UIS examines the legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation
By Dave Wieczorek
This historical fact should not surprise you: Nearly 4 million slaves were freed in the United States after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
Another widely accepted figure, however, might surprise or even shock: 150 years after President Lincoln signed the executive order, as many as 27 million people worldwide are believed to be enslaved by such means as human trafficking, forced labor or outright bondage.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based organization Free the Slaves, those millions “are forced to work without pay, under threat of violence, and they’re unable to walk away. You can find them in brothels, factories, mines, farm fields, restaurants, construction sites and private homes.
“Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it happens nearly everywhere.”
It could be your suburban next-door neighbor running a sex-trafficking business out of his home, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, or airless basements in India where a raid discovered young children working up to 19 hours a day making Christmas ornaments.
How timely then, as the nation celebrates the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s proclamation, that the University of Illinois Springfield will host a symposium to examine the impact of this landmark document.
Issues past and present
This winter, the annual symposium of the Illinois State Historical Society will look at the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation – then and now – and draw attention to modern slavery around the world.
The event, “Slavery and Emancipation: Global Perspectives,” is open to the public and will offer, says Chancellor Susan J. Koch, “an exceptional opportunity for students and scholars from our campus and from around the world to examine a topic that is of significant historical and contemporary importance today.”
The symposium will take place Feb. 28- March 2 at the PAC Conference Center on campus and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. UIS co-sponsors include the colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Public Affairs and Administration, as well as the departments of history and international programs. According to history department head Heather Bailey ’90 UI, “We want to get as many broad-ranging perspectives on emancipation 150 years ago as possible and link that with contemporary issues.”
“This is an ideal occasion – the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation
Proclamation – to remind ourselves that human trafficking and enforced labor have not disappeared from the face of the Earth and that this should be an occasion for redoubling our efforts to stamp out their vestiges,” says professor Michael Burlingame, the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies, who served on the symposium’s organizing committee.
The symposium will question how broadly the Emancipation Proclamation is being interpreted today, says William Furry ’85 LAS, MA ’97 LAS, ISHS executive director, and “if we are not in fact living up to [its] terms or ignoring aspects of [slavery] that still exist.”
Participants will include scholars, academics, graduate students and amateur historians from throughout the United States, France and England, along with groups such as the UIS History Club and Historians Against Slavery, a modern abolitionist organization. Session topics include the history of slavery in various states and nations, the international impact of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 29th Illinois Colored Infantry, and slavery as it relates to the Internet, anti-trafficking strategies, archaeology and white slave trafficking in the Midwest. In addition, an exhibit on Civil War quilts and a workshop to demonstrate how to teach the Civil War using Web 2.0 will be available.
River of history
While slavery remains a pressing global problem, why does the symposium center on the Emancipation Proclamation, a document written expressly for U.S. purposes more than a century ago?
“Does the Emancipation Proclamation matter?” asks Furry. “Most people would say it doesn’t matter, that it’s not an immediate document.
“And yet, it’s a document [still] celebrated around the world.”
That’s because throughout the years, the proclamation has gained international standing as a reflection of America’s commitment to freedom worldwide.
With the Emancipation Proclamation, “the United States became a much more convincing representative of a free society than it had been previously,” says Burlingame. “Lincoln himself said back in 1854, when he gave his first anti-slavery speech, the so-called ‘Peoria’ speech, that one of the things slavery did was to render the United States hypocritical in the eyes of the rest of the world – how could we proclaim ourselves to be dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal when we simultaneously had slavery in our midst?”
The effects of the Emancipation Proclamation have rippled down through history since its signing in 1863, says Matthew Holden Jr., Wepner Distinguished Professor in Political Science.
“History is sort of like a river, so a flood in the upper part of the Mississippi River hits New Orleans with different results at a very much later time,” says Holden, who will speak at the symposium about emancipation and its worldwide implications. “We’re still having to struggle with what [the Emancipation Proclamation] means and what people want it to mean in a country in which you have not really one race or two but several of different standings.”
According to Nicholas J. Evans, a lecturer in diaspora history at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation in England, Lincoln is “rightly remembered as [a] champion of freedom,” and in fact has statues erected in his honor in United Kingdom locations such as London, Manchester and Edinburgh (a tribute no subsequent American president can claim, he says). A symposium presenter, Evans hopes the anniversary of the proclamation “reawakens consciousness within the world’s largest economy that [the United States] has a central role to play in ending contemporary slavery 150 years after President Lincoln spoke out.”
Engaging the community
Organizers say that along with educating attendees about the historical links among antebellum slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation and today’s slavery, the symposium is an opportunity for UIS to broaden its footprint and deepen the partnerships it is forging, both near and far.
“A symposium like this … helps raise [the University’s] profile,” says Bailey, and is in keeping with the University’s public-affairs mission of involving students and faculty to encourage people to be engaged and aware citizens. Burlingame adds that the symposium emphasizes the ability of UIS to bring to the area authorities on important subjects around the world.
In addition, says Chancellor Koch, the event “reflects the mutually rewarding relationship that UIS has had for many years with the Historical Society.”
Ultimately, of course, the symposium is about slavery past, slavery present and the freedom of every human being. As Evans says, “Studies suggest that more people are living in forms of bondage now than at any stage in history. Different forms of servitude blight the lives of millions of innocent men, women and children in all economies of the world and affecting all races, creeds and nationalities.
“Through meaningful conversations in 2013, we hope to continue raising awareness of the unfinished business of slavery.”
Wieczorek is a freelance writer and editor in the Chicago area.
Editor’s note: For more information about the symposium and to register, call the Illinois State Historical Society at 217/525-2781 or visit historyillinois.org.