DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bound for Freedom's Light

We are going out of slavery,
We are bound for freedom's light.
We mean to show Jeff Davis
How Africans can fight
                           -- words adapted by Sojourner Truth

The deep, long-lasting scars of slavery
With the Emancipation Proclamation, the freedom of black slaves in the South became the dominating issue in the American Civil War. But African-Americans had been playing a role in the conflict since the early  days of the war, a role that only increased as the bloody days of brother-against-brother battles dragged on.

Initially, many Confederate officers took their slaves with them to handle routine daily camp chores. Beginning in the early months of the conflict, free blacks also served the Yankees as cooks and battle front laborers. After the proclamation in 1863, the Union Army opened its ranks to black enlistments. And in the final days of the war, the Confederates, in a desperate bid to avoid a crushing defeat, agreed to let blacks fight with their troops.

But black men weren't the only contributors. Freedom-advocating black women such as Harriet Tubman, worked as volunteer nurses. And Sojourner Truth left her Midwestern home to come to Washington to serve as a counselor to the growing number of freed people of color.

Currently, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Portrait Gallery is presenting the exhibition Bound for Freedom’s Light: African Americans and the Civil War. The installation focuses on the roles that individual African Americans played during the course of the hard-fought conflict.

And while famous names from Black history such as Frederick Douglas, Tubman, and Truth are integral to  the show of pictures and lithographs, the exhibition also includes compelling stories of others whose names may be less familiar.

One of the most dramatic pictures is of the scarred back of a former slave named Gordon, who in March, 1863 escaped from a Louisiana plantation. The soul-searing picture was taken when he was being examined by military doctors. At the time, it prompted one anti-slavery advocate to claim "this card photograph should be multiplied and scattered around the states. It tells the story in a way that even Mrs. (Harriet Beecher) Stowe can not approach because it tells the story to eye.

Lincoln in Richmond by Lambert Hollis
The final work in the exhibition is a drawing of President Abraham Lincoln entering the city of Richmond on April 3, 1865. In the work, Lincoln is greeted by jubilant now-free blacks. The scene prompted one eye witness to comment: "Probably no mortal ever received such a greetings of prayers and tears and blessings as that which was conferred upon Abraham Lincoln by those whom the war had emancipated."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you want to see Bound for Freedom you will have to hurry. The exhibition is set to close on March 2.

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