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Emancipation's legacies

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Symposium marks 150th anniversary of Lincoln's proclamation to end slavery

 

Speakers at the symposium are, from left, Brett Gadsden, Peter Kolchin, Natasha Trethewey, Leland Ware and Jonathan Russ.

Discussions of slavery in the United States and the world, of the Civil War and Reconstruction and of the lasting impacts of emancipation drew scholars, the U.S. poet laureate and about 150 audience members to the University of Delaware's Emancipation Symposium on April 6.

Held at the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington, the symposium was one of the signature events of UD's Emancipation Semester, which has included a workshop speaker series and a campus-wide course, as well as exhibits at the UD Library, exploring the subject. It was timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the Confederate states at war with the Union.

The semester was organized by the University's Department of History, where many faculty members have expertise and conduct research on the subjects of slavery, in the United States and worldwide, emancipation and related fields.

"The University of Delaware has some renowned scholars on these subjects, not just historians but also experts in literature and public policy and other areas," said Anne Boylan, professor of history and of women and gender studies, who was instrumental in creating the Emancipation Semester. "When you look at this larger picture of scholarship that all fits together, we decided to bring it into a semester focusing on emancipation."

At the April 6 symposium, "Emancipation and Its Legacies at 150," moderator Leland Ware, UD's Louis L. Redding Chair and Professor for the Study of Law and Public Policy, first noted that Lincoln's proclamation was symbolic, because it applied only to the states that had seceded. But, he said, issuing the proclamation was "a very important symbol that may have turned the tide of the Civil War."

Featured speakers at the symposium were:

Peter Kolchin, Henry Clay Reed Professor of History at UD, specializes in 19th century U.S. history, the South, slavery and emancipation and has written comparative histories of U.S. slavery and Russian serfdom. Throughout history, he said, "War frequently weakened slaveholder regimes," and that happened in the American Civil War as well.

"It increasingly became a war about slavery," Kolchin told the audience. "If not for the Civil War, the United States might have outlasted Brazil" as the last Western nation to abolish the practice.

Jonathan Russ, associate professor of history at UD, specializes in the history of Delaware and of modern American business and spoke about the legacies of emancipation in 19th and 20th century Delaware. He began his talk by telling the audience, "Delaware is a peculiar place" that "plays a central role in the history of American emancipation."

Before the Civil War, he said, Delaware had Quaker and Methodist traditions that helped African Americans establish churches and community organizations, and the state remained loyal to the Union. But, he noted, "Delaware was not at all progressive when it comes to race relations," with some 1,800 slaves held during the Civil War and not freed until the 13th Amendment which the state failed to ratify until 1901 took effect nationwide in December 1865.

Brett Gadsden, a Wilmington, Del., native who now is associate professor of African American studies at Emory University, is the author of Between North and South, which chronicles the 30-year history of school desegregation in Delaware. His talk at the symposium focused on the idea that took shape in the early 1970s of busing children to different schools to remedy the segregation that had occurred due to housing patterns.

"The segregation was rooted not in the law but in geography, [and busing] sent a wave of anxiety" through the white community, Gadsden said. Even liberal politicians with good records on civil rights were leery of busing, he said, as were many African Americans. "It aroused great debate within communities, not just between communities," he said.

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Natasha Trethewey reads from her poetry

 

Natasha Trethewey, the U.S. poet laureate, speaks at the symposium.

Natasha Trethewey, the U.S. poet laureate and the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory, spoke of her own biracial heritage and her childhood in Mississippi, both of which are frequent subjects of her poetry. She read from her poem "Miscegenation," which describes how her parents broke Mississippi law in 1965 by marrying.

She also read from her book Native Guard, whose title refers to the Louisiana Native Guards, a black Civil War regiment that fought for the North and whose members guarded Confederate prisoners of war on Ship Island off the Gulf coast of Mississippi.

Of all the U.S. Civil War memorials and monuments, Trethewey noted, very few honor the war's black soldiers, who numbered some 200,000 nationwide.

"One of my interests is historical memory and historical erasure," Trethewey said. Part of her reading was from Native Guard's title poem, told from a fictional African American soldier's journal, including these passages:

Truth be told, I do not want to forget anything of my former life: the landscape's
song of bondage dirge in the river's throat
where it churns into the Gulf, wind in trees
choked with vines.

And:

We know it is our duty now to keep
white men as prisoners rebel soldiers,
would-be masters. We're all bondsmen here, each
to the other. Freedom has gotten them captivity.

Sponsors of the Emancipation Symposium were the Delaware Historical Society; UD's College of Arts and Sciences; the UD Library; the departments of History, Black American Studies, English, and Women and Gender Studies; the School of Public Policy and Administration; and the Center for Black Culture. The program was partially funded by a grant from the Delaware Humanities Forum.

A final event of the Emancipation Semester will be the William Watson Harrington Lecture, a free, public talk on Thursday, April 18, by David Blight, Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University. He will speak at 7:30 p.m. in 103 Gore Hall on "America's Oracle: Why Do the Civil War and Emancipation Have a Hold on Our Historical Imagination?"

A reception will follow the lecture, which is sponsored by the Department of History and the UD Faculty Senate Committee on Cultural Activities and Public Events.

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