February 01, 2015 11:41 UTC

USA

United States Observes Black History Month

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Close-up from "Freedman's Village, Arlington, Virginia" Print from Harper's Weekly, May 7, 1864
Close-up from "Freedman's Village, Arlington, Virginia" Print from Harper's Weekly, May 7, 1864

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From VOA Learning English, welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in Special English. I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.
 
And I'm Mario Ritter. February is Black History Month in the United States. It is a time when Americans remember people and events that shaped the story of African-Americans. One of those events was the Emancipation Proclamation, a document signed 150 years ago by President Abraham Lincoln. The Emancipation Proclamation began the process of freeing an estimated four million slaves. Later, the 13th amendment to the Constitution ended slavery across the United States.
 
Many freed slaves moved away from areas where slavery had been permitted. Some came to the nation’s capital, Washington, DC, in search of a better life.
             
Arlington National Cemetery is just outside Washington. The cemetery is the final resting place for many former armed forces members. Years ago, the grounds were home to slaves and then former slaves.
 
Craig Syphax has been working on his family’s history for the past 15 years. He discovered the Syphaxes were an influential slave family in Arlington. He also learned that his great-great-great grandfather, Charles Syphax, belonged to the nation’s first president, George Washington. Charles Syphax lived at the Washingtons’ home in Mount Vernon. He was one of 57 slaves who moved to Arlington House with George Washington’s adopted grandson.
 
“Every time I research a certain aspect of the Syphax family, I find more exciting things that spark my interest to want to keep going and delve into that.”
 
In 1863, thousands of newly freed slaves moved to Washington, DC. The government set up a camp for former slaves on land in Arlington, Virginia. The camp was known as Freedman’s Village.
 
Tens of thousands of former slaves lived in Freedman’s Village for nearly 40 years. The community had schools, hospitals, religious centers and even a home for children whose parents were dead.
 
Craig Syphax says his ancestor Charles became a leader in Freedman’s Village.
“The Syphaxes became people that could read and write. So they freely taught people how to read and write without charge or anything because we knew that was how you would succeed here in America.”
 
Syphax is working on a documentary about his family and on a new history museum next to Arlington Cemetery. Talmadge Williams is a leader of that effort.
 
“History not taught could be history repeating itself, and we don’t want history to be repeated. We don’t need slavery again.”\
 
Former slaves are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Some people say they are as much a part of history as the soldiers buried there.
 
The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is one of the most recognized pieces of music in American history. It is often called the great Civil War anthem. And it was the favorite song of President Abraham Lincoln.
 
Poet and anti-slavery activist Julia Ward Howe wrote those words during the early years of the Civil War. The words came to her after she met with President Lincoln at the White House and saw soldiers fighting near Washington, DC.
 
Chris Coover is a specialist in American historical documents.
 
“That evening, she had a dream where this set of lyrics was presented to her, inspired by things she’d seen in the day. And she woke up in the middle of the night with these visions of Lincoln and battles and marching troops and wrote this rather remarkable series of verses.”
Julia Ward HoweJulia Ward Howe
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Julia Ward Howe
Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe wrote those words to the folk song “John Brown’s Body.” Her work quickly became a success with the Union soldiers and even President Lincoln himself.
 
“Lincoln loved this piece and asked for it to be performed on many occasions.”

In the years since the Civil War, the song has become an iconic musical work. It is often played at major political events.
 
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. used parts of the Battle Hymn in several of his speeches. He read some of the words at the close of a 1968 speech on the night before he was shot and killed.
 
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
 
Late last year, Christie’s auction house sold what is thought to be the original manuscript of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The manuscript includes the signature of Julia Ward Howe. Christie’s estimated the value of the document at $250,000 to $400,000. But its final sales price was a surprising $782,500! 

“I’m Ray Freeman, with the Special English program ‘People in America.’” 
 
Many of you may recognize that voice. It belonged to Ray Freeman, who read newscasts and other programs in Special English. We are sorry to report that Ray Freeman died earlier this month. He was 78 years old. Our own Jim Tedder knew him well. Jim spoke with VOA’s Ray Kougell about his friend Ray Freeman.
 
I can’t remember exactly when Ray came to work here. But I remember shortly after he made his presence known, we knew that he always enjoyed a joke and a laugh. He was always very, very outgoing. Is that the way you remember him?
 
Yes I do. I remember him mainly as a director of our shows. We had long-form shows. And my fondest memory of him actually, is he was the candy man.
He would bring in these bags of Hershey candies. And of course newspeople haven’t eaten in a week. So anytime he dropped it off, it would be devoured in no time, even by people who didn’t work in our office.
 
Well, you know where that came from. His wife—whose name is Renie—worked for a candy distribution company. Maybe it was Hershey’s, I don’t know.
One of the parts of her job was to go to stores and either re-stock the candy with t he freshest, or to take the candy that had been there and had not sold, take it out of the store, and I guess they could just throw it away but instead Ray would bring it in here. And it was still good.
 
Many of us got fat because the candy was there, and every time we walked by the table we picked up a little piece and eat it. And we all got pretty used to it. I mean, this went on for a number of years.
 
Yes, yes it did. It was a very nice memory of him. And he always did with a smile.
 
I remember when I first came to Washington, DC watching Channel 20. Oh, I had good re-runs from old shows. And they had a booth announcer who was an anonymous voice to me, and then later on he came on board to VOA.
 
And I still am like this, I like to point the anonymous voice together with the face. I’m still enamored with that.
      
And it was a real pleasure to hear this voice that intro’d such great such shows as “Coming up next on ‘The Twilight Zone’; next on ‘Mash.’”
 
You know, all these old TV shows, and then finally meeting the man who did that.
 
Yeah, Ray did that, he did that for a number of years.
 
There’s another famous story that I’ve got to tell you. You’re probably not aware of this. One day I was walking down the corridor by our studios here. And I looked down the hall by Ray’s office, and there were about six, seven, eight people standing there. And they were all laughing, but not out loud. They were trying to stifle the laugh. And I --  what’s going on?
 
I walked down there, and here’s Ray, feet up on his desk, head back, sound asleep, snoring so loud you could hear him out in the hallway.
 
And this would go on, and on, and on and people would laugh. And they would laugh so loud I thought, well surely they’re going to wake him up.
 
And he would—Ray would give you one of these. Snort, snort.
And then he would stop, and then he’d start again.

And I laughed about it. And they said, this is not the first time. This has happened many times. He’s even slept so long he’s even missed his bus to go home.
 
He probably ate too much candy and the sugar knocked him out.
 
Could be, could be.
 
But you know, it’s a strange thing. You and I have been around here a long time. I’ve been here now over 33 years. And it’s very odd to look in the mirror and see your father or your grandfather looking back at you. And you think of a person like Ray Freeman, our colleague, as always being exactly like he was the day he walked out of here, and now he’s gone.
 
It’s a soul-searching exercise.
 
It is, it is. Time marches on for all of us. And it is very soul-searching.
 
Well, he was liked, he was loved. And I’ll miss his laugh and his jokes.
 
So will I. He was a very nice man and had a beautiful shock of white hair. Even, as I guess a relatively younger man. He was very, very distinguished looking.
 
And a very, very pleasant demeanor.
 
Always.
 
Join us again next week on the Voice of America.
     
Our program was written and produced by Kelly Jean Kelly. I'm Mario Ritter.
               
And I'm Kelly Jean Kelly. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.
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