How Should the 150th Anniversary of Emancipation Be Commemorated?

Emancipation Day Parade, Richmond, Va

Today I came across the Remembering Slavery, Resistance, and Freedom Project, which is a partnership between The College of William and Mary and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Association.  This really is a wonderful example of how technology can promote and shape a community’s efforts to commemorate its past.  What I like most about this project is the grassroots element.  Organizers are not just looking for Facebook likes or Twitter followers; rather, they are encouraging involvement through attendance at any number of community meetings across Virginia.  Here is a list of their goals:

  • To publicly recognize sites throughout the Commonwealth associated with slavery, resistance to slavery, and emancipation from slavery
  • To foster respect for the lives of enslaved persons and to contribute to an honest and informed public understanding of the consequences of the enslavement of Africans and African Americans
  • To assist in the public’s recognition of “slaves” as complete persons who recognized and asserted their own humanity by memorializing their dead, who should be credited for what they produced, and who, by their very humanity and personalities, naturally resisted attempts to turn Africans and African Americans into property
  • To reveal the pervasive historical presence of African and African American lives and experiences
  • To provide events of remembrance that contextualize Virginia’s commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Lincoln’s relevance to Virginia and the Emancipation Proclamation
  • To design a commemorative website based on the messages and goals identified by regional communities

Whether you like it or not, Lincoln is central to Virginia’s story of emancipation.  You may remember that the Virginia Assembly recently failed to pass a resolution honoring Lincoln.  With the Assembly’s backing of this project I have to wonder whether they had any influence on the goals listed here.  It will be interesting to see whether the meetings and other forms of feedback lead to any substantial recognition of his place in this story.

This project is a positive sign given that I have not heard much on the Emancipation 150 front.

11 responses... add one

It’s hard to answer such a question because it assumes that we have some idea of what a sufficient amount of attention would look like. I am beginning to sense a little burnout in the Civil War community and perhaps even in the public at large.

Burnout. Typical American cultural attention deficit disorder perhaps. Or maybe it’s our collective propensity to disdain anything that we do not perceive as being directly applicable to our own lives and experiences. I suspect, though, that the answer is extremely multi-layered, if the question is answerable at all.

I have argued for several years now that the most proper way to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War would be for Congress to authorize a National Emancipation Memorial. If emancipation was the most important outcome of the war, surely it deserves a national memorial. There is a small 1876 statue on Capitol Hill remembering emancipation, but the statue is more an homage to Lincoln than to the act of emancipation. The large reception hall in the new underground Capitol is named “Emancipation Hall,” but that is quite different from a memorial.

Hi Dwight,

Nice to hear from you. On the one hand I agree that a national memorial to emancipation located on the National Mall would be entirely appropriate, but it is difficult to see how such a project would be able to steer clear of some very nasty politics. I don’t mind admitting that I do not miss the federal government’s involvement in the Sesquicentennial, especially after reading Robert Cook’s wonderful study of the Centennial, Troubled Commemoration, which I am sure you are familiar with.

Mr. Pitcaithley’s suggestion is well taken. The fact that it may involve some controversy just illustrates the continued relevance of the Proclamation to the 21st Century’s march towards broader inclusion in the American polis.

I hope it’s not too OT too ask if there’s been any discussion of the Homestead Act as embodying another Union war aim? I believe the Free Soilers were a significant part of Lincoln’s support.

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