BackStory; Henceforth Free: The Emancipation Proclamation
This is backstory. I'm Peter Onough. We had no home, you know. We just turned out like a lot of cattle. You know how to turn cattle out in the past. Well, after freedom, you know, kind of even didn't have nothing. That's the voice of Fountain Hughes, a former slave describing his experience of emancipation. It was recorded in the 1930s. At a time when the promise of freedom was for many African-American still challenged by the harsh inequalities of everyday life. And how was emancipation remembered a generation later in the midst of the civil rights struggle? And what should we make of it today? You know, emancipation is really, really hard especially for African-Americans because the notion of having been freed by someone else, which is what the narrative of emancipation has been for so long, is just a hard one to swallow. Today on backstory, grappling with emancipation. Major funding for backstory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities,
the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is backstory. With the American History Guy. Welcome to the show. I'm Brian Ballot, 20th Century Guy, and I'm here with Ed Ayers, not the Century Guy, and Peter Onovs with us. 18th Century Guy. In a small park, just east of the U.S. Capitol, there's a tall monument, depicting two bronze figures on a high pedestal. One is Abraham Lincoln, his right hand resting on a scroll. That scroll is the emancipation proclamation. His left hand is outstretched over the head of the second figure, whose crouched at Lincoln's feet. It's a newly freed slave, broken manacles hanging from his wrists. This man isn't identified anywhere on the monument, but he was modeled on a real person. A man by the name of Archer Alexander, who was a man who had escaped from a Confederate sympathizing slave owner in Missouri.
This is Kirk Savage, an art historian at the University of Pittsburgh. He explained that Alexander escaped from slavery in the spring of 1863, a few months after the emancipation proclamation took effect. But here's the thing. Alexander was from Missouri, and Missouri was a slave state that was loyal to the Union, and Lincoln's proclamation only applied to states in rebellion, which meant that under federal law, Alexander would still have been considered a fugitive slave, and he would have remained a fugitive slave until Missouri abolished slavery in 1865. So here's the irony. You have the figure of Lincoln up above this man, Archer Alexander, who's now modeled after Archer Alexander. And Lincoln is actually literally holding in his right hand the emancipation proclamation, a document that did absolutely nothing to free the man at his feet. This month marks 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment's passes through Congress.
That was the amendment that did away with slavery once and for all. If you've seen the movie Lincoln, you have a sense of the legislative struggle that led up to that moment. And stories like the one we just heard about Archer Alexander remind us how complicated and drawn out the entire transition from slavery to freedom was. A couple of years ago, we produced a show on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation, which came around in January 1863. We figured we'd replay that episode today, since that executive order by Lincoln laid the groundwork for the momentous achievement of January 1865. Let's return to that monument in DC. It's the only national monument to emancipation, and it was conceived by former slaves as a tribute to Lincoln after his assassination. But the money those former slaves collected for the project was controlled by an all white charitable organization. And before that group settled on the design we just heard about,
Lincoln's standing, Archer Alexander kneeling, it considered a very different idea. They initially chose a design by a woman sculptor, actually, by the name of Harriet Hosmer in 1866. And the design called for a huge sculptural kind of assemblage that would have feature an image at the top of Lincoln on his Sepulchre, you know, dead, and horizontal at the top of the monument, surrounded at the base by a series of figures of African-Americans that sort of told a archetypal story of African-American history, starting with a slave figure and working its way around the pedestal until you get to a soldier figure, adjacent to it on the other side, so that you had this pairing of the slave and the soldier in the front of the monument. It would have been about 60 feet high, something like that, monumental. It would have been the largest monument in Washington at that time by far.
They were after a really big bold statement, and the inclusion of the figure of the African-American soldier was a really big and bold statement for that time. With the prone Lincoln and the slave literally rising, this seems to convey a pretty front and center role for the formerly enslaved people. Absolutely, and that's what's so striking about that design is that it really gives agency, you know, to African-Americans and their history. It really puts them front and center in the story of emancipation, because Lincoln is dead at the top of the monument. He is no longer an agent in this monument, and it's, in fact, the African-Americans below him who become the agents in the monument, and this is a complete, you know, reversal of the history of representation of slaves in African-Americans in the US. Now, I do a lot of research in Washington. I have missed this monument that you just described. Did I take a wrong turn? No, well, they simply didn't get anywhere near the money that they needed to be able to erect this design.
So they went to a plan B, and plan B was, in a sense, almost the opposite of plan A. Plan B was a design that was kind of off the shelf already made by a sculptor named Thomas Ball. Basically, it's a rehash of the typical imagery of the slave prior to emancipation, the figure of the kneeling slave who implores an unseen kind of savior. Around him says, am I not a man and a brother? Where would Ball have seen this before the war? Well, he would have seen it everywhere. I mean, it was in print form. It was circulated in prints. Women would create pin cushions with this image on it and handkerchiefs and all kinds of household items and sell them at, you know, fundraisers for the abolitionist movement. And this was the most famous and the most common image of an African-American really in the world.
It was a lone slave figure, you know, so there was nobody with him. That was part of the power of it. He's sort of appealing even though he's shown in profile. He's in a sense appealing to you. Yes. He's asking you, am I not a man and a brother? It's a notorious image now, a days, because it really expresses the kind of total lack of agency, the idea that the slave, you know, couldn't possibly engage in any kind of resistance or any kind of effective action on his own behalf, but has to rely on a white savior. And that white savior was Abraham Lincoln in this case. Then becomes Abraham Lincoln. So what, you know, what ball realized was that, hey, we can complete the image now. Right. We can kind of complete the narrative, right? This was a question mark before, am I not a man and brother? Now we've answered it and we can answer it with the figure of Abraham Lincoln, who comes in as the great white savior responding to the plea of the lowly slave. So could it help me understand what do you make of all of this?
Well, I understand all the reasons why it was made the way it was in its own time and place. But I think this could not be imagined and understood in any kind of way that was truly emancipating for the slave population. You know, the fact that they had to fall back on the antebellum formula of the representation of the passive slave and in a sense had to re-inslave this slave in the monument. I think speaks to a much larger cultural failure to actually rethink our society in the wake of the end of slavery. Kirk Savage is a professor of art history at the University of Pittsburgh. You can read more about the emancipation monument in his book, Standing Soldiers Kneeling Slaves. And you can check out images of the monument on our website, backstoryradio.org.
Almost 100 years after Thomas Ball's memorial was created, the nation had another big opportunity to commemorate emancipation. It was the 100 year anniversary of the Civil War, an event that Yale historian David Blight writes about in a new book called American Oracle. I asked David what civil rights leaders wanted to see happen for the centennial of Lincoln's proclamation. Within only a week or two of President Kennedy's inauguration, January of 61, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his aides in SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, began to lobby the White House to issue what they explicitly called a second emancipation proclamation. And by that, they meant an executive order just as Lincoln had done during the Civil War, outlawing segregation. So in the summer of 62, while the White House has this appeal from King, which they had no intention of really acting on as an executive order from the President,
they did somewhat hastily plan a special event at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate emancipation. Now initially it was even announced that Kennedy himself would be the speaker, the keynote speaker would be the President. But because the civil rights movement was so sensitive within about two weeks of the event, Kennedy announced or the White House announced the Kennedy because of a scheduling problem was not going to be able to appear. The truth is he went instead to attend the America's Cup Yacht race off Nantucket. In his stead, somewhat hastily, the keynote speaker was announced as Adelaide Stevenson. Now at least Stevenson was at that point the US Secretary of the United Nations had the ambassador of the United Nations. Now the event came off fine, but the speech that Stevens actually gave, the speech is essentially a Cold War speech to the Third World about how the United States, the United America, out of its divisive past was now your beacon.
And very little was said at this commemoration about the emancipation proclamation itself, how it came about, what it actually did, or for that matter, the process of emancipation during the Civil War and keep in mind. The civil rights movement is out there, roiling across the landscape of the South at the very time they have this commemoration. This event was treated in the black press in black newspapers like Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and others as a missed opportunity to say the least. David Blight is a professor of history at Yale University. His book about the centennial is called American Oracle, the Civil War in the Civil Rights Era. So as we heard civil rights leaders were pretty disappointed with that official centennial commemoration of emancipation and I think you can understand why.
A year later Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and he commemorated emancipation in a very different way. A lot of people don't realize it, but the famous dream part of the speech was ad-libbed and comes at the very end. The majority of the speech was actually about emancipation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later the Negro still is not free. It's time for a short break. When we come back why Lincoln refused to end slavery in royal states like Maryland and Kentucky.
You're listening to backstory, we'll be back in a minute. This is backstory, I'm Brian Ballot, I'm Ed Ayers. And I'm Peter Ronoff. Today we're replaying a show from our archives about the emancipation proclamation and about the repercussions of emancipation in the months, years and decades that followed. So you might be wondering why it took Lincoln so long to issue the emancipation proclamation. I mean, he had been elected two years earlier on an anti-slavery platform. Well, by 1862 a lot of his fellow Republicans were wondering the same thing. On the face of this wide earth, Mr. President, there's not one disinterested, determined, intelligent champion of the union cause who does not feel that the rebellion, if crushed out tomorrow, would be renewed within a year. If slavery were left in full vigor and that every hour of deference to slavery is an hour of added and deepened peril to the union. This is New York Tribune editor, Horce Greeley, writing in August of 1862.
A month earlier, Congress had passed the Second Confiscation Act, saying that all slaves belonging to rebel fighters should be considered free. But Greeley felt that Lincoln wasn't doing much to enforce that law. Three days later, the paper printed a response from the president himself. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the union without freeing any slave, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing all slaves, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. The next month, Lincoln went with option number three. In 100 days time, he would free some slaves, but leave others alone. On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord, 1,863, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state. The people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States. She'll be then, thens forward and forever free.
You could see it as basically a big stick to get the Confederacy to stop fighting with the carrot that if they do stop fighting, those who own slaves get to keep their slaves. This is Michael Vorinberg, a legal historian who spent a lot of time studying the proclamation. And again, this is the preliminary emancipation proclamation. The final proclamation would come 100 days later after the carrot and stick approach had failed and would come with a few key changes. Lincoln removed language about compensating slave owners and shipping freed slaves out of the country. He also authorized the enlistment of African Americans in the armed forces of the United States. And finally, he specified the places where the proclamation would take effect. And in the states listed, none of the border states are mentioned. Now, a border state, by which I mean, a state that's in the union, but is still a slave state. Maryland, for instance.
Maryland was one of these, Delaware. No disrespect to Delaware. That was probably the least important. But Maryland is terribly important because it borders Washington. Missouri is a very important state in the West. And Kentucky, I think Lincoln regarded as the most important of these states. You know, he famously said, I hope to have got on my side, but I must have Kentucky. Michael, when we look back at the emancipation proclamation, we tend to be disappointed. And we think it's a bit cynical. I mean, why isn't he doing something about slavery across the country where he actually has power? Maybe you could make it clear to our listeners what the constitutional constraints were on Lincoln. What could he do? And was he pushing that to the absolute limits? Here, there's a lot of controversy. And I would say he was pushing it pretty much to the absolute limits. It's worth remembering that in areas where war is not going on, he doesn't have the power to simply free all the slaves in the union states in other areas. Michael, just to be clear, Lincoln is acting under his conception of his war powers under the Constitution.
That is exactly right. He understood that if you wanted to abolish slavery, it had to happen to the states. That was the custom that had become such an accepted piece. It was almost as good as being explicit in the Constitution. Right. And might this constitutional parsing this tightrope that he is walking might this explain the really dry language of the emancipation proclamation? Is it possible that he was simply trying to dampen a more emotional evocative approach? That is exactly why I think he uses this phrasing because he wants to make it clear that he is acting in his capacity as commander in chief, not as the executive of the nation. And not as this is important, not as the spokesman for the nation. And you know, when he gives a second inaugural, when he deals directly with the issue of slavery and beautiful and really powerful words, he's thinking about being a spokesman of the nation. But this is something different. That's Michael Warrenburg. He's an historian at Brown University.
We're going to devote a little time now to an aspect of Lincoln's thinking that seemed to stand in direct contradiction to emancipation. I'm talking about his support for colonization, the idea that freed slaves should be resettled outside the United States. So guys help me with this. At the very time that Lincoln is writing the emancipation proclamation, a truly revolutionary document, a document that is going to lay the foundation for the freedom of four million slaves. He's also talking about shipping those freed people out of the country. And people who look at this and they go, well, this just suggests that the whole emancipation proclamation thing is bogus. He's still looking for a way to turn America white to get rid of black people. Is Lincoln a cynical racist? Is he a shrewd politician? So let's start with the shrewd politician. Brian, I know that's the kind of thing that you especially write up my alley. So tell us the political situation. And why Lincoln might be talking about colonization in order to help get emancipation accomplished?
Well, in typical 20th century fashion, Ed, I'm going to use two sound bite phrases. The first is coalition politics, which I think even Peter would agree has a very long heritage in the United States. Lincoln is trying to hold together a shaky coalition. Remember, you know, the Republican parties have very new thing. He's got elections coming up, what today we call midterm elections coming up in November of 1962. And he is all across the North with crucial governorship and so he is trying to hold together the more conservative elements of his Republican party. And there are lots of folks in that coalition.
There are lots of residents in the border states, who still own slave, who really were very upset about not so much the end of slavery, somewhere upset about that in and of itself, but what would happen to all of these slaves? It's where the second sound bite comes in and it's exit strategy. He needs to at least have a plausible case for what's going to happen to all of these enslaved people when they are freed. So that's kind of the instrumental, even cynical interpretation of things. Brian, that makes a lot of sense. That's in effect, we might say pandering to the center. Something I love to do, Peter. Yeah. But what I think it fails to see is what colonization had meant throughout the antebellum decades, where the idea comes from in the first place. If you go back to the period of the American founding, the American revolution and look forward, and I think that's our challenge here, you can see that men and women of good faith would say, you know, this is the only plausible solution that is emancipation and expatriation because think about it.
We're in a state of war here in the American revolution. And of course, the great fear of slaveholders throughout the history of slavery is going to be servile insurrection. Well, guess what? When you're fighting a foreign war against, let's just say, Britain, then your slaves can become a fifth column. They represent a real security threat. So to some extent, there's a kind of a profound realism to this idea of colonization. This is going to be a solution to an intractable situation of conflict between different races. And that idea has legs, folks. It goes through the antebellum period. And when Lincoln evokes it, it's not just political calculation. It's not just Lincoln pandering to the center. Lincoln comes from the center. He's asking the American people, would you make this enormous investment in a solution which would enable black people and white people not to live together, but to live in peace as separate nations. But his ideas are changing because the war is changing. The reports that he's receiving every day from Washington tell one story after another of how black people are the best allies of the Union forces. They're telling them which route to take. They're telling them how the rebels are massing somewhere. They're telling them where they can find the cash of food.
And Lincoln looks at this and says, maybe these African American people aren't an enemy in our midst. Maybe they're the best allies in our midst than we have. And that any imaginable future for this country is going to have to acknowledge that. So even as Lincoln continues to mention colonization here and there, the great thrust of his ideas and of his actions are toward actually incorporating African Americans into whatever America is going to follow the end of this war. Okay, so far in the show, we've heard about how Lincoln's thinking about emancipation had developed and what he ultimately decided to do. Issue the emancipation proclamation. What was the response in fall of 1862 to that proclamation? Brian, you mean what were the responses to this document because Republicans, including many abolitionists, were very pleased that Lincoln had stepped forward. Democrats said this is just what we were expecting. He is out there to help, well, they use all kinds of racist language playing on fears of what was going to happen in the north as a result of this act.
And that range of opinions extended even into the army itself on the one hand were soldiers who supported emancipation, a lot of whom were coming into contact with black people for the first time and who were very impressed with what they were seeing. On the other hand, you still have people like George McClellan, the general in charge of the entire Union war effort. McClellan was adamantly opposed to emancipation and in fact warn Lincoln many times not to make this into a war to enslavery. In the south, the range of reactions was even wider. I recently sat down with Christi Coleman, who's president of the American Civil War Center at historic Tredagr in Richmond, to talk about some of those reactions. We began with a point of view of enslaved people and Christi pointed out that their fight for freedom started well before Lincoln's proclamation.
When the conflict first begins, you have African Americans in the south being brought into the war effort as general laborers with certain specializations and skills that are needed to support the army that is being developed. But it becomes really fascinating when these folks decide I've had enough of this. I really want to go to the Union forces. And we see that most notably with what happens at Fortress Monroe here in Virginia, where you have three African American men who had been assigned to digging trenches by their master to dig the canal. And they manage to steal away on a boat and make their way to Fortress Monroe. And once they get there to offer themselves as labor, as information source, what have you to Union forces and general butler. And Butler decides to give them respite. He gives them their freedom, if you will.
And this is happening to Union officers in the western theater, into the south. Slaves are running away and getting to Union forces. And they are doing this before there's ever the first confiscation act or any of that. I mean, they're just they're doing this. They understand that they have to be active in their own freedom. Now you'll remember that when Lincoln issued his preliminary emancipation proclamation, it was intended as a kind of warning. And many enslaved people weren't sure if he would follow through on it come January. But even so, throughout the fall of 1862, tens of thousands of them continued to risk their lives to escape to Union lines wherever they were, whether they were New Orleans or South Carolina or Virginia or Tennessee. And how did white southerners respond to all of this? Christi Coleman says there was a combination of dismissal and of horror.
They claimed that this was an action to incite their happy peaceful Negroes into insurrection and in sport nation and a variety of murderous rampages. But politically speaking, they recognized that the proclamation really didn't have any power because they didn't recognize the United States. They were their own sovereign nation as far as they were concerned. So it had no impact. And I would relate that predominantly to what Jefferson Davis's response to this was essentially saying your proclamation means nothing to us. I mean, he uses the tad more flowery language than that. But in essence, you know, you're the criminal. You are the one who is creating unrest and you are the one who has violated this constitution. And we don't care what you say because in this respect, we have the moral superiority here. Do you think other white southerners, I mean, did non-slaveholders buy this idea? I think they were more likely to buy into this idea that, you know, you're getting ready to unleash something pretty horrible on society as a whole.
And it's going to come back to bite you. You know, don't think it's just going to be contained in the South. It's going to come into the North as well if you free all of these people. So, you know, I think that the non-slaveholding white, whether they are North or South, there are many who have the same concern. What does it mean once you free all of these people who, you know, the vast majority of white Americans at the time did believe were absolutely inferior? So what are you saying is that in the South, to both black and white people, this document doesn't really make that much difference. The document doesn't well because here's what I just heard you say. African Americans are doing everything they can in every way to make themselves free and all the congressional acts along the way that said, you may not return the slaves who come to you to their masters. Basically, already has created the main thing they need, which is a refuge. And the white South, it strikes me that the main result of this could be to solidify them against the Union Force because it says,
not only are we fighting for our national independence, but we are fighting for the very foundation of the society, which is based on racial slavery. Would you give any stock to that that it actually has a galvanizing effect in the South? Yes, I would say it does in that regard. It does have a galvanizing effect. No, no, no, not necessarily grudgingly because it makes sense because, you know, here's the other thing too. For the first time, you have, you know, with this proclamation, the aims of the North changes. Essentially, it's going up against what the South was fighting for to begin with. And there are a lot of people who have used and said over these past 150 years, no, no, no, this war was really about our constitutional rights as southerners. It was really about our rights to property. It was about states rights and all of those other things.
And we understand very clearly that at the core of that is the right to the institution of slavery and to use that and grow that. Now, for the North, starting into this war, you know, it was a war to preserve the Union. Lincoln has just changed the game with this proclamation. So, yes, it does galvanize the South. But at the same time, I think it has an equally interesting shift in the North. So, I think it's a mistake to even try to make this document simple. It is not enough to say, well, the truth matter is, the document didn't really free anybody because the Confederacy didn't recognize it. And the slaves that were already under Union control and the border states didn't unpack them at all. So, you know, it really didn't mean anything. But the psychological effect of this document was enormous. For everyone involved. For everyone involved. Because now we have a date. So, now we sit, now we wait, now we watch to see what is really going to happen come January 1. That's Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Predator in Richmond.
We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll bring our story up to the 21st century. How do people understand a man's patient today? You're listening to backstory. We'll be back in a minute. This is backstory. I'm Peter Runoff, you're 18th century guy. I'm Ed Ayers, you're 19th century guy. And I'm Brian Ballot, you're 20th century guy. Today on the show, we're marking the 150th anniversary of the constitutional amendment that did away with slavery by replaying an older show of ours about emancipation. While we were producing that show, we got an interesting comment on our website from a listener named Alan in Washington, D.C. So, we invited Alan to join us on the phone. Here's Alan. I just wanted to get your opinion on this. You know, it seems to me that for a lot of people, you know, the discussion about emancipation policy has been Lincolnized. Okay, it's been Lincolnized. So, what do I mean by that? Well, the thing is that, you know, Lincoln wasn't the sole force behind the unions emancipation proclamation. Like we know, for example, that in 1861, Benjamin Butler helped get the ball rolling when he gave asylum to three escaped slaves in Virginia.
And the Union Army would continue to give, you know, the fact of freedom to thousands of slaves even before the proclamation was issued. But it seems like people don't talk about that. Another thing, you know, it was a U.S. Congress that passed the Confiscation Act and then the militia act in 1861, 1862. Now, those authorized the use of black soldiers, and they also granted freedom to the slaves of rebel slaveholders. And it was the second Confiscation Act that actually has the language that the slaves would be forever free. And of course, Lincoln uses that in the emancipation proclamation. So, you know, it just seems to me like the focus is, you know, Abraham Lincoln all day, all the time. And I just wonder why, you know, all these other important players don't get any attention to notice because, you know, they're pivotal as well. Yeah, it's such a good question, Alan. You know, just recently, I was studying the preliminary emancipation proclamation.
And at the New York Public Library, they have a copy of it. And what you see is he literally took scissors and cut out those Confiscation Acts and pasted them in his draft of the preliminary emancipation proclamation. So, if you're looking for material evidence of your argument, there you are. I think that people at the time knew that there were all these other forces pushing toward emancipation and they're wondering what is taking Lincoln so long. It's not, it's if, hey, wait, suddenly the great emancipator comes out with this document, everybody's going, well, what took you so long? They've been waiting for this, right? Because Congress is pushing, his party is pushing, parts of the army are pushing, the abolitionists are pushing. He would have been seen at the time as a footdacker. He would not have been seen as a pioneer. So, why do we Lincolnize it? Well, part of it is is that we tend to personalize history in general. We tend to imagine that Winston Churchill won World War II, you know, that sort of thing. But it's also the case is that if we think about what the preliminary emancipation proclamation implied, which is that only the president of the United States with his role as Commander-in-Chief had the authority to end slavery as a war measure.
It's the war power, said. It's the war powers, right? Until he acted, Congress by itself or the Union Army by itself could not bring formal emancipation. So, that's my swing at your excellent question. What do you think? Yeah, I totally agree with that. And it gets a thing that, you know, it seems like even a lot of scholars don't give these other people the credit they, you know, they do. And so, we don't really appreciate how many hands went into making this policy. And, you know, the fact that they should be congratulated. Well, Alan, talking about so many hands, I'm surprised that you haven't talked about the role of enslaved people themselves. Because, in many ways, it's those people taking freedom into their own hands and forcing the hand of Lincoln on the one hand and demonstrating to the Union troops and to Lincoln himself, the valuable asset that these African-Americans can be to the Union that really is an important part of this emancipation story. Brian, I think Alan put his finger on it when he uses the word credit. Who deserves credit for what happened? But it seems to me at the end of the day, the American people have to credit themselves.
And Lincoln stands for the American people. This is not to denigrate anybody else's contributions. No president operates on his own. But he is the person who can symbolize and body epitomize everything that's happening to make victory in this war possible. Well, I want to introduce another element in our answer to Alan's good question. And that is the way we view Lincoln, I'm quite convinced, has been very influenced by the way the presidency itself has changed. And in the 20th century, there is what is known as the Imperial Presidents. For the Mount Rushmoreization of presidents. If you think about when the Lincoln Memorial goes up, for example, and that whole kind of imperial appearance that he has, I was just there last week, and struck by how unhumble, and it's how un-Lincoln-esque the Lincoln Memorial is. And I was thinking, in some ways, it's in the wake of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, their idea of what a president is becomes imperial.
So I think we've forgotten the home spun nature of 19th century America and of Abraham Lincoln. And just to be sure, I don't want to take anything away from Lincoln. No, he took a lot of risk in that policy to be sure. But I'm wondering as the cessquecentennial goes on, how many, for example, if you watch C-SPAN, how many forms are they going to be about Lincoln and emancipation, and how many about what the union army did, and how many pounds are going to be about what the Congress did. And, you know, what will people really remember about the role of others after all this is over? But I guess, you know, I'll see what happens. So, Alan, I have a question for you. What car would best represent the true story of emancipation? If it's not the Lincolnization, what is it? It would probably be the minivan because the minivan. No, that's good. That's very good. I like it. So there's room for everybody. I love it. Thank you so much, Alan.
All right. Thank you. Bye-bye. We spent most of our show today focusing on how past generations of Americans have understood emancipation. So we're going to take a moment right now to ask what emancipation means to us today. You know, in the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, universities and other public institutions are holding events to try to figure that out. One, held recently at Virginia Commonwealth University, was called the Civil War and emancipation in the age of Obama. It featured Tanahashi Coats, a senior editor at the Atlantic, who for the past several years has been writing and blogging about the Civil War and its relevance to Americans today. One of our producers, Eric Minnell, caught up with Coats after the event. You know, emancipation is really, really hard, especially if I'm African-Americans because the notion of having been freed by someone else, which is what the narrative of emancipation has been for so long, is just a hard one to swallow, given current African-American identity.
Do you think there's a better way to think about it? Yeah, and I think, you know, I can take no credit for this at all. I think the Academy is really caught up on this, and if you talk to historians, what's invoked now, and I hope states invoked, is emancipation is a very, very old idea in the African-American mind. I mean, in African-American politics, and Lincoln was pushed to it. Not that Lincoln doesn't deserve credit, you know, for doing it, but this is a manifestation of a fight. The African-Americans have weighed since we got here in 1619. This is a long process of accepting all people in this country as full citizens, as full stakeholders. And you can stretch it back, again, from 1619 all way up to Barack Obama. One interesting thing I think you brought up in the talk was that people don't need to keep defending their grandfathers and their decisions, and things that they've done. And so I'm wondering, and you were speaking specifically about Confederate heritage, I think, about a mistake, right? And so I'm wondering if there's another side to that argument that says,
is there a place for emancipation in American history for the African-American community today? The other side of that is that you don't have to be ashamed that your great-great-great-grandfather was a slave. You know, your great-great-great-great-grandfather was known the best he could, best, you know, great-great-great-grandmother was known the best she could. There is a, you know, I went through this when I first started getting into this, so what there is, you know, an immense attraction to find people who emulate what you think, what you like to think you would do. You know, so there's an attraction to the U.S. CT, there's an attraction to not turn it, there's an attraction to, you know, people violently resisting. So, but there's reasons why, you know, people did and didn't do certain things. So, it ain't about you. That's the way I can put it. You know what I mean? It ain't about you in that sort of way. You know, at least not that, you know, sort of small you. You know, this blood is in my veins, so that means I did X, Y, Z, Y, K, B, X, Y. That's not what it's about. What is it about? Well, see here's the contradiction. It is about you, right? It's about you as a human being, okay? And understanding how human beings react to certain processes, react under certain conditions in certain places in certain times.
You know, can I say under the condition that I would have freed all my slaves? I mean, that's easy to say, right? It's easy to look at Robert E. Lee and say, oh, horrible, horrible. But what would you have done? What would you have done? When you understand what slavery was in this country, you understand it manumitting all of your slaves while you were alive. We have made you a pariah among your society. You know, this is a means of social organization. Can you say you would have done anything better? And that's like a profound insight to me. So, it's about you in that sense where you are confronted with your own frailty and your own weakness. So, when I say it ain't about you, it ain't about you. You know, making like you was bigger, you would have done better. I mean, what you have to say is I would have been just like them because it's probably true. You know, the Frederick Douglass' are the exceptions. These are exceptions to the rule. These are not the rule. You are the rule and you probably would have been the same way. So, it's about humility.
Ta-Nehisi Coats is a senior editor at The Atlantic. You can find links to some of his articles on our website, backstoryradio.org. We're going to end our show today with the voices of those most affected by emancipation, former slaves themselves. Beginning in the 1930s, federal projects like the Works Progress Administration sent unemployed writers around the South to record the stories of freed people. In those interviews, we hear descriptions of life under slavery, man in a few cases of the first moments of freedom. You're going to hear three voices in this next piece. The first is Fountain Hughes of Charlottesville, Virginia. Second is Billy McCray of Jasper, Texas, and the third is Laura Smalley of Himsted, Texas. My name is Fountain Hughes. I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson. My grandfather was 115 years old when he died. And now I am 101 years old.
The things come to me in spirit at all. I remember things more when I'm laying down and I do understand when I'm walking around. We had no harm in the world. We had just turned out like a lot of cattle. You know how to turn cattle out in the past. But after freedom, you know, kind of you didn't have nothing. After we got freed and turned this over, like cattle, we didn't have no way to go. We didn't have nobody to boss us. We didn't know nothing. We didn't want to know school. The dogs have got it now. But then we had it when we come wrong. A lot of people are free. And some of them are free now. Some of them now would rather be slaves. Which would you rather be in the family? Me? Besides the other people.
You know what I had the other thing? If I thought, I didn't know that I would never be a slave again. I'd take a girl and this and it all right away. Because you're nothing but a dog. You're not a thing but a dog. And the youngest has come and after a while, there will be a whole two men come. Next time you see the command holds two men. All right and horses. It's good hanging on this. No one except you. Lord, stand up now. All going home.
But hey, all of you, you'll get it all free now. Thank you so much. You were born right there and everything. Born right there and stayed there until I was about 19 or maybe more. It stays right there. We didn't want to go. Mom and them didn't want to go. You see how the field broke just turned. Just like you turned some mouth. You know, didn't want to go. That's where they stayed. Didn't want to go. Turns out just like you know you turn out count. I say. You know what? Oh, I didn't tell you. You know what was free. They didn't tell you. I don't know what you didn't tell. They waited. I think now they stayed there. Wait them.
Six months out of that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That's why you know you celebrate that day. Colorfuls. So, celebrate that day. Can you remember any that the slave song? Could you? Could you? There are the day I was saying any songs. You know, I never said, didn't slave it. But I hear them sing. So I'm after freedom. I know them. But I, you know, that was way back. So I can hear all the singing of them. And one of them, I think to remember, my whole step that he used to sing about the thunderbolt rattling. Post-Synastone. So I was like, Lord, I've got a union in my soul. I ain't got a long stay. I've heard it. Can you sing or that's that? That's a good one. I've heard it. Can you sing or that's that? That's a good one. That's a good one.
I ain't got no voice for singing. I ain't got no voice for singing. I ain't got no voice for singing. Those were the voices of Fountain Hughes, Billy McCrae and Laura Smalley.
The recordings and hours more like them are available to us thanks to the Library of Congress and the American Folklife Center. You can download them at backstoryradio.org. Today's episode of backstory was produced by Tony Field, Jessing Abretson, Eric Mennel, Major Support for Backstories provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel, history made every day. Peter O'Nuff and Brian Ballot are professors in the University of Virginia's Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. Backstories was created by Andrew Windham
for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Backstories is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
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- This month marks the 150th anniversary of the 13th amendment's passage through Congress. That was the amendment that did away with slavery once and for all. But on January 1, 1863, two years before, President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that all slaves in the rebellious states "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Today, Lincoln is remembered as "The Great Emancipator," but the story of emancipation is complex and contradictory. And the question of how we choose to commemorate this anniversary can be touchy. On this episode, we set out to understand the way Americans thought about emancipation in 1862, and reflect on its shifting meanings since then. Along the way, we make stops at the Emancipation Memorial in Washington D. C., the Civil War centennial commemorations in the height of the Civil Rights Era, and the former capital of the Confederacy today. And we hear the voices of former slaves themselves, remembering their first experiences of freedom.
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- Chicago: “BackStory; Henceforth Free: The Emancipation Proclamation,” 2015-00-00, BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-532-w37kp7w66v.
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- APA: BackStory; Henceforth Free: The Emancipation Proclamation. Boston, MA: BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-532-w37kp7w66v