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Town Celebrates Freedom Document

September 26, 1987

McDONALD, Pa. (AP) _ Forty-five miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line that separated North from South, whites and blacks gathered with Fourth of July fanfare Saturday to remember the Civil War document that freed the slaves 125 years ago this week.

″It’s not a black holiday,″ organizer Carl Joseph Powell said as the daylong Emancipation Proclamation Day festivities got under way. ″It’s a holiday for everyone, a holiday for free people.″

About 500 people lined the half-mile parade route through town, clapping and cheering as bands and drill teams from area high schools and organizations passed in bright uniforms. About 10 men and women wearing leather jackets rode motorcycles at the end.

Roast beef was served at a field on the edge of town and barbequed ribs were sold outside the Elks lodge in this southwestern Pennsylvania community of about 2,800.

″You’re just free at heart. You have to keep faith in something. You have to remember your roots,″ said Lenora Kemp, 36, a lifelong resident.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed on Sept. 22, 1862 and went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, declared that ″all slaves in areas still in rebellion″ were ″thenceforward and forever free.″

Former slaves and their sons in this Washington County village near Pittsburgh first formally commemorated the document in 1905.

Their descendants formed the Community League to mark the document’s anniversary because they ″were blacks really looking for some way to instill pride in themselves,″ Powell said.

″Unlike any other race of people who came to the United States, we came in chains,″ he said. ″The Irish have St. Patrick’s Day. Everyone needs to know where they came from.″

″I was born with the Emancipation,″ said Powell, 53, a retired shopkeeper. ″It was part of me. As black children we only had two good days a year: Christmas and Emancipation.″

In earlier days, black children would stay home from school to take part in festivities and would be treated to candy, oranges and apples, said Donald Brookens, 75, whose parents brought him to one of the first celebrations.

Until this decade, Powell said, whites ignored the celebration and didn’t participate. In the 1950s white-owned businesses, virtually the only ones in McDonald, were closed to discourage blacks from congregating in town, he said.

″This was a white town,″ he said. ″In 1952, there was no place in the town where a black could obtain service.″

Powell said the observances faltered in the late 1960s because young blacks lost interest. Powell, great-grandson of a Virginia slave, and the local Elks lodge called upon whites to join in 1983 and the tradition was revived.

Powell said whites laid off from western Pennsylvania factories and plants now feel a solidarity with blacks because of an economic kinship.

″This is primarily a blue-collar town. Right now, it’s not just white and black,″ he said. ″It’s rich and poor, and now the shoe’s on the other foot.″

On Dec. 28, 1962, President John F. Kennedy called on public officials and organizations to observe the proclamation’s centennial. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette said in an editorial June 10, 1963, that there were ″a few non- Negroes in attendance″ at the city’s anniversary parade.

But since the centennial, few organized observances have been held, said Jim Williams, spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Baltimore. He said he didn’t know the anniversary date, but thought McDonald’s commemoration was a good idea.

″It’s obvious that it was one of the most important events that occurred in American history,″ he said, ″and it certainly does deserve a commemoration.″

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