The Sorrow Songs

I On New Year’s Day in 1863, Thomas Wentworth Higginson was stationed in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, presiding over a large group of Unionist whites and formerly enslaved black workers who had gathered to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation. A prominent prewar abolitionist, Higginson had recently become commander of one of the first black regiments in the Civil War, the First South Carolina Volunteers. At the emancipation ceremony that Higginson had arranged, a local planter who had converted to abolitionism read the great document. There was a presentation of colors. Then, unexpectedly, as Higginson started to wave the flag, an elderly black man near the platform broke into song: “My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty.” Two women joined, followed by others in the crowd. Higginson could hardly contain his emotion; everyone started to cry. “I never saw anything so electric,” he wrote in his diary; “it

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