Interpreting Slave Life

Slavery: Let's talk about it

You’re Never Alone

Posted By on January 28, 2013

As a person who interprets slavery, this is a thought that is more than reassuring…as soon as you find out it’s true. There aren’t many African American interpreters out there, and when we do find someone like us, we really get excited. But what’s more exciting than finding someone else like you? Finding more and creating a network.

That’s exactly what’s been going on for about the past 9 months or so as a small collective of African American interpreters have found each other on various social media and email and have found ways to come together and collaborate on projects. We get excited when we know we’ll get to work with each other or present at the same conferences. We cheer and push each other on when there’s a presentation coming up, offering encouraging words and additional resources, if needed. We have odd conversations via email (chitlins anyone?) and explore the depths of our craft, asking about different audience reactions, helping find solutions to interpretive questions.

There’s something to be said about never being alone in a field that often places you in solitude. With the exception of Colonial Williamsburg, many sites that do interpret slavery have very few African American interpreters that can lend themselves to make it a very “authentic” experience.  There aren’t just that many people willing to share the story as part of a whole narrative and be willing to put themselves out there for what some may see as entertainment, open themselves up to criticism, and/or mockery (things I have experienced) when on the flip side, there is education, enlightenment and let’s face it, a bit of fun. There can be fun in telling an unknown story, there can be joy in spreading a history often ignored. To see understanding and acceptance show up on a visitors face is amazing. It makes you smile, inside it may even make you laugh. It rocks knowing that your work is making an impact. It is mind blowing to be able to share those experiences with others who share your plight and struggle and your joys and accomplishments.

So for my fellow interpreters I have connected with, and those that I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing from, keep it up. You may be the only one at your site, in your area, but you’re never alone.

Guest Post: Hog Butchering Day

Posted By on January 24, 2013

Today’s post is brought to us by our good friend Dontavius Williams. Recently we’ve had fun discussions in the email about the love some have for chitlins and the utter disdain others have for pig intestines. It was all fun and games until Don decided that they were going to cook chitlins at Brattonsville’s annual event, Hog Butchering Day. Check out his thoughts below!

“There is perhaps no animal which the western farmer possesses, reared with so little trouble and expense, and which, at the same time, adds so largely to his comforts, as the hog.” These words penned by William Oliver were posted to Facebook by an interpreter friend of mine last week and caught my eye; as we were having Hog Butchering Day at our site last Saturday.  Although Oliver was speaking of his experiences in Illinois when he penned these words in 1843, they still hold true today here in the Southeast.

Pork was and still is one of the main sources of meat to the people of York County, SC. Two weeks ago, at Historic Brattonsville, we held a living history program centered on the ALMIGHTY PIG. It was or Hog Butchering Day event.  I did not really take part in too much of the planning of this event; however, I was in on a couple conversations about how we would go about the day.  Of course, living in 2013 we are somewhat disconnected as a society from HOW the food gets from the Farm to the Table.  With that said, there was a bit of push back from some community members and even staff who did not want to have the hog actually slaughtered on site.  Needless to say, when the word was passed down from the big guy in charge, we did not actually kill the pig on site.  Honestly, I was a little disappointed because I was looking forward to the experience again. I remember, as a child when we would kill hogs, the entire community would come together and help with the process.  As a reward for all of our hard work, we would each go home with a pound of sausage.

Saturday was nothing short of the same experience for me.  We had volunteer interpreters who came out and cut up the pig and preserved its pieces with salt which we will later smoke to add flavor and even more shelf life to it.  Volunteers also made lye soap and lard from the fat of the pig.  Everything with the exception of the oink was used on this day.

Some cooking took place as well.  I helped to make chitterlings (affectionately known as “chitlins”) in the slave cabin.  The camaraderie that was formed around the table was inexplicable; with that understood, there is something special to be said about standing around a table cleaning the innards of a pig with a group of friends. I had never taken part in the cleaning and cooking of chitlins; but Saturday was a great learning experience for me.  You may be wondering, what the heck is a chitlin.  Well, let me help you… chitlins (chitterlings) are the intestines of the pig.  “GROSS” you may be thinking… not at all.  J  Chitlins have an acquired taste.  Most people can’t get past the idea of the smell of them or the texture.  But once you get the “guts” to try them, if you like them, they will change your life forever.

Visitors young and old came up and asked questions, some repulsed by the idea, but many more intrigued and tempted to taste the finished product.  Although the chitlins started out being one of the most repulsive things I had ever touched, they ended up being one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted.  It’s funny how the “trash” of the pig can be used by people to create some of the most delectable dishes.

After my Hog Butchering Day experience, I walked away with a better understanding and deeper appreciation for the pig.  I was raised not to waste anything and this living history event reminded me of my teachings I received as a child.  I can’t wait until our next event like this.  Hope you can make it too.

‘Til next time,



Posted By on January 1, 2013

The last post of 2012 is a simple one. The text of the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s on display at the National Archives tomorrow.

A Transcription

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, 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; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.



A Debate Over Titles

Posted By on December 25, 2012

The other week, I participated in a somewhat heated discussion that fellow interpreter, Dontavius Williams posted on his Facebook status. He was asking which was more appropriate, using the term “slave or servant”? When I first saw the status update I just brushed it aside, this was a conversation that I’d had with people before and I was feeling disengaged at that point. But after a few responses, something in me said…please respond. This is a much more complicated question that has an even more complicated answer than people realize.  And I did.

When it comes to discussing slavery and appropriate names, I think we too often err on the side of caution to remain politically correct. My initial reaction ran along the lines of “To call a slave a servant is surely watering down history and making ourselves comfortable when the times were anything but.” Then I began to think. And then I started to see the often utilized response, ” a slave is a slave”.  THAT is when I finally said something. A slave is not a slave. A slave is an individual whose social status is that of property, but whose intellect varied from person to person . There were skilled tradesmen, blacksmiths, carpenters, drivers, architects, engineers and scientists (ever been to a rice plantation and actually learned the process of flooding the fields with the correct water type? Pure science and engineering). Seamstresses, nurses, teachers, culinary artists, Ministers of the gospel, and yes, servants. Handmaidens and manservants who waited hand and foot on those who enslaved them (hell, those who OWNED them). Body servants who went wherever the master went, insuring his safety and putting (I’m sure unwillingly) their life before their masters.  But yes, there were men and women who were in positions to “serve”. It was their job. So to acknowledge their position within the institute of slavery is to acknowledge that using the word might indeed prove correct in some cases.


A few of us later in the discussion talked about how stations and positions within the plantation society determined what you were called and we mentioned primary documents. Anybody who has perused diaries of slaveholders, or people who just so happen to be passing by know that today someone saying servant is about as nice as you can get. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like reading about “n—– wench Jenny” as she nurses your sickly child back to health while neglecting the health of her own child. Those documents aren’t for the faint of heart or as a friend said, “the armchair historian”. While we worry ourselves with how we should talk about the slave/enslaved and what language we should use in order to feel somewhat at peace when teaching others about this moment in time, the things we should be paying attention to is how society viewed these men and women and how they viewed themselves; that lies in the documents of those who lived it. It is those gut wrenching moments of documentation that make me understand how important station, or “job titles” were to the slaves.  A body servant that travelled with their master was exposed to a very different life than those who worked on the fields or those who worked solely in the house. Being able to travel possibly up North, or to the coast where escape was possible? That came with the position one held. Understanding what being listed as a “servant” meant, to me, is key to understanding how things operated back then. You don’t have to like it, but you need to understand it.

HOWEVER, I do know that there are those who use the term servant just to make themselves feel better about having to discuss slavery. Not all slaves were servants in an occupational sense. To merely group them in that category because of your own discomfort is not only misleading and wrong, it’s historically irresponsible. With slavery being so controversial, context is everything. It dictates how materials are read, it determines how your audience will perceive you and the misuse of it can ruin your credibility. I’m not sure if I’ve used this quote before, but it’s one of my favorites and I read it my first semester of grad school. It was in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream and it stuck with me from the second I read it. As a historian, it is my creed and it’s so simple. “There is one sacrifice no historian must make. He must not distort or pervert the facts of history to suit the present struggle”  Maybe we should think like that first before we get all willy-nilly with how we feel things should be stated, said and named.

One more thing….

Posted By on November 5, 2012

For the past 8 months, I have been looking for employment, particularly in the field. I have finally found said employment and will be moving YET AGAIN! So for the next few weeks, if there’s radio silence, it’s because I’ve been packing and moving and settling. Hope to be back in mid-December if not sooner!

“All of Us Would Walk Together”

Posted By on November 5, 2012

I have had just about the best experience working with the sites in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Most of my work has been with Historic St. Mary’s City, but what I have done absolutely pales in comparison to what my new buddy Terry Brock has been doing. Terry is bringing the story of enslaved and freed African Americans to light with the online exhibit, All of Us Would Walk Together which details this experience.

Historic St. Mary’s City traditionally has focused on life in the early days. Those times where it was still the capital of Maryland and a time where most think that the St. Mary’s City had no connection to slavery. But that’s not the entire history and as years passed, slavery was part of the culture. When talking with Executive Director Dr. Regina Faden earlier in the year, we encountered a few who said, “slavery wasn’t a problem” and we  knew that this was a story that would be challenging to tell but needed to be told. Terry has been working on this history for years. His efforts and work are a part of his doctoral dissertation, but more than walking away with a very VERY nice degree, Terry will be leaving his mark by helping St. Mary’s City learn more about the past many would deny.

Through community meetings and working with the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, The SRI Foundation, the Ford Foundation and The Maryland Historical Trust, the story is being told. Please check out the site, learn from it, leave comments and support in any way you can.

Honoring those of the Middle Passage

Posted By on November 5, 2012


I have always been impressed with Historic Sotterley’s narrative of enslaved life. They don’t shy away from it and you know for me that’s essential. When I toured the site back in March, I stood at the back (front) of the house and looked out at the river. I was told by Jeanne Pirtle that a ship filled with slaves and cargo would have been right there waiting to be unloaded. And as I stood there, I could see the ship, hear the commotion and it was a haunting experience. Sotterley Plantation and the Middle Passage Cermonies and Port Markers Project want to make sure that this moment in history is not forgotten.

The following is lifted from Sotterley’s blog and it has information on an incredible ceremony taking place next Monday, November 12th at the Plantation. If you are in the area, I IMPLORE YOU to make it there. The wounds of slavery affect us all, and in order to “move on” as so many wish we would, we have to acknowledge our past and face it head on. This event is one of the many steps we should take to help us with that journey.


On behalf of Historic Sotterley Plantation and the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, community members and leaders are invited to an ancestral remembrance ceremony on Monday, November 12, 2012 at 1:00 p.m. at Sotterley Plantation. This ceremony honors the people transported against their will from the Gold Coast of Africa who died in the Atlantic Ocean and also those who arrived during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Owners of what was later to become known as Sotterley Plantation participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade on the Patuxent River in the early 18th century. There is documentation of persons perishing during the passage and being thrown overboard. Some of those who survived the passage remained here, while others were shipped into Virginia. Sotterley’s owners maintained their wealth and property through enslaved labor for 165 years.

This project has the mission of identifying all middle passage ports, sponsoring remembrance ceremonies, and installing historical markers at 175 sites in North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Europe, officially designating the Atlantic Ocean as a sacred burial ground of African ancestors. Since August 23, 2012, remembrance ceremonies have been held in Baltimore and Annapolis. Sotterley is the final of three Maryland middle passage port sites. The next phase will be the installation of the historic markers.

Sotterley Plantation is a place where many African-Americans find their ancestors and this ceremony is intended to repair broken circles, heal, and bring us together. This project is a step to connect personally to our history at the places where African ancestors first arrived. The ceremony will include a historical narrative, prayers by diverse faith groups, drumming, and libation led by an Akan priest. 

For more information please visit our websites:
Mid Passage 10 9 12 Press Release!

Discovering the Dark Side of Jefferson

Posted By on October 18, 2012

Hopefully by now, many of you have read this excerpt from Henry Wiencek from his upcoming book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.  If you haven’t, you need to read it and let all of that goodness sink in. Basically, Mr. Wiencek has discovered that along the way, historians, most notably those responsible for the 1953 edition of Jefferson’s Farm book, left out a passage that talks about brutal treatment to some of the enslaved boys who worked in the Nail Factory, to get them to be better workers. The only reason I can think of why a passage like that would be deleted is so we can continue in the fantasy and hero worship that we as Americans have developed for our founding fathers, without guilt or shame. But here is where I applaud Mr. Weincek. There’s always been something a little “off” about Jefferson to me, and I don’t discredit the amazing work he did for our country or the prolific writer that he was. But it just struck me as odd that he always seemed to have a severe internal struggle with freedom and owning slaves. And for the first time, I think due to what I am sure is going to be a controversial book, I think that feeling of, “ehhhh” might actually change to “ahhh…makes sense now”.

When most people think of Jefferson, they think of the man who wrote this beautiful Declaration of Independence. Some have images of a benevolent slave owner who treated his slaves like family, but when it comes to talking about slaves being like family…and then crossing over into slaves being IN the family, it seems that there is a disconnect as if this could never be. And that’s what I think I like most about Jefferson. His life should have been to many an awkward and complex situation where you knew something wasn’t right but you couldn’t put your finger on it. He ws a man who wrote all men, ALL MEN, were created equal, except for the men, women, and children who he owned.  Here’s the thing folks, to me, there’s no such thing as a good slave owner. Owning another person for your personal profit and gain is inherently wrong. As  a scholar, I have come to understand and long accept that slavery is what it is, and without it, this country probably wouldn’t be the hot mess of a powerhouse that it is right now. Do I believe that there were some slave owners who were better than others? Clearly, but that doesn’t change the fact that what they were doing was wrong. Somewhere in Jefferson’s mind, he KNEW what he was doing was wrong, but then greed took over and well…would you rather be broke and moral or wealthy and live with the guilt? I know that there are faithful lovers of Jefferson that will basically say all of this is complete rubbish but that’s your opinion and this is mine. What I think we fail to do is really examine who these men were and how they became who they were. Never forget the little people…or in this case, never forget the labor that helped him create this massive (and gorgeous) house on a hill. Never forget Martha’s half-sister whom Jefferson likely had children with. Never forget that for all men being created equal, even the slaves on Jefferson’s plantations weren’t treated equal. Please, PLEASE never forget that it is OKAY to be critical of a public figure that for so long people have held so dear. History isn’t supposed to make you feel good all the time. It should make you think long and hard about what happened in the past in order to get us to the present..good, bad and disgusting. When you lose sight of that and only go for the feel good portions, it’s harder to take in the information that pretty much gut punches you and leaves you breathless.

After reading the excerpt, I emailed Henry Wiencek to tell him how much I enjoyed the snippet and how I was looking forward to reading the whole book. I was surprised to get a response but more surprised at the tone. He seemed very grateful and relieved that someone was digging his work. I know a few people that loved the article but then I started looking at some of the flack he was getting and I understood. It’s hard to dash the hopes and dreams of so many and let them know their demigod was human and had faults. What I hope is that we start taking more critical views of our historic figures and drop the rose colored lenses. Everything has context and leaders involved in slavery have theirs. Perhaps this will lead the way for others to start putting their icons in a more realistic place.

Things in the article to look at: How Jefferson discovered how natural increase could naturally increase his pockets, the conditions in the nailery and the overseers he had.


Thomas Jefferson Illustration

image courtesy of

Guest Blogger: Dontavius Williams

Posted By on October 11, 2012

Initially, when asked to do a blog post for Nicole, I was shocked that she would want to hear from someone who is so “green” in the world of interpreters.  After the initial the shock, came the proud honor to be selected to write something that would be published to this wonderful blog she has worked so hard to build and maintain.  You see, I haven’t been in the business of professional interpretation very long.  As a matter of fact, I am not sure I had the total desire to do this professionally until I actually applied for this job.  This is simply due to the stigma attached to “being a slave” and my own personal fears (mostly of snakes, mice and other wildlife)J.  All in all I had a sincere interest in history; primarily the Antebellum South and the Civil Rights Movement and I loved acting.  “Acting… That’s what I will be doing…” is what I shared with my students on my last day in the classroom with them.  They cheered, some cried, others had many more questions than I had time or answers for them at the time.  I had NO IDEA what I had gotten myself into.  All I knew, I was getting a better opportunity that would allow me to grow both professionally as well as personally.  I had no idea that the job I never thought I would work would soon change my life forever.

In order to understand my story, I guess I would have to start at the beginning.  So, here goes… “It was a cold day in February of 1983 when the world met Dontavius Williams…”  J  No, seriously, my first day on the job was actually two days before my birthday.  So as a “gift” on my birthday, I was privileged to lead a group tour.  “Nervous?” you may ask… There is not a real word in the English language that could describe the feelings I had going through me when I was asked to lead the tour.  This indeed proved to be a true learning experience for me.  Looking back, I have had quite a few of those moments.  Every day is a new opportunity to learn something new. And I LOVE it! After doing guided tours of the site for the month of February I learned a lot about the slaves who lived, worked, laughed, cried, and loved here.  Not long after I was hired, I was given the honor (responsibility) to oversee the planning of “THE” African American program for our site entitled “By the Sweat of Our Brows”.  This program has a special place in my heart because it is because of this program that I even came to know that Historic Brattonsville existed.  Almost 700 acres of historic goodness went hidden from me until I accepted the opportunity to be a slave for a day as a way to gain extra credit in a college class.  As the overseer of the planning of this project, I immediately got to work.  Thus, beginning a seven month journey to prove that I had the “chops” to hang with the “Big Dogs”; I mean, I had seven months to plan an awesome program that brought new faces and increased the knowledge of those who attended.  Thankfully, on September 8, 2012, the program was a HUGE success.  We had over 300 visitors to the event.   I was completely overwhelmed with happiness that the attendance to this program we worked so tirelessly was one of the largest  counts this program had seen in about 5 years.  It was through the planning of “By the Sweat of Our Brows” that I met some really nice people who would prove to help further my education in interpreting slave life.

During the planning of ‘Sweat’, I had the opportunity to meet the incomparable Michael W. Twitty.  I am so thankful for Nicole.  She opened the door for me to meet him and I had him come to Historic Brattonsville on his Southern Discomfort Tour.  Not only did I learn how to season and barbecue a pig, but I forged a friendship that I believe will be a lasting one.  I look forward to working with him again.  It was through Michael that I met hearth cook extraordinaire Ms. Clarissa Lynch  .  I had previously tried to contact her but was unsuccessful but I was so happy to finally get to meet her through Michael.  Clarissa is an awesome cook and in the short time I was in her presence in the brick kitchen, I learned so much.  I am happy to say that she will be volunteering with us more in the very near future.  I love how things  fall into place just right.

Since I am a neophyte in this fraternal order of African American interpreters, I have a long way to go but with great people like Nicole A. Moore, Michael W. Twitty, Clarissa Lynch, and Mrs. Kitty Wilson-Evans to look up to, I have NOTHING to worry about.  I am forging my own path through this world of interpretation, and I am glad I have great people who I can call on to help me grow.  I like to call them my family.  As I say in the “Quarters”, “Now dat you been here, you is family now.”  As I continue to honor those whose shoulders upon which I stand, I challenge you dear readers to dig deep into history and push past the lies and stigmas related to slavery and you will see the world in a very different light.


For more information about Historic Brattonsville, you may visit our website at  To contact Dontavius Williams you may email me at

Thoughts on the Emancipation Proclamation

Posted By on September 28, 2012

On Sept 22nd, many commemorated the 150th anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. My twitter buddy @SlaveryDatabase participated in an event that celebrated the crossing of the Rappahannock River. In 1862, slaves crossed this river in Virgnia in an act of self emancipation. The images by Timothy O’Sullivan capture refugees crossing at Tinpot Ford and they speak volumes. The reenactment on Saturday saw a large group of participants make the same trek to freedom in what I’m sure was an emotional and almost haunting experience. Knowing that you were literally following the footsteps of those who 150 years prior used this route to claim freedom had to be absolutely incredible. There are some fantastic images at Historic Wanderings, so feel free to head over and check them out. (image from the Library of Congress)

Rappahannock River, Virginia. Fugitive Negroes fording the Rappahannock. (During Pope's retreat)

The New York State Museum has an amazing traveling exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation that looks pretty dern spectacular. Among other amazing pieces of history, the exhibit The First Step to Freedom: Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is traveling with a hand written draft of the prelim proc. The beauty of this (teachers, I’m looking at you!!) is that even if you cannot make it to the exhibit in person, you can (teachers this includes your classes) still discover everything via the website. Not only that, there is an Education Packet that provides pretty much all the material you need to make lessons POP.  The packet is in a .pdf so feel free to download and take a look.

Now how do I feel about the famous proclamation? Honestly, it’s one of those documents that I see at face value. In my face, it looks like a document that just exerts executive power and was not written with the meaning that we’ve given it. Lincoln found himself between a rock and hard place. First and foremost, he wanted to preserve the Union. It didn’t matter if African Americans received freedom as long as the United States were once again united. I look to a quote from Lincoln from a letter to Horace Greenley of the New York Tribune where he said “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” While I am of course grateful that he opted to use Emancipation as a war tactic, it leaves me uneasy that he finally acted upon the requests of many like Frederick Douglass as a means to get what he wanted…preservation of the Union. I give Lincoln the proverbial side-eye especially when reading the proclamations that gave freedom only to those slaves who lived in the states that were in rebellion. It tells me that if you were a slave fortunate enough to live in a state where they gave the middle finger to the government, then you would be “rewarded” with freedom, but if you happened to live in a state that was sympathetic to the Union, yet still held slaves, then you were rewarded with a pat on the head and continued enslavement. What I also look at with skepticism is this whole colonization issue. Yes, I know and understand that there were Blacks who were indeed in favor of going back to Africa or pretty much anywhere but these here United States…after all, look at how they were being treated. But my question has always been, “How do you have the unmitigated gall to forcefully import a people and then ain’t got to go home but you got to get the hell outta here?” Where in the world do they do that at? Oh yea, these United States. I wonder often how those who were in states that sided with the Union felt seeing their counterparts who lived in those rebellious states get the freedom that rightfully belonged to them, unsure of when their moment would come. It’s moments like that where I find pride in those who snatched freedom whenever and however they could. Why wait for someone to give you freedom when they really don’t want to when you could get it yourself? I think that’s why the crossing at the Rappahannock River resonates so soundly for me.

What I do see in the Proclamation is finally an opportunity to be seen as somebody. Not a piece of property. Not a name on someone’s inventory.  I see Lincoln putting all his chips out there, betting the house and eventually winning. I see generations before and after rejoice in the opportunity to regain their culture. I don’t see a savior in Lincoln (I just don’t), instead I see a small piece of justice being served…by any means.

Read both the Preliminary Proclamation of 1862, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and tell me what the documents mean to you.

Emancipation Proclamation, page 1


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