Jubilee Day, or Emancipation Day, is held each year on New Year's Day to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery on Jan. 1, 1863.
Source: Chattanooga-Hamilton County Branch of NAACP
As modern-day Jews still remember the Passover, local black leaders said their community must hold sacred the annual Jubilee Day, which commemorates the formal end of American slavery.
"We must never forget, forfeit or falsify our past," said Cortney Warner, a member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
About 50 people gathered at Hamlet Chapel CME Church on Tuesday morning for the NAACP's annual Jubilee Day celebration. The group sang hymns, listened to speakers, installed new officers and heard a seven-minute reading of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued 150 years earlier in the nation's capital.
But speakers said much work remains in fulfilling a promise of equality for all Americans. Several pointed to the November election as evidence that the country still has far to go with race relations and equity issues.
"We're better than this. Our promises are bigger and better than this," said keynote speaker Jerry Redman, managing partner of Second Life Chattanooga, a nonprofit committed to ending human sex trafficking in Southeast Tennessee.
Redman said he is the descendant of South Carolina slave owners and grew up in a culture of racism. Though much progress has been made in improving civil rights over the last century and a half, Redman said it's not enough until America's promise is a reality for all.
"Progress is not freedom," he said. "Only freedom is freedom. Freedom fully realized for everyone is freedom."
County Commissioner Greg Beck urged the congregation to move forward but also to remember events and struggles of the past. The journey toward equality should be a personal one, Beck said, and high-profile leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X shouldn't be the only ones to carry the burden.
Beck said that's especially important in the South as people continue to test whether the sons and daughters of former slaves can coexist with the sons and daughters of former slave owners.
"Freedom is not just for black people," Beck said. "Freedom is for everybody. Freedom is for you and me."