Skip to main content

The Age of Emancipation: Black Freedom in the Atlantic World


 co directors

The 2012/2013 Faculty Fellows Program at the Warren Center, "The Age of Emancipation: Black Freedom in the Atlantic World," is co-directed by Richard J. M. Blackett, Andrew Jackson Professor of History, Teresa A. Goddu, Associate Professor of English and Director of the American Studies Program, and Jane G. Landers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of History with funding from the John E. Sawyer Seminars program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The year-long interdisciplinary seminar will focus on the freedom movements that resisted and reshaped slavery, and will explore a global perspective on the 1863 United States Emancipation Proclamation by locating it within a broader age of emancipation that occurred in the Atlantic World in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By tracing the continuities and discontinuities among types and forms of emancipations in different Atlantic regions and by foregrounding the intersection of different disciplinary approaches to the topic, the group will consider how the search for liberty evolved and expanded in the Atlantic World and how it left complex legacies that still persist.
How did this fellows program come together?
GODDU: Last year, Vanderbilt was invited to submit a proposal to the Mellon Foundation to host a John E. Sawyer  Seminar  Based on a class I was teaching and some programming Vanderbilt had underway in relation to the sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War, it struck me as imperative that we also highlight emancipation in the United States, and specifically the sesquicentennial of the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863). I was teaching historian David Blight's book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory at the time, and he argues that the emancipation narrative never really came to the fore within U.S. culture; rather, the narrative of reconciliation takes precedence. Thinking about that and thinking about the rich resources we have in Atlantic world history and culture on our campus, it seemed like a great idea to use the sesquicentennial moment to bring us all together to discuss the legacies of emancipation within the broader Atlantic world and its history. We were certainly pleased that our proposal was selected in an internally-run competition for submission to the Mellon Foundation and that the foundation later approved funding our emancipation project as a Sawyer Seminar.
LANDERS: Because we have so many common research interests dealing with slavery and abolition, Teresa invited Richard and me to collaborate on writing the proposal and directing the program. My own work focuses on slave resistance, runaway slave communities, and self-emancipated peoples across the Americas.
BLACKETT: The anniversary of the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 is very important, and it gives us an opportunity to compare emancipations in other parts of the Americas. That is what drove the idea from the beginning, and I think that is what will sustain the seminar throughout the year. The Sawyer Seminar provides a unique opportunity for us to bring together a range of different explorations of emancipation and the ways people sought freedom.
How do you define "the age of emancipation?" What "emancipations" are included in this time period within the Atlantic World?
BLACKETT: It is very elastic, this "age." We will cover multiple centuries, but for the most part, we will focus on the nineteenth century as an age when people sought and won their freedom by different means. Sometimesemancipation took place through the legislative process, sometimes through revolution,and sometimes through civil war. The Haitian Revolution, which took place in the late eighteenth century, will probably be our starting point, and then we'll look at much of Latin America and the United States.

How do you plan to structure your Fellows Program?
GODDU: We have designed four units thatwe've titled "Emancipations,"  "Constituting Emancipation," "1863 in the World," and"Commemorating Emancipation." We will cover two units each semester, and we will bring in two speakers per unit. We hope to balance the guest speakers with the work-inprogress of the seminar participants so that the interests of the group Richard Blackett are very much in play.
LANDERS: We will bring in historians, anthropologists, artists, and literary scholars to give a variety of perspectives on the issues we're discussing.
BLACKETT: Just looking at the disciplines of the seminar participants — English, American studies, history, law, and religious studies — we're already bringing diversity into the conversation.

You stated in your proposal that unit two, "Constituting Emancipation," would focus on the cultural forms (print, visual, aural, and performance) that were mobilized by individuals, communities, and states to enable, define, or delimit black freedom. Could you share some examples of these forms and perhaps give us an idea as to how
they might connect particular iterations
of emancipation?
GODDU: In this unit we will look at the way in which emancipation was represented visually in the nineteenth century — everything from broadsides to engravings to woodblock prints — and the ways in which these visual images of emancipation circulated broadly throughout the Atlantic world. A small example from my own work is a picture of "The Emancipated Family," from the early 1830s. It was used for the British emancipation movement, and was later picked up by the U.S. abolition movement and re-circulated through their catalogue. Another example in the United States is Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is very well known for being a catalyst toward emancipation. One of the members in our group, Celso Castilho (history), is working on the ways that Uncle Tom's Cabin was used within the Brazilian context as a re-animated carnivale performance.
LANDERS: In my work, I look at free blacks in Havana and Matanzas, Cuba, who had their libraries seized by the Cuban government during the 1830s. These men were reading abolition speeches from England, circulating newsprint from Philadelphia, the Bahamas, and everywhere down the Atlantic coast, considering issues of emancipation and the Underground Railroad, reading the work of Harriet Martineau, and so on. One volume of a criminal case I opened had a bound volume of Phyllis Wheatley that had been taken from the library of a suspected black abolitionist. All of this literature from England and the United States was circulating through places you'd never expect.
BLACKETT: I discovered the story of a man named Reverend Jacobs who was picked up for helping slaves get out of Maryland. The officials couldn't prove he was doing this, but when they raided his house they found a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and he got ten years in the state penitentiary for having a copy of the book. This shows just how powerful that kindof cultural media is.

How will you consider the U.S Emancipation Proclamation within the broader age of emancipation?
LANDERS: The United States was one of the last places in our hemisphere to emancipate the enslaved, followed only by Cuba and Brazil, so that puts our country in an interesting historical position.
BLACKETT: It is the only emancipation that came in the midst of a seriously bloody civil war; more Americans were killed as a percentage of population in the Civil War than in any other American war. Symbolically it is a very important thing because, unlike many other emancipations, it was an openly naked political act on the part of Lincoln in order to get around his opposition. The Emancipation Proclamation was also different because it didn't emancipate any people that Lincoln could have emancipated, it only emancipated people that he couldn't emancipate. It was done for military purposes, not out of any sense of altruism.


In what other ways did enslaved people win their emancipation?
GODDU: Slave rebellion was very important for both creating emancipation and putting pressure on society for emancipation to take place. The abolition movement in the United States started just after the Nat Turner rebellion. There was a long history of underground activity in slave communities before the more organized movement emerged.
LANDERS: The notion of creating pressure is a key point, because it took centuries of struggle before emancipation was achieved. It's not as though somebody gifted anyone's freedom.
BLACKETT: One could also argue that slave uprisings, like the revolution in Haiti, delayed emancipation in other places because people saw what the consequences were. It's an irony that with every emancipation, there is a push back toward slavery. The political consequences of emancipation are so complex that they make for some interesting exchanges.
GODDU: Emancipation was not a single event, but rather it was a constant process, aconstant back and forth between freedom and re-constraining or delimiting that freedom. For example, in the United States, Reconstruction was a clamping back down on freedom, and in many ways we continue to live with the legacies of what emancipation didn't mean in the nineteenth century.
LANDERS: This was also true in many Latin American cases; the emancipations happened earlier, but work requirements and peonage or caste systems similar to those created by the U.S. Reconstruction were instituted long before those emancipated were actually granted citizenship. I think that is a common thing that we'll find in a lot of the state emancipations, which is why discussing the legacies of emancipation is so important.

On that note, how do you plan to consider the legacies of emancipation within the Atlantic World, including memory, representation, and commemoration?
GODDU: Our group will address the legacies of emancipation and commemoration in the fourth unit. I think there are many ways in which emancipation is still an unfinished process. Broadly speaking, seeking racial justice is still an ongoing struggle. Often, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is noted as a marker of the end of the long history of emancipation within the United States, and some see Barack Obama's Presidential election as evidence that we have reached a post-racial society. Unfortunately, however, there are many examples of racial injustice in our country today, so we still have a lot of work to do.
LANDERS: The United Nations declared 2011 to be the International Year for People of African Descent as a way to point to all the inequities that remain from slavery. In February 2012, they extended this to the Decade for Peoples of African Descent. In some Latin American countries that also struggle with the unfinished business of emancipation, including Columbia, Brazil, and Nicaragua, they have instituted constitutional requirements that African history is taught in the schools. They have begun to recognize Maroon communities as deserving of their own reservations, similar to the recognition given to indigenous populations. So there is some effort being put forward to address the histories of Afro-descended peoples. There are also communities that memorialize emancipation in living history museums, such as the Buxton community in Canada, which Richard studies.
BLACKETT: Yes, the Buxton community was started by blacks who travelled north on the Underground Railroad and made it safely to Canada. The community is still going strong; they own their land, and they've created their own schools and institutions. On Labor Day weekend, the community hosts a commemoration remembering their first settlement, and descendents come back, so it is a great reunion.

Because the Sawyer Seminar provides funding for the participation of two Graduate Student Fellows, how do you plan to incorporate them into the discussions?
GODDU: I think it is fantastic that we have two graduate students, Emily August (English) and Caree Banton (history), working with our group. Their work is very interesting, and it will be great to have an opportunity to mentor them and to help shape their projects into vibrant, interdisciplinary works, especially considering the supportive Faculty Fellows who will be part of the group.
BLACKETT: We also plan to hold a workshop for graduate students and junior faculty in late spring of 2013. The two Graduate Student Fellows will become integrally involved in planning for and hosting the workshop. We will ask the participants to submit works in progress for group review, so the workshop should be a highly charged, intense couple of days.
LANDERS:Hopefully the momentum we achieve during our seminar, through an interdisciplinary and multi-regional point of view, will be passed on to this new group who might not yet be thinking in those ways. Will the Fellows Program interact with any public activities related to the sesquicentennial of the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation?
BLACKETT: There are many local places where we could make connections. I have been working with Belle Meade Plantation— an historic plantation in Nashville that was known for breeding and racing horses—and have been encouraging them to look at life "under the stairs," as we call it. A great irony of American history is at play at Belle Meade, which is that they have a wonderful collection of photographs of their horses. In the photos, they can identify every horse, but they don't know who the grooms are. So, the photo captions read, for example, "'Iroquois' and groom."
LANDERS: Nashville is rich with historic locations relevant to our topic. In some papers I went through at the Belle Meade Plantation, I discovered that, in the 1850s, there was a hotel in downtown Nashville called the Hotel Afrique. The clientele must have been free black sailors travelling up and down the river, because who else would have stayed there? In some ways, we have homogenized Nashville into a kind of antebellum space, but it really is a river town. News and communication went up and down the Cumberland, and like other river towns or seaports Nashville had a certain amount of social and racial fluidity. I think we could reshape the historical presentation of Nashville in interesting ways through our work together. There is a book by Loren Schweninger and John Hope Franklin called In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South about an enslaved black woman named Sally Thomas who raised her children in Nashville in the 1850s. The book describes a vibrant, free black community in Nashville. Sally had three boys, each of whom gained their freedom. One of her sons escaped on the Underground Railroad to Canada, one she bought with her laundress money, and the other one she put in an apprenticeship on one of the steamboats going down to New Orleans and later the captain freed him. So that one family presents very different ways to become free.

GODDU: We are collaborating with Humanities Tennessee to host a program called "Civil War, Civil Rights, Civil Discourse" at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October. The program will include a number of authors who have recently published books related to emancipation and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
BLACKETT: The Tennessee State Library and Archives is going to bring the original U.S. Emancipation Proclamation to Nashville in February 2013 where it will be on display for a couple of days. We have expressed some mutual interest to get involved with that as well.
GODDU: We have also considered creating some sort of commemoration ourselves so as to leave a legacy of the work our group does on the topic of emancipation.