History majors or not, most Univeristy students are familiar with the events of the American Civil War. Although the nation split up into the Union and the Confederacy for a number of different reasons, there was one underlying source for the conflict between the States—slavery.
Thus, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, our nation was permanently changed. This year is the 150th anniversary of the Proclamation.
In celebration of this historic document, Villanova’s Africana Studies Program hosted an event on Thursday, Jan. 31, featuring guest speaker William A. Blair, an American history professor at Pennsylvania State University.
Judith Giesberg from the history department at the University kicked off the event by introducing Blair. She began by describing how African Americans welcomed the year 1863 with delight and triumph.
“What a great way to start the New Year,” Giesberg says.
Blair introduced his lecture with the title “Reclaiming Emancipation for African Americans: Can it be Done?” Blair explained that ever since the civil rights movement began in the United States in 1960s, intimate interaction with the Emancipation Proclamation has unfortunately diminished.
The document “has not returned to its former glory,” Blair says.
While discussing the actual Emancipation Proclamation, Blair noted that the document is extremely difficult to read.
“There is no poetry to it,” Blair says, even humorously adding that it is a great thing to read while lying in bed at night and trying to fall asleep.
Blair discussed the Civil War itself, and said that it does not resonate with black people the way it does with white people. He suggested that few blacks study the Civil War. He thinks some blacks’ understanding of the war is that some horrible tragedy set them free. Many blacks call the war “a story for white people.” Some view it as a tragedy that they were not invited to join.
One of the primary focuses of Blair’s lecture was the nation’s opinion of former President Abraham Lincoln. Blair explained that Lincoln actually received significant criticism for the proclamation.
Many claimed that he was “more interested in national preservation than human rights.” Various images of Lincoln regarding emancipation have surfaced. He is frequently called the “reluctant emancipator.” Some even claim he was acting as an “agent of God’s will.” Ultimately, Blair said the consensus was that Lincoln was a follower of public opinion, and not a leader.
Regardless of how American citizens viewed Lincoln, he became a regular part of celebrations of emancipation. When blacks in specific areas were officially freed, they would celebrate on those specific days. In his presentation, Blair showed an image of a celebration in Richmond, Va. from 1888. It showed a front porch occupied by a few African Americans. A portrait of Lincoln hung like a banner on the porch.
“We at least know he is a part of the community’s remembrance,” Blair says.
In his lecture, Blair quoted African American civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois. Dubois said of Lincoln—“I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed.” Blair’s concluding argument on the subject of Lincoln was that whether he was compelled by God, morality, or anything else, “he added significant weight to the process.”
Blair wrapped up his address by pointing out that the Emancipation Proclamation was a turning point in American history. He even said he wishes that he could revive the emancipation days.
Although he is disappointed that our nation is not as concerned with the Emancipation Proclamation as it was in past times, he remains optimistic.
“Maybe the answer is staring us in the face,” Blair says. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Peace and Justice Education, the Institute for Global Interdisciplinary Studies, the Cultural Studies Program and the history department.