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Jubilee concert celebrates 150 years of freedom

Mandy Miller

Far removed from the roaring First Night crowds at Hynes Convention Center — the central location for the nation’s largest and oldest New Year’s festival — songs of celebration and cheers bursted through the halls of the Boston African American Meeting House.

The cause for this celebration dates back to Jan. 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.”

From that day forth, Jan. 1 was officially named Jubilee Day, and the First Night Jubilee Concert held at the African American Meeting House during this year’s First Night Festival commemorated the sesquicentennial of the document’s signing.

The Meeting House, once a hub for the anti-slavery movement, was host to an intimate gathering that featured a narration of the events that unfolded 150 years prior, accompanied by musical performances from the Handel and Haydn Society and local Boston artist Gordon Michaels.

Read by Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History, the narrative told an emotional story, sweeping the audience back to the First Jubilee Day and the anticipation, hard work and heartbreak that preceded it.

It was on that first Jubilee Day that a crowd of 6,000 gathered at the Boston Music Hall and Tremont Temple in anticipation of the news that the monumental document was signed. Abolitionist leaders such as Anna Dickinson, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison and authors Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson were present as well.

“This is 1863,” stated Welch. “A crowd of 6,000 doesn’t just show up with little to no organization or commitment. Boston was a leader in the anti-slavery movement and this day was huge for thousands. Today marks a special day as Boston once again celebrates Jubilee Day.”

When the massive crowd received the news, the Handel and Haydn Society, also present that day in 1863, sang Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, one of three selections featured during the First Night Jubilee Day Concert.

Welch encouraged attendees to share the news of Jubilee Day on social media, with friends and by any other means possible.

“Today is special,” said Ira Pedlikin, director of artistic planning and education for the Handel and Haydn Society. “As the Society also performed that day, we dug deeper into the first Jubilee Day in Boston to ensure what we presented today was historically accurate.”

The concert closed with a performance from the smooth baritone voice of Michaels, who sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Applause roared from the main floor to the balcony seats and attendees buzzed with excitement as they made their way out into the chilly weather.

In the quiet of the empty Meeting House, Welch later explained that she had spoken with many First Night attendees who had never heard of Jubilee Day until then.

She hopes that in learning about and celebrating Jubilee Day and the battles fought to end slavery, others will show fearlessness in the face of troubles they struggle with in today’s world.

“If you can come here and feel nothing else at all, feel inspired,” she said.