Archives displays it for only a few days each year, usually around President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

This year, the proclamation was brought out just before its 150th anniversary, on January 1. The Archives observed what is known as Watch Night, a tradition in African American churches of reading the proclamation on New Year’s Eve.

“People were hugging each other. . . . It was a really moving experience,” Johnson said.

Even though you can’t see it in person until next year, Johnson wanted KidsPost readers to know some fun facts about the proclamation:

●It’s five pages, doubled-sided. When it is displayed, not all pages can be seen at once.

●Even though it has faded, you can still make out Lincoln’s words — if you know how to read cursive.

●The fancy handwriting isn’t Lincoln’s. An unknown clerk from the State Department copied the words onto the paper. Lincoln signed his name.

●The three things that make the document official are Lincoln’s signature, Secretary of State William Seward’s signature and a government seal. Lincoln also signed several copies, one of which is on display at the Lincoln Cottage. (See box below for details about visiting.)

●In 1947, the proclamation began a two-year journey to 326 U.S. cities on the Freedom Train, an exhibition of many historical treasures. A few of the people who saw it were former slaves.

Explaining the Emancipation Proclamation

THINGS TO DO: Exhibitions to visit about the Emancipation

READ: Five books for Black History Month

LEARN: Who was Rosa Parks?

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