Congress finally votes to abolish slavery, 150 years ago today

Posted January 31st, 2015 by
Category: History Tags: , , , , ,

Passage of the Thirteenth AmendmentToday, January 31, 2015, marks the 150th anniversary of the narrow but momentous decision, by a bitterly divided U.S. Congress at the end of the Civil War, to abolish slavery throughout the United States.

Why the Union began to take emancipation seriously

In January 1865, the Civil War was in its final days. Yet many in the Union were still opposed to emancipation.

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What does the Gettysburg Address tell us about the North and slavery?

Posted November 20th, 2013 by
Category: History Tags: , , , , , ,

Gettysburg Address (detail from Hay's draft, in Lincoln's handwriting)Now that much of the hullabaloo surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address has died down, perhaps we can finally ask ourselves: what really was the enduring significance of Lincoln’s famous oration?

Lincoln’s remarks at Gettysburg were, of course, masterful. In just a few short sentences, the wartime president managed to eulogize the dead and to craft a narrative within which the nation could commemorate their sacrifice, and remember the war, in the context of broad themes from nation’s history and its future aspirations. His address even redefined the nature of public speeches in the United States, breaking ranks with generations of orations based on classical history, learned language, and the passage of hours.

Yet the historical significance of the Gettysburg Address lies primarily in Lincoln’s effort to shift the North’s motivation for fighting the conflict from the preservation of the Union to the radical, and largely detested, goal of emancipation for the nation’s 4 million remaining enslaved persons.

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What I hope Obama’s second inaugural will address

Posted January 21st, 2013 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , , ,

Today marks only the second time that Inauguration Day has coincided with our national holiday commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and on this occasion, our first black president will be taking the oath of office for the second time.

Here is what I hope the president will include in his second Inaugural Address:

This year marks the coming together of two powerful anniversaries, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Today, 50 years after the civil rights movement and 150 years after the end of slavery, we have come a long way towards realizing the visions of Lincoln and King for a more just and inclusive society. Yet the legacies of slavery and race—the unfinished business of Civil War and civil rights—remain a crisis in our nation.

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The Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th anniversary in context

Posted January 1st, 2013 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , ,

Emancipation ProclamationToday is the first day of 2013. This is an anniversary year that we’ve been talking about, and anticipating, for a long time here at the Tracing Center.

In 2013, we will celebrate the 50th anniversaries of major civil rights era milestones, including the March on Washington and Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

Over the coming year, the nation will also mark the 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as well as the New York City Draft Riots (the violence of which was aimed mostly at the city’s free black population) and a host of other Civil War battles and dates.

The anniversaries of the Civil War and the civil rights movement are directly connected, as they represent two different, but closely related, stages in our society’s slow process of reckoning with its centuries-long embrace of slavery and racism. Exploring these anniversary dates, their connections, and their broader significance for racial healing and justice will constitute much of the Tracing Center’s work in the years 2013-2015.

Today, however, marks the 150th anniversary of perhaps the greatest of all of these events: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

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Katrina Browne on being “White in America”

Posted December 17th, 2012 by
Category: Race and Ethnicity Tags: , , , ,

HuffPost Live's "White in America?"Katrina Browne, our founder, appeared earlier today on a roundtable at the Huffington Post’s “HuffPost Live.” The topic was “White in America?“, inspired by a blogger’s recent call for CNN to complement its “Black in America” series with a look at what it means to be white in our society today.

I’m having one of those: “I wish I had said” moments.  I’m thinking about what I would have said more bluntly than I did, to tie together: Susan Bodnar talking about poor/working class whites not getting enough love (my word) in our culture, as well as talking about their racism; host Alicia Menendez asking why they aren’t covered much on TV; and then Morley Winograd talking about the film Lincoln showing how far we’ve come as a society.

I half-said what I wanted on the show at that point; here’s the more I’d say:

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A sad and sorry continuity: the North in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Posted November 16th, 2012 by
Category: History, Popular Culture Tags: , , , , , ,

U.S. House of Representatives passes 13th amendment, abolishing slavery, by two votesI’m one of the jaded ones now.

So it surprised me not to find Fernando Wood rearing his pro-slavery head again, this time as a Democratic Congressman from New York. Here he was on the big screen in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, showing up in 1865 as a vocal opponent in Congress to the passage of the 13th amendment. I knew of him from four years earlier, when in 1861, as mayor of New York City, on the heels of South Carolina’s secession, he proposed that the city should also secede from the Union. He was well aware that New York’s economy was inextricably tied to slavery.

Once you know about the North’s complicity in slavery and racism you see the through-line almost everywhere you look. The winter-spring of 1865 that is the subject of Lincoln thus becomes just one more chapter.

In the popular, white, non-southern imagination, we put Lincoln on a pedestal, but we subconsciously put ourselves on that pedestal too, because he is our symbol of northern determination to end slavery. That was us. The good guys.

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Should we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th anniversary?

Posted September 22nd, 2012 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , ,

First page of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (National Archives and Records Administration)Exactly 150 years ago today, on September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued his first Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863:

… all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.

Should we celebrate this declaration without reservation? Or should we, instead, see this as the anniversary of a tentative, morally ambiguous step, one which historian Richard Hofstadter declared to have “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading“?1

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  1. Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948). []

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