Davidson Library hosted the opening of a new exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, with history professor John Majewski discussing the 19th century anti-slavery movement during a lecture at the event.
The exhibit, titled “Who Freed the Slaves? Emancipation as a Social Movement,” focuses on highlighting individuals besides major figures such as President Abraham Lincoln, who played a significant role in the freeing of American slaves. Majewski’s brief lecture was followed by a Q&A session regarding the social and economic processes of emancipation, and his lecture focused on the abolitionists and African Americans who ultimately made larger strides toward emancipation than better-known historical figures like Lincoln. The exhibit will run until April 30,, with the collection open for viewing every Monday, Thursday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and every Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
David Seubert, head of Special Collections at Davidson Library, said he and Majewski collaborated on the topic of this exhibition, developing the overall theme together.
“Because we have that collection and because of the anniversary of the Emancipation, I thought it was appropriate that we do an exhibit for the 150th anniversary,” Seubert said. “Actually, John had the same idea and we really cooked this up together to put together the exhibition.”
Majewski, who specializes in this period of American history, said the timing of the library exhibit could not have been more appropriate.
“To mark the 150th year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, this is a great opportunity … [along] with the movie that is being nominated for four Academy Awards [that] just came out about Lincoln,” Majewski said. “This opportunity will never come again for me. I got to make the most of it. I got two months in the spotlight, and then I go back to being a Civil War historian.”
According to Majewski’s lecture, if President Lincoln had his way, he would have restricted the right to slavery, causing economic problems that would lead to the gradual death of the system. However, Majewski said Lincoln’s anti-slavery position was not necessarily morally driven.
“‘It would take about a century, but it would eventually die of its own accord and then we would send the freed blacks outside the United States back to Africa’ was one way of thinking about it, out to our colonies in the Caribbean and South America,” Majewski said. “This was kind of the typical anti-slavery position in the early 19th century because it allowed you to say you were against slavery, but you weren’t too serious about it because it was totally impractical.”
The end to slavery was mostly due to the efforts of slaves themselves, according to Majewski, who also said Lincoln still played a role in granting slaves freedom.
“Ultimately it was the slaves themselves that were most responsible. I think they kind of consistently pushed the northerners in the anti-slavery direction,” Majewski said. “You can call [Lincoln] a hypocrite and point out all his limitations, but you got to give him credit for giving him the space for self-proclamation and liberation.”
Nonetheless, many African Americans were responsible for changing Lincoln’s conservative viewpoints during the war as the Union may not have been able to secure a victory without the help of an additional 200,000 African American volunteers, according to Majewski. The professor also highlighted the great social and political will of everyday Americans in facing the harsh challenges of war.
“It’s kind of amazing in the standards of today of what we were willing to endure — that type of bloodshed — and still sustain the conflict,” Majewski said. “I could not imagine the United States having the political will to engage in a conflict today in which nearly six million soldiers died.”
UCSB English professor William Warner applauded Majewski’s lecture, saying it provided a view of 19th century abolitionism and Civil War history that strays away from the commonly seen depiction of this time period, such as the perspective shown by the recent film “Lincoln.”
“The lecture … allowed us to get a different perspective on what’s represented in Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ and the movement for self-emancipation by blacks is as important as the abolitionists,” Warner said. “Both were more important than the particular movement by Lincoln, although that was also important as well. I’ve got a fresh perspective on the importance of African Americans to the process of the emancipation.”