‘Emancipation at 150’ panel discusses freedom

In celebration of the 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a panel of faculty members gathered to discuss “The Meaning of Emancipation.” The panel, held on Feb. 1, deliberated over the meaning of freedom around the time of the Civil War in comparison to the meaning of freedom and equality today.

Assistant professor of history Justin Behrend began the discussion by posing the question, “Today is a national holiday; does anyone know what it is?” 

Behrend revealed that Feb. 1 is National Freedom Day, a day set aside to commemorate Lincoln’s signing of the of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Behrend spoke about the origins of National Freedom Day, which began with former slave Richard Wright who believed that a day should exist to remember and recognize the continuing struggle toward freedom for African-Americans.

Behrend also compared the proclamation to recent civil rights legislation, noting that the way the proclamation allowed for African-American couples to get married was similar to the way new civil rights legislation permits the legal marriage of same-sex couples in nine states as of the beginning of 2013.

Assistant professor of history Cathy Adams discussed two distinct periods of emancipation. In both of these periods, Adams said, “Freedom did not necessarily mean freedom.” 

Adams noted that in the 1930s, many falsely believed that slavery had never existed despite the reality that many former slaves were still struggling to make lives for themselves.

“We don’t have national celebrations because it forces us to remember our own history,” Adams said.

Professor of art Steven Hart from Arizona State University presented images that conveyed the oppression and racism that existed in the early 1900s, including images of the Colfax massacre site, the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and the Montgomery bus station used during the Freedom Rides.

Chair of the anthropology associate professor Rose-Marie Chierici compared the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to emancipation. 

“The issue for me is more about freedom than emancipation,” Chierici said. She also noted that values of fraternity and equality which fueled the civil rights movement in the United States were the same ones that drove the Haitian Revolution. 

Associate professor of English Alice Rutkowski took a literary approach to examining this time period, including influential works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin in her portion of the lecture.

One student asked the panel about where the impetus for change came from in a period where emancipation was not a popular idea, to which Behrend responded, “Sometimes these things move in clusters. When the momentum is swinging your way, you’ve got to take advantage of that.” 

After the lecture, attendees were invited to the opening of “Meditations on Emancipation” art exhibition at the Bertha V. B. Lederer Fine Arts Gallery in Brodie Hall.

Steve Hahn, a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania, will deliver the keynote address for “Emancipation at 150” titled “Slave Emancipation, Indian Peoples and the Projects of a New American State” on Feb. 21.