Culture Desk

Nov. 27, 1862: The most important Massachusetts Thanksgiving

On Thursday when you strap on the feedbag and give thanks for family, friends, and your gym membership, take a few minutes to tell the table the story about one of the most important Thanksgiving dinners in history. It took place 150 years ago in Boston on Nov. 27, 1862.

On that day, Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew joined Lewis Hayden for dinner at Hayden’s Beacon Hill home on what was then Southac Street (today it’s Phillips Street). Hayden was a self-emancipated black man and abolitionist whose residence was also used as a safe house on the Underground Railroad. The two shared a meal and talked about how to convince President Lincoln to let black men fight in the Union Army. This dinner meeting took place before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and Lincoln himself acknowledged that Boston played a pivotal role in the abolishment of slavery.

“Despite the friendship between the two men, the debate at the Thanksgiving table must have been lively,” Joel Strangis wrote in his 1999 book, Lewis Hayden and the War Against Slavery . “Hayden knew the importance of former slaves fighting for their own freedom and he knew his friends were willing to fight. The Emancipation Proclamation would soon be effective and the time to enlist black men had come.”

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The rest, as they say, is history. Andrew promised Hayden to seek permission to form a regiment of black soldiers and once Lincoln signed the proclamation, it happened. And in May of 1863, the Massachusetts 54th Regiment (the first black soldiers from the north in the American Civil War) paraded through the streets of Boston, 1,364 enlisted men and 78 officers.

Why does all this matter today?

Well, first it’s wonderful context for when you go out and see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln," which tells the story of Lincoln’s aggressive efforts to get the 13th Amendment passed to abolish slavery.

But even more important, next year the Museum of African American History presents the exhibit “Freedom Rising” to commemorate the Sesquicentennial (150 years) of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Exhibit themes will include the Antislavery Movement, Campaign for Black Troops, Massachusetts’ Black Regiments, and Women and the Civil War.

So now go ahead, impress your neighbors in the movie theater (not during the film, of course). And impress your family and friends at the dinner table.

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