- An Unfinished StruggleSesquicentennial Interpretations of Slavery and Emancipation
From the vantage point of late 2013, more than halfway through the sesquicentennial, the contrast between the 100th and 150th commemorations of the Civil War is marked. Commentators, both scholarly and popular, have chronicled the substantial differences in programming, tone, and marketing in such detail that it seems unnecessary to replicate their findings here. With some notable exceptions, sesquicentennial programming has grappled admirably with the causes, conduct, and consequences of the war, encouraging a reflective attitude toward the conflict. The root cause of disunion, slavery, was a shadowy presence in much mainstream centennial programming but has been prominently visible throughout the 150th, thanks in part to decades of increased scholarly and popular interest and the institutionalization of new research in interpretive media.
Official commemoration of the 150th began not in 2011 in Charleston Harbor but in 2009 with the anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, not with southern independence, but with a failed attempt to liberate enslaved workers laboring less than seventy-five miles from the nation’s capital. As all good storytellers (and historians) know, where we choose to begin a story profoundly shapes the narrative that will follow. Beginning in Harpers Ferry placed both slavery itself and organized resistance to it at the heart of the conflict to come. Effectively communicating the complicated series of events that culminated in the aborted raid—and the high-stakes execution of Brown and his surviving raiders—required those committed to telling this story to root their narrative in decades of political crisis and antislavery activity. When the anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter arrived two years later, it could thus take its rightful place as a strategic response to historical events, rather than the “prime mover” catalyst of the American Civil War.
A host of relatively new museums, such as Washington D.C.’s African American Civil War Museum, Richmond’s American Civil War Center, [End Page 338] Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and the National Park Service’s Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War provide their audiences a nuanced perspective on the deeply entangled relationship between race-based slavery and civil war. The newest addition to the Smithsonian system, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open on the National Mall during the final year of the sesquicentennial, will devote substantial space to slavery and emancipation as part of its mission to “stimulate a dialogue about race and help to foster a spirit of reconciliation and healing.”1 In recent years, a host of headliner exhibitions about slavery, abolition, and emancipation—many focused on emphasizing the national, as opposed to simply regional, character of slavery—have appeared at major cultural institutions such as the New-York Historical Society, the National Museum of American History, and the Virginia Historical Society.
Many of the annual Signature Conferences sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission have taken slavery & emancipation as a central theme, as have other special public programs, such as Monticello’s symposium, “Telling the History of Slavery: Scholarship, Museum Interpretation and the Public,” Gettysburg College and Gettysburg National Military Park’s anniversary conference, “The Future of Civil War History: Looking beyond the 150th,” and the Catoctin Center’s “In Search of Freedom: African Americans and the Civil War.” In summer 2013 alone, four of the teacher seminars sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and six of the educator programs sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities focused on slavery, abolition, and Reconstruction. Dozens more included substantial attention to these topics. Innovative programs such as the Yale Public History Institute devote themselves to pioneering the future of public interpretation of slavery and resistance by bringing together diverse groups of historians, students, and public history professionals for long-term collaboration on project development.2
New collections of digital resources for researching, teaching, and interpreting slavery and emancipation abound, ranging from the global in scale to those focused on the specific experiences of residents of a single state or region. Some, such as the After Slavery Project, a rapidly expanding collection of...