On Jan. 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was declared by President Lincoln, the majority of freed slaves didn't know how to read. Attempts to spread the word by traditional means — newspapers, handbills, posters — would go a long way, if the freed slaves could find a friendly, literate person to read it for them. But what of the others?
"If the avenue for reading is blocked, there have to be ways to communicate," said Frank Mitchell, curator of "Emancipation!," the new exhibit at Amistad Center for Arts & Culture in Hartford. "There are signs and symbols that give people ways of reading the idea of emancipation."
The new exhibit — timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the proclamation that freed all slaves in Confederate territory — has a lot of the images one would expect in an exhibit of this sort, such as prints of Lincoln and his cabinet, Frederick Douglass writings, abolitionist newspapers. However, Mitchell wanted to emphasize how the news spread to the illiterate millions.
"They could not read. They had no access to power or to people who could read," Mitchell said. "But there are many ways to think about freedom."
Mitchell emphasized the societal gap between the literacy haves and have-nots at the opening of the show. A print of Lincoln with his cabinet, all literate, powerful white men, sits across the aisle from a print of a humble home full of black people listening to a soldier read to them from a document.
"The soldier just marches into the home and reads the proclamation," Mitchell said. "It was one of the first times that we see anyone other than Lincoln being the one to break the chain."
Nearby hangs a document dated 1827 issued to a black sailor — called a "Black Jack" — declaring that he is a free man and a citizen of the United States. "He needed that document in case a British ship took over his ship," Mitchell said. "If he didn't have it, they could capture him thinking he was a slave."
Whereas the War of 1812 stopped British naval ships from forcing captured American sailors to work for them, that decree applied only to whites. "A black sailor was still marked by his color," Mitchell said. "Without that paper, you couldn't prove you were not enslaved." England outlawed slavery in 1833.
Other historic prints on the walls show, in both text and pictures, "Jubliee Day," the day the proclamation was signed. Mitchell said that sometimes, freed slaves' jubilation was excessively optimistic. "People thought of it like it was the Apocalypse. They're saying 'now we really will become the nation we were supposed to be'," he said. "People gave it this mystical quality, like it was some really mystical moment in the nation's history."
Others were more pessimistic, such as cartoonist Thomas Nast, who questioned in his drawing whether life would suddenly be so rosy for black Americans. "He wondered about the proclamation's efficaty. Is slavery realliy dead? How free is anybody really?" Mitchell said. "He felt that the challenges and odds freed slaves would have to face were similar to what they were during slavery."
After emancipation was declared, Lincoln feared that slavery supporters would consider it a wartime measure only after the Civil War was over, and would reclaim their slaves. This led to the adoption of the 13th amendment to the constitution, which abolished slavery permanently in every area of the country.
Another way former slaves could be made to understand emancipation was through music, and the exhibit features poetry, sheet music of classic abolitionist songs — such as "John Brown's Body" — and collectibles focusing on the career of the Jubilee Singers, an all-black gospel group formed out of Fisk University in the years after the war.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the center will hold a Family Day on Saturday, June 8, to commemorate Juneteenth, the day June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, finally found out that they had been free for two and a half years. A Juneteenth Gala will be held on Saturday, June 15, at which black tie or Afro-centric attire is required.
"EMANCIPATION!" will be at Amistad Center for Arts & Culture, inside the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, until Sunday, Sept. 15. Museum hours are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., First Thursdays 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $10, $8 seniors, $5 students, children age 12 and younger free.. Details: www.amistadartandculture.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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