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On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This document, now over 150 years old, freed the slaves of the Confederate states and enabled the North to recruit African American soldiers to fight in the Civil War. Lincoln himself knew the monumental importance of his decision, calling the document “the central act of [his] administration, and the greatest event of the nineteenth century.”

The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation represented one pinnacle of the abolitionist struggle present long before the document went into effect. It served to usher in a new era in American history, the period of Reconstruction. This period lasted from 1865 to 1877, when many Southern states began to implement Jim Crow segregation laws, which ultimately disenfranchised the black male population, whose rights to suffrage had been granted with emancipation.

The following sections explore the moments before, during, and after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The NATIONAL section features masterful, artistic reproductions of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as a handwritten draft of the document itself. The LOCAL section places this historic moment in a Rhode Island-specific context, and includes letters of a Rhode Island abolitionist, the charter of the Rhode Island Anti-slavery Society, and portraits of African Americans after the Civil War’s end.