WASHINGTON (AP) — A special visitor to President Barack Obama’s Oval Office soon will be moving on.
A rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War to free slaves held in the rebellious southern states, arrived in the Oval Office for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January and has been hanging out just above a bronze bust of the martyred civil rights leader since then.
The framed proclamation, often visible in the background when President Barack Obama is shown meeting with foreign dignitaries, is a hugely important symbol for many black Americans.
On the day it arrived, Obama showed it off to a small group of African-American young people and elders, including 102-year-old Mabel Harvey, who whispered in the ear of the first black president, “This must be the Lord’s doing, because we’ve come a mighty long way.”
Just before he signed the proclamation, Lincoln said: “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.”
The document declared that all slaves in rebel states were “thenceforward, and forever free.”
The original plan was for the proclamation, which previously had been on loan to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, to move from the Oval Office to the Lincoln Bedroom after six months.
But now its destination when it leaves the Oval Office in mid-July is something of a mystery. Owner David Rubenstein, a billionaire businessman, plans to move it to “a new home where many people will get to see it,” said spokesman Christopher Ullman. “It will soon be revealed where that will be.”
Wherever the document ends up, though, it probably will rest in the dark for a time and take a break from the harmful effects of light exposure.
Replacing it in the Oval Office will be a rare period painting of the capital from 1833, George Cooke’s “City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard,” which previously had occupied that same spot to the left of the fireplace.
Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff for the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, helped arrange the proclamation's visit to the Oval Office, and he said he will miss it when it moves on.
“I’m going to really just stare at it and try to imprint it on my mind,“ he said. The document’s presence in the Oval Office, Strautmanis said, was a powerful reminder of how far the country has come.
Strautmanis said that on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Obama first sat down with the African-American elders in the Roosevelt Room for a discussion about civil rights. Then, White House staff surprised the elders by taking them across the hall to the Oval Office to see the Emancipation Proclamation.
The original, handwritten Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, is in the National Archives. The document on display in the Oval Office is one of 48 souvenir printed copies that were signed by Lincoln in June 1864. The souvenir copies were sold for $10 each to raise money for medical supplies for Union soldiers. About half of them still exist, mostly in museums and libraries.
Lincoln signed the original proclamation after entertaining hundreds of visitors at a New Year’s Day reception.
According to a 1993 essay by historian John Hope Franklin, Lincoln said that when he took up his pen to sign the paper, his hand shook so violently he could not write.
“I paused, and a superstitious feeling came over me which made me hesitate,” the president said. “In a moment I remembered that I had been shaking hands for hours with several hundred people, and hence a simple explanation of the trembling and shaking of my arm.”
Lincoln laughed heartily and went on to sign the document, Franklin wrote.
According to a fact sheet from the National Museum of American History, while the proclamation did not free all the slaves, “it effectively transformed advancing Union forces into armies of emancipation. Lingering reservations about the legality of this executive order convinced Lincoln that only a constitutional amendment would permanently guarantee black freedom after the war.”
The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery or involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime, was added to the Constitution on Dec. 6, 1865.
Photo: President Barack Obama