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"First Step to Freedom" exhibit celebrates Black History Month

President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recording included in exhibit

The New York State Museum and the New York State Writers Institute have partnered to bring the First Step to Freedom exhibit to the University at Albany campus in honor of Black History Month.


The historically remarkable exhibit includes a display of the only surviving version of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in President Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting.


The First Step to Freedom also includes the only known audio recording of a speech written and delivered by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in New York City in September 1962 for the Proclamation’s centennial. The exhibit opened, appropriately, on President’s Day.


“In this exceptional recording, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is heard saying that while the Emancipation Proclamation proved government could be a powerful force for social justice, the promise of equality remained unfulfilled,” Board of Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young, Jr. said. “Today the Proclamation is a stark reminder that America is still a work in progress. It’s so important that students learn from the past to help build a better future, and we are glad to work with the Writers Institute to allow UAlbany students this rare and special opportunity."


“This historic document and recording, along with other powerful portions of this exhibit, present a unique learning opportunity for adults and children to reflect on our nation’s past, celebrate the progress we have made and remind us that our work to achieve equity for all remains,” Commissioner Rosa said. “These documents stand as important markers in the path to freedom and equality for African Americans and are among New York State’s greatest treasures.”


“What makes this project uniquely powerful and relevant is the way it connects the civil rights movement and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” said University at Albany President Havidán Rodríguez, “’The First Step to Freedom’ is emblematic of the university’s strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are very grateful to the NYS Museum for making it possible to display this extraordinary exhibit.”


Due to COVID-19 regulations, the exhibit is only open to UAlbany students, faculty and staff through March 15. Highlights below.



"Visions of Equality" painting

Award-winning portrait artist Robert Francis Whelan exhibits for the first time in public his large work, “Visions of Equality,” painted in oil on Belgian linen.

He created the painting at his home studio in Valatie, NY, after the killing of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests against systemic racism led by the Black Lives Matter movement.


Whelan felt compelled to do something that would join his art of portraiture to the effort to end racial injustice.


This painting depicts the historical connection between President Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the great civil rights leader. Both men became martyrs to the cause of racial equality across two centuries of American history.


The portrait is being exhibited for the first time in public.



Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War on September 22, 1862, ordering that in 100 days the federal government would deem all slaves free in states still rebelling against the Union. The iconic document, in the collections of the New York State Library since 1865, is the only surviving copy in Lincoln’s own handwriting.


The exhibit also includes historical background and interpretation. Photos and a transcript of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation are available on the State Library’s website.



Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Recording

In the only known audio recording of his 1962 speech commemorating the centennial of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice comes to life for exhibit visitors.

(John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union archive)
(John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union archive)

The speech was recorded live on September 12, 1962 at the Park-Sheraton Hotel in New York City. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller had convened his New York State Civil War Centennial Commission for a dinner celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.


The recording was discovered in 2013 by UAlbany master’s student Daniel Barker during his internship at the State Museum during a project to digitize the Museum’s collection of thousands of audio recordings and videos.


The typewritten speech and information on how he came to speak at the celebration dinner may be found on the Museum’s website at http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/mlk-1962-address


NYS Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl wrote a story about the discovery -- Discovery of unknown Martin Luther King recording thrills historians, -- published in the Albany Times Union on Jan. 18, 2014.


Discovery of unknown Martin Luther King recording thrills historians

State Museum reveals forgotten 1962 tape of MLK in New York


By Paul Grondahl, Jan. 18, 2014, Albany Times Union

An unknown 1962 audio recording of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 26-minute speech in New York City to celebrate the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln;s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation — a tape that was undetected for 35 years in a box at the State Museumfollowing a 1979 donation — thrilled historians and reinforced the vital role played by an unpaid college intern.


A typed transcript of the speech and copy of the program for the event were widely known and stored in the State Archives, but nobody knew that a recording existed.


The dramatically sonorous voice and measured cadence on the tape caused a jolt of recognition for intern Daniel Barker, who had spent hundreds of hours digitizing dozens of mundane recordings of agricultural activities and weather news from the same collection.


Photo courtesy of the NYS Museum: Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on Sept. 12, 1962 at a New York City hotel on the 100th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation.


"His voice is so unmistakable," Barker said of the Eureka moment on Nov. 12, 2013. "There was no way it wasn't Dr. Martin Luther King on the tape. I said, 'Craig, you better listen to this.' "


Craig Williams, curator of history at the State Museum, heard King's voice and a ripple of excitement ran through the room. After Williams and others researched King's speech on Sept. 12, 1962 at the Park-Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan and learned that this was the only known recording of the event, they knew they had captured lightning in a bottle.