Emancipation Day's Unsung Champion

Loretta Carter Hanes, 79, a founder of the Reading Is Fundamental program, began organizing Emancipation Day events in the District in 1992.
Loretta Carter Hanes, 79, a founder of the Reading Is Fundamental program, began organizing Emancipation Day events in the District in 1992. (2002 Photo By Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)
By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, April 16, 2006

It's not that Loretta Carter Hanes wants recognition -- she certainly didn't ask me to write about her. But the theme for this year's Emancipation Day celebration in the District is "Honoring Our Heroes in the Struggle for Freedom," and if anyone deserves to be honored, I say she does.

One hundred and forty-four years have passed since President Lincoln ended slavery in the nation's capital, making April 16, 1862, a day worth remembering. But there probably would be no remembering -- let alone a week of celebration that includes an official holiday for District government employees -- if Hanes had not worked for years to make it happen.

This is not to take anything away from Dorothy I. Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, who will receive the District's Emancipation Day Lifetime Achievement Award and a key to the city. But let's face it: At age 94, Height is perhaps second only to Oprah as the most honored African American woman in history. Does she really need another plaque? I believe Height will understand my point and not be offended by the question.

Hanes, who will turn 80 next month, certainly doesn't feel slighted. And in no way would her life be diminished for lack of an engraving stuck on a piece of wood. But the rest of us shortchange ourselves when we allow people who work in the trenches on our behalf to be taken for granted.

For many years after their marriage in 1954, Hanes and her husband, Wesley, invited neighborhood children into their home at 5207 Fifth St. NW for tutoring in reading, writing and arithmetic. Wesley Hanes also managed a neighborhood baseball team.

Loretta Hanes explained that devotion: "When I was 5, a man we called Brother Jordan, who was 105, would stop by our house and bring my brothers, sisters and me sweet potatoes for treats. We'd sit at his feet and listen to his stories. He'd always end by saying, 'Children, you've got to bring others across the bridge of life.' And I'd say, 'Yes sir.' Although I didn't know it at the time, that was my calling: to be of service to others."

In 1966, Hanes co-founded Reading Is Fundamental, a volunteer-run literacy and book giveaway program so successful that it became a model. "Frederick Douglass said that to win our freedom we must 'agitate, agitate.' I believe we must educate, educate," she said.

In 1993, Hanes persuaded the National Archives to take the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln signed nine months after ending slavery in the District, out of an environmentally protective vault and put the document on public display.

I first met her at the National Archives that year. She was giving students from Nalle Elementary School in Marshall Heights a primer on freedom and informed them that on the spot where they were standing there had once been a slave market. I quoted one student in my column as saying, "I'm glad that's not happening now."

But Hanes knew then, as she does now, that the shackles of slavery have not been completely broken. "We've still got chains on the brains," she told me recently. That's why she wanted to bring back Emancipation Day observances, which lasted from 1866 to 1901.

"I can hear the chorus up there -- Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth -- singing, 'Hallelujah, we didn't give up on you; don't you give up on the generations to come,' " she said. Hanes began organizing small commemorative events in 1992. D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) took up the cause in 2000, introducing legislation that made Emancipation Day an official city holiday last year.

To be fair, District officials did honor Hanes in 2000 with a glass bowl during a low-key ceremony that she was too ill to attend. But after she has spent who knows how much of her money and time on lobbying and organizing, you'd think that city officials -- who have allocated more than $400,000 for Emancipation Day events next year -- could do better than a bowl.

Not that she's complaining. "I'm just a little old lady shut-in," she said sweetly, noting that diabetes and a spinal injury have prevented her from attending an Emancipation Day event since 1999.

She may be shut in, but let's not shut her out.


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