Emancipation and the Quest for Freedom

Emancipation and the Quest for Freedom

NPS Primary Theme: Though most Northerners embraced abolition as a practical measure rather than a moral cause, the abolition of slavery emerged as one of two dominant objectives of the Union war effort. The war resolved in a legal and constitutional sense the single most important moral question that afflicted the nascent republic—an issue that prevented the country from coalescing around a shared vision of freedom, equality, and nationhood and hampered the emergence of the United States as a moral and economic leader on the world stage.

  • NPS Subtheme: For millions of enslaved Americans, war meant liberation followed by a complex journey into freedom. Runaway slaves were so intent on achieving their freedom, they forced the issue of emancipation onto the Union agenda. But freedom did not mean racial equality; indeed, those who were most committed to the ideals of freedom that underlay the Constitution were often persecuted for their efforts to achieve and sustain true freedom. The quest for equality by former slaves, their descendants, and other Americans of color was an issue left undecided by the war.
  • NPS Subtheme: Freedom for four million former slaves stimulated myriad responses from white Americans—ranging from ready acceptance to reluctant tolerance to violent opposition.

NOTE: Please use the comments section below to chronicle your progress with this theme throughout the remaining weeks of the course. Begin by outlining how your group decided to work with the theme (e.g., assigning one theme to one person or dividing themes up between team members) and then outline in detail, at least once each week, the work that you have done toward crafting your three podcast proposals.



13 Responses to Emancipation and the Quest for Freedom

  1. Dianna Woolsey says:

    For the Lincoln Memorial, I called Rebecca Karcher at the National Mall, but found her away from the phone and left her a voicemail explaining my role in the project and some of the ideas and objects I’m interested in focusing on. Just now, as I was starting to send her a follow-up email, I realized that I’d overlooked the link passed along by the chief of interpretation there, about the series of video reflections focusing on particular aspects of the memorial (here). I had previously looked through some of the site’s multimedia material, but somehow missed these — they’re phenomenal! As an example of the multimedia interpretation work that these parks are already doing, they’re really impressive. I’m trying to think of them not as intimidating examples to live up to, but encouraging examples of what the parks are going to be able to make out of our outlines (they’re extremely polished and set a pretty high standard for presentation). Each one features a ranger speaking from his or her own perspective and experience about a piece of the memorial (in the reflection on the Second Inaugural, the ranger is speaking as a native Southerner who was raised to see Lincoln as an enemy, which is pretty powerful) and about the lessons, ideas and other intangibles that arise from it.

    I think what these mean for my Emancipation podcast is that I should make sure to add something to these reflections instead of missing them or duplicating them — I can either assume people have watched the reflections and make the podcast build upon them and refer to them, or I can try to lay signposts into my podcast that lead people to the video reflections and the stories in them.

  2. Dianna Woolsey says:

    I called FORA today in the hopes of reaching Josh Boles, but found him out of the office. A very helpful staffer at the information desk suggested that Monday would be a good time to reach him, so I will try then. In the meantime, I sent this email:

    “Hi Josh,

    I’m one of the students in the Fort Vancouver/Portland State University group working on the NPS Civil War 150 podcasting plan, and Mary Doll has given me your name as a good contact for resources related to Fort Raleigh. I’d like to build one of our podcasts around the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony and the theme of Emancipation.

    I’ve done some background reading on the colony, and I’m interested in using it as a resource to talk about a few of the lessons and uncertainties about emancipation. One is the disagreement in the minds of white Americans about what would result from emancipation (whether it would be colonization, integration, lasting inequality, etc) and the opportunity that afforded for experiments like the Freedmen’s Colony. Another is the lesson that the newly freed needed meaningful support in order to build communities and livelihoods, and how the conditions of need and dependence in the Freedmen’s Colony would replay themselves on a national scale after the Emancipation Proclamation. I’d also love to talk about military recruitment and the opening of army opportunities to black soldiers. The closing of the colony seems to provide some interesting opportunities as well; another member of our group is discussing the Nicodemus site and I think I could set the stage for that settlement by discussing the disappearance of opportunities like Roanoke Island as an incentive for folks to move west and seek something else. Are there other stories that you’d like to see told in this project, or themes that the park is highlighting as the sesquicentennial starts?

    Can you help me to identify some specific park resources to use as talking points in telling these stories? (I’m an archaeologist by training, so I particularly like having tangible items to guide discussion!) I’ve found a couple of photos on the FORA website that seem promising as ways to discuss the scale of the colony, its institutions, and its residents’ material comfort. Another website I ran across (the one run by the University of Virginia folks) features some extremely poignant letters from colony residents — does the park itself have things like that in collections? I’d prefer to use things that the park owns and can highlight or display, where possible, rather than things that are held in others’ collections.

    I appreciate your time and any help that you can give! When I called the park today one of your colleagues suggested I might be able to catch you on Monday, so I will try and reach you then.


    Dianna Woolsey”

    It’s amazing how much trying to compose an email helped me organize my thoughts, actually. I hadn’t previously articulated the idea about the problem of insufficient support replaying itself on the national scale, and now it seems like an incredibly fruitful line of discussion. Neat!

    • Dianna Woolsey says:

      Wow. I just got off the phone with Josh, and he was extraordinarily helpful. It turns out that, for a settlement with so much historical significance and so many opportunities to talk about the shape of emancipation, there’s really nothing physical left of it to interpret — no buildings, no recovered material culture, no first-person accounts. But there’s a book, Time Full of Trial (published by the University of North Carolina Press), in which the author has sifted through what second-hand accounts and dry legal documents there are and reconstructed what can be reconstructed about it; Josh said he gives the book to all of his seasonal employees to get them up to speed on the colony. The PSU library doesn’t have it, but I’m requesting it through ILL right this minute (I was tempted to go snag the single used copy from Powell’s, but decided that’s probably out of the scope of the project).

      Josh also gave me another contact, Michael Zatarga, who’s a park guide at FORA and knows the Freedmen’s Colony period especially well. I’ll contact him shortly!

      • Dianna Woolsey says:

        I’ve gotten my copy of “Time Full of Trial” from interlibrary loan and started reading it, and a few things are jumping out at me so far. One is that there are other “contraband camps” (settlements of former slaves around Union military lines that were similar to Roanoke Island but less formalized and with less intention to be permanent) that we could mention — I mentioned on the Border States page that Harpers Ferry is one, and Arlington is another. Roanoke Island was unique, but not so unique that other sites didn’t experience some of the same circumstances.

        Another is that the Union army was really recruiting heavily in these freedmen’s camps — one passage in “Time Full of Trial” describes one commanding officer’s recruitment strategy, which barred able-bodied black men from government work *other* than the military, and then proposed to arrest those who weren’t working. It sounds an awful lot like coercion to me, and puts the later complaint that the contraband camps and freedmen’s colonies were just holding pens for the infirm and unable to work into a different light. Of course they were holding pens for the unable to work, if those who could work were shoveled into the army as fast as they could form regiments! It’s a recipe for dependence, and I suspect that as I keep reading I’ll find that the missionaries who did a lot of the practical management, teaching, and supplying of the colonies and camps weren’t too happy with the army gutting their fledgling communities.

        I’ve also sent an email to Michael Zatarga, the 19th century historian at Fort Raleigh (I didn’t realize the site was lucky enough to have a 19th century historian!). Michael contacted me after my phone conversation with Josh, reiterating some of the difficulty of finding primary sources and physical remains of the colony. I’m hoping that he can offer some thoughts on how that came about; it seems like the motivations for white island residents either to remember or to erase the freedmen’s colony in the postwar period of uneasy reunion must have been somewhat complex.

    • Dianna Woolsey says:

      One thing I hadn’t anticipated was that the parks might find our target podcast length excessive — Josh expressed some reservation about whether there is really enough known about the Freedmen’s Colony to talk for 15-20 minutes. My gut feeling is that, expanding from the site to talk about some of the national-scale issues, there’s enough to say about emancipation overall to take up several long days. So the challenge that I think I’m seeing here is how to balance the small amount that there is to say about the site itself with the large amount that there is to say about emancipation, and stay focused enough on the site as an example that I don’t launch into lengthy abstract lecturing that will bore everyone but the history buffs.

  3. Dianna Woolsey says:

    Here are my thoughts on Booker T. Washington NM:

    Tangibles: I’m not finding very much information just from the park’s website about what physical resources they maintain — I know some BTW-related items are housed at Tuskegee or at Hampton and some are here — so I’ll have to ask for more detail when I’m in contact with someone at the park. I know the park has reconstructions of the Burroughs plantation buildings (it appears to be both the planter house and the kitchen cabin where BTW lived), some BTW photographs, and a pedestal marker that I can’t quite make out in the photos! Until I have a chance to find out what else is available there for visitors to connect to, it seems like a lot of what I have to work with is text — his autobiographical writing about his childhood and his recollections of the occasion of learning he was free, his later speeches and writings about what he felt should be the response of black people to their freedom, and one neat tidbit I found, a newspaper clipping from 1905 or so recounting BTW’s visit back to the Burroughs plantation as a free and respected statesman. I think the reconstructed farm and buildings make a nice combination with the stories in the clipping, and a chance to talk about the contrast in his status and the strangely fond way he chose to speak about the place then.

    Intangibles: I’d like to talk about the enormous expansion in the amount of education available to freed slaves as a consequence of emancipation and BTW’s work (this site doesn’t include Tuskegee Institute but I’d like to talk about it a bit anyway), his accommodation/compromise philosophy of race relations (including the Atlanta Compromise speech, which is an amazingly odd piece of speechwriting that I feel like I never knew about), and his intention to industrialize the freed black population of the South. Also optimism and nostalgia; throughout his writings BTW crafts a comfortable, kind, nostalgic image of the pre-emancipation plantation that segues into a vision of the future in which the white Southern population will gently shepherd their black neighbors into civil and legal equality and protect their rights, while the freed black population humbly and unresentfully accepts that help and asks for nothing radical but receives its due rights naturally in time… and this looks so shockingly naive in hindsight that I’d love to dig into it a bit more.

    Universals that are arising from these intangible ideas are, of course, freedom, rights and equality, education, and maybe optimism — or just hope — can be a universal also.

    • Dianna Woolsey says:

      I had a great conversation with Timothy Sims at BOWA today — we were on the phone for about an hour talking about Booker T. Washington’s writings, his political stance, the park’s interpretation, the reactions that the park gets from visitors (that was an interesting one; Timothy was saying that quoting BTW’s writings actually goes over really poorly with a lot of African-American audiences, because the compromise and conciliation sits as uncomfortably with them compared to the more insistent positions of civil rights), and the research the park is currently working on to flesh out and support its traditional interpretation.

      I’ve got about five pages of notes to sift through, and at least one reference to look up (Robert Norrell’s book Up From History), but a few things are jumping out at me. One is that BTW describes an interesting moment in the famous scene of the Union soldier reading the emancipation document to the (former) slaves — a point after hours of celebration at which people started asking “now what?” and wondering how they would start free lives with nothing and no money. I want to connect that with the situation at Roanoke Island and the wrenching demonstration there of what freedom with no resources looked like. Another is that Timothy pointed out how Booker’s family moved off of the site of their slave life and started a free life elsewhere instead of staying and renegotiating their life in the same place — that seems like an interesting thing to connect to some of the sites where we have records of people staying and renegotiating, like Cane River.

      Timothy and I had a great conversation about BTW’s political strategy — I mentioned to him that, as a Californian who does “radical” better than “compromise”, I have a reaction much like the African-American audiences in which I’m uncomfortable with accommodation and conciliation and I want to see the 19th century free black community’s preeminent speaker put his fist down and demand justice and change instead of offering acceptance and patience. His responses — focusing on the political and economic context, BTW’s awareness of the danger of getting his message mixed with more radical messages, and the financial support to be had from northern industrial powers by positioning Tuskegee as a nonthreatening source of industrial labor — were really interesting to me as ways to grapple with an uncomfortable philosophy, and I think those are really rich ways to talk about it given the wide audience and wide range of audience attitudes that these podcasts can reach. This is a place where I think it would be great to make our audiences cringe a little (as I’ve been doing) in the process of explaining the historically-contingent good sense that’s contained in what’s making them cringe.

      • Dianna Woolsey says:

        I just today got my copy of “Up From History” from interlibrary loan! I haven’t had a chance to start it yet, but it looks like an arresting read. Timothy suggested that it departs somewhat from the traditional scholarship on Booker T. Washington, so I’m excited to see how that is.

  4. Dianna Woolsey says:

    That’s a tough call to make — I wasn’t planning on dropping the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s hard to say no to your use for it. I was wondering whether I could find some way of mentioning the Dream speech; I haven’t quite figured that out yet. Let me lay out what I’m thinking for that site and see how good I feel about it.

    I was just thinking over my tangibles, intangibles, etc, and trying to figure out what I want to do with them. I definitely want to use the Emancipation mural, maybe in conjunction with the Lincoln statue itself — in an early design the seated Lincoln was actually in the process of signing the Emancipation Proclamation, and it’s interesting to me that that detail fell out of the final design and left emancipation represented only in the mural. Lincoln’s language about slavery in the 2nd Inaugural Address, carved on the wall, I personally find pretty affecting — is it strange to use a piece of prose as a tangible, if it’s carved on the wall so you can reach out and touch it?

    If text is too abstract to be a tangible, the speech is obviously also an intangible. So is the Emancipation Proclamation, and the uncomfortable political maneuvering and strategy that accompanied Lincoln’s issuance of it. There’s a theme in there about the willingness to try something that could easily fail, become moot if the Union lost the war, or just make too many enemies to accomplish its goal. And, even though this is verging on someone else’s theme, there’s an intangible about memory and mourning and why exactly it was so important to posthumously elevate Lincoln (in this temple as in the hearts of men) and to give him titles like the Great Emancipator.

    Universals obviously include freedom, and — especially as illustrated in the 2nd Inaugural Address language about offenses to god and the woe due to those who wrought them — justice. I’m not sure what the universal idea would be that relates to Lincoln’s posthumous elevation; I think it’s perhaps stepping on the toes of the Death & Dying and Commemoration folks, but there’s something in there that I want to touch on — there are contexts where the only thing that’s said about Lincoln is “he freed the slaves”, and I want to raise the question of why that one thing, out of everything else that could be said.

  5. Melissa Lang says:

    Can you let me know if you choose to not use the Lincoln Memorial? The ‘Legacy’ Group would love to use it as symbol of the Civil Rights Movement since that is where Martin Luther King Jr gave his I Have a Dream Speech (MLK in front of Lincoln monument -Legacy)

  6. Dianna Woolsey says:

    Final list of parks for Emancipation:

    Fort Raleigh
    Booker T. Washington
    Lincoln Memorial

  7. Pingback: Parks to Illustrate CW150 Themes: A Preliminary List | Interpreting the American Civil War

  8. Dianna Woolsey says:

    I’ve been going through the websites of the parks listed under this theme — most of them are parks I’ve barely even heard of, so I’m starting at zero — and I’ve stumbled across the history of the Freedmen’s Colony at Fort Raleigh in Roanoke. It’s a strange little side-note to the standard timeline of emancipation and I think it would be a good way to bring in a park that’s not normally associated in people’s minds with the Civil War.

    Thirty-second summary of why: the Union Army took control of the island in 1862, found itself in possession of a number of slaves who had been there building Confederate fortifications, and opted to declare them contraband of war, emancipate them, and use seized private lands to create an official free colony for them. This was almost a year before the Emancipation Proclamation, and it quietly attracted several thousand escaped slaves from the non-emancipated North Carolina mainland to become a pretty substantial community. It’s an example of one of the competing visions for what emancipation ought to look like: colonization, or placing free blacks into distinct territories that weren’t ever to be shared with whites. (I think I remember reading that this was Lincoln’s personal preference, although I can’t find it referenced in the Guelzo chapter now.)

    I would think that the story of this sort of seat-of-the-pants emancipation experience, as something smaller, earlier, and more structured than the later general emancipation, would be a good way to introduce those competing visions and work up to the Emancipation Proclamation; also, because the colony unfortunately ended with its land being returned to its antebellum owners, I’m thinking there’s something we can say about how structure and support were essential pieces to acts of emancipation if they weren’t going to fall apart and make a mockery of the freedom that was being granted… though that’s starting to segue into either our section on Consequences or the group covering Reconstruction.

    The park has a short history of the colony here: http://www.nps.gov/fora/historyculture/freedmenscolony.htm
    and there’s a website about the colony created by some folks at the University of Virginia here: http://www.roanokefreedmenscolony.com/

    That second website looks like it could be a good resource for primary documents; I’ve only glanced around it, but it appears to have text of letters from colony residents, maps, and maybe more. The NPS Fort Raleigh website doesn’t go into much detail about what their collections include for that period — I’ll contact them to find out more, but this raises the question: how much should we be limited to the park’s resources for primary documents and tangible objects, and how much can we go outside and reference outside collections that pertain to the park-centered story we’re telling?

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