Commemorating Emancipation

President Ayers begins national dialogue on emancipation

November 29, 2012

Let freedom ring.

It sounds like a simple enough concept, but today’s scholars of the Civil War are helping to illuminate the complexity, drama, and suspense of President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to emancipate the slaves in certain rebel territories.

“We celebrate Jan. 1 as the official proclamation, but in many ways its emergence in the summer of 1862 is the real miracle. We want to restore a sense of the uncertainty as well as the importance of this document,” explains University President Edward L. Ayers. “And to recognize this is not just the product of one man, but something that, in many ways, had been brewing for generations, with no certainty that it was going to eventuate in the ending of American slavery.”

This fall, Ayers worked with the National Endowment for the Humanities to organize a Constitution Day event exploring multiple historical perspectives.

On Sept. 17, students from five Richmond-area universities and several from the Washington, D.C., area packed an auditorium at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History to hear to a panel of experts discuss the various historical perspectives on Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves. Across the United States, more than 100 watch parties viewed a livestream of the event.

Students at the Smithsonian had a rare chance to see the brass inkstand that Abraham Lincoln used to draft portions of his historic proclamation. It was saved from the War Department telegraph office where Lincoln crafted early versions of the document.

On the panel, Ayers was joined by Thavolia Glymph, a Duke University expert on enslaved African Americans; Gary Gallagher, a Civil War military historian at the University of Virginia; Christy Coleman, director of the American Civil War Center in Richmond; and Eric Foner, a professor at Columbia University whose work interpreting race and Lincoln won him a Pulitzer Prize.

The group of scholars presented various perspectives around emancipation during the Civil War. Afterward, the panel responded to wide-ranging audience questions including the legality of Lincoln’s presidential proclamation and the status of black people in territories exempted by Lincoln’s proclamation. One seventh grader from Ohio asked how the South’s economy fared post Emancipation.

The panel also coincided with a high school lecture tour by Ayers designed to renew exploration of emancipation during commemorations of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The series aims to challenge students and educators alike to engage in critical thought and dialogue concerning some of the country’s most significant historical moments.

“There is no national holiday that recognizes this pivotal event,” says Ayers. “And it’s difficult to imagine a more important outcome than four million people being freed from perpetual bondage.”