One hundred and fifty years ago this month, Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. On September 22, 1862, he released a preliminary document promising to free slaves in any southern state still in rebellion on January 1, 1863.
A few days earlier at the battle of Antietam 23,000 men had been killed or wounded in the bloodiest day of battle in American history. Lincoln had always abhorred slavery but his primary goal was to preserve the Union. By the summer of 1862 he had concluded that freeing slaves was an essential step in defeating the Confederacy. Antietam was inconclusive but it was victory enough to give Lincoln the confidence to announce his proclamation.
Today’s historians are focusing increasingly on slavery and emancipation as the central story of the Civil War. However, it is important to remember that well before Lincoln’s proclamation many slaves had already freed themselves. As Dr. Edward Ayers, a noted historian of the South and president of the University of Richmond, told a Richmond audience last year, when Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, African Americans “seized the opportunity to make themselves free.” Three enslaved men escaped to the Union army at Fortress Monroe. “As soon as word spread, thousands of men and women took this first opportunity to begin their journey to freedom.”
Many black Americans joined the Union forces. They fought at considerable risk. They knew that if they were captured, they faced possible execution.
By 1863, two hundred thousand African Americans were fighting for the United States. By 1865, a regiment of black soldiers marched into Richmond as Confederate soldiers fled leaving much of the city in flames. Emancipation was something they fought and died for; it was not handed to them on a plate.
In seminars and symposiums scholars are revisiting this historic moment. But what does Emancipation mean for America today? What are the obstacles to creating communities of hope and opportunity for everyone? From what do we still need to free ourselves, individually and as a nation?
"Central to the American Dream,” says Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson and biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, who teaches at the University of Illinois, “is the creation of a new history by defeating poverty, illness and pain.” How one wishes that leaders of both our political parties could embrace such a vision! Poverty has scarcely been mentioned by either presidential candidate. Meanwhile the yawning gap between the very rich and the working poor continues to widen.
Whites are suffering along with minorities. Life expectancy for the poorest and least-educated whites has fallen by four years since 1990 and by five years for women. The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in a report in the New York Times.
Gandhi will come to Richmond, Virginia, on November 9 to discuss “emancipation in our times.” He will find a city that has made dramatic strides in its ability to tell its history honestly, but a metropolitan region that has as yet failed to muster the vision and courage to address the inequities in education, housing and public transportation that are the result of a history of slavery and segregation.
Metropolitan cities across the country face huge challenges. Meeting those challenges demands leaders who will look beyond the demands of their own group.
Prof. John Witt of Yale calls the Emancipation Proclamation “the greatest moral triumph in modern political history.” One hundred and fifty years after Lincoln’s bold action, who will have the courage to risk political fortune, speak truth to this country and create a new history?