DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Many Facets of Freedom,

Freedom in many forms for African-Americans during the Civil War era was explored in an engaging panel discussion at the National Archives tonight. Among the topics examined were the freedom procured by successful runaway slaves, the freedom some slaves were able to purchase from white masters, the freedom secured by southern blacks reaching Union lines, the freedom offered by the Emancipation Proclamation, and the freedom that could come with education.

Slave Hunt Dismal Swamp by Thomas Moran was used to highlight Johnson's story
Michael Hussey, an Archives historian, presented the most harrowing tale of the night when he recounted the chilling experiences of Octave Johnson, a New Orleans slave who escaped from a master who was planning to deliver 50 lashes to Johnson for falling asleep at his barrel making job. Hussey learned of Johnson's story through personal records and letters held at the Archives.

Fleeing into the Louisiana swamps, Johnson joined with 30 other slaves who were hiding out there for about a year-and-a-half. However, Johnson's master, angered by the escape, finally hired a group of slave hunters to bring his property back. The hunters tracked the escaped slaves and sent hounds out to capture them. The slaves killed some of the pack, but the rest of the hounds refused to quit. The escapees soon found themselves in a seemingly impossible situation. In front of them, was water populated by alligators. Behind them were the hounds.

"It was the alligators or the hounds," Hussey said. "They made the decision to proceed ahead."

The choice was the correct one. "The alligators began eating the dogs and left us alone. It seems the alligators preferred dog flesh to human flesh," Johnson wrote in the records stored at the Archives. Eventually, he joined the Union Army. He made it thorough the Civil War and died in 1924.

"Reading these records, you can really get a better sense of what his life was like," Hussey said.

Much of the evening was devoted to exchanges between Hussey with his Archives documents and related art work presented and explained by Eleanor Jones Harvey, a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who is responsible for The Civil War and American Art exhibition now on display at the museum. Additional context was provided by Ira Berlin, a history professor at the University of Maryland.

The program, entitled The Emancipation Proclamation in Art and Documents, was part of an ongoing series of events celebrating the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's historic decision to free America's slaves.

"This (the Proclamation) was a revolution," Berlin said. "The world at the time was turned upside down. This made for an enormously different America. Black people, who had been dealt out like so many cards, now had their freedom."

Berlin said black freedom brought many changes, but the greatest was in the area of work. "Previously, the (southern) labor was owned and now it was free," he noted. "A master was now an employer and a slave was an employee. This caused a real contestation which lasted well into the 20th Century."

For many Northern whites, the slaves who fled to their lines were the first blacks they had ever encountered. Instead of being just an abstract cause, the blacks, who at first took on menial jobs in Union camps and, after Emancipation, were able to bear arms and fight, displayed their humanity and heart. "They became real human people," Harvey said. "For many, it was their first contact with blacks and they were impressed with their willingness to help prosecute the war. They came to realize that this war was about freedom."

Another avenue to freedom came through education. "The alphabet was an abolitionist," Hussey said. Berlin concurred.  "They (the blacks) wanted to master the word. The word had been used against them," he said.

Supported by the power of many of the art works she displayed, Harvey contended that the cause of black freedom was aided by many art works of the time. "Art is an uncontrollable force that is often at odds with popular culture," she said. "Art has the power to change the way we see things."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As part of the ongoing anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Archives has released a free e-book entitled The Meaning and the Making of Emancipation. You can download the book for Android, Nook, Sony REader, PC or Mac by going to the site www.archives.gov/publications/ebooks. You can download for the iPad, Ipod, or iPhone by searching "National Archives" in the iBook store.

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