During Black History Month, we celebrate the legacies of those who learned what it truly means to be free — by being denied freedom for centuries.
When I visited the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., a volunteer docent asked the following question: “Who freed the slaves after the Civil War?”
There were about 10 of us in the group. Some looked around wondering if it was a trick question, while others blurted out, “Abraham Lincoln!” After some time, the docent finally offered his response: “Enlisted slaves freed themselves, with the help of Union soldiers.”
“Who freed the slaves after the Civil War?”
“Enlisted slaves freed themselves, with the help of Union soldiers.”
I had a powerful reaction to this response, because history tells a different story of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.”
The truth is, President Lincoln knew the Union army would be unsuccessful in its Civil War campaign without more able bodies to defeat the Confederate army.
When he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, he didn’t merely announce the end of slavery in rebel territories. Lincoln also asked Blacks to enlist in the Union army, inviting “people so declared to be free” to be “received into the armed service of the United States.” Lincoln knew he needed troops, but he also knew he couldn’t make such a request without freeing the slaves.
My ancestors didn’t go to war to help the Union army, or to prevent the South from seceding. Nor did they fight alongside Union soldiers because of a shared cause for a country undivided. My ancestors fought in the Civil War because freedom was the reward after centuries of enslavement.
Blacks knew what was at stake. This wasn’t about politics, nor was it about patriotism. This was about freedom — freedom for themselves, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren — and freedom for me, a distant descendant. There was no other way around it. Sadly, war was their only hope.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “No one is free until we all are free.” What he meant at the time was that we couldn’t dare refer to our nation as “Land of the Free” when not all of us were.
This was a contentious debate even for the founding fathers. During the Revolutionary War campaign for freedom from the British monarch, leaders of the new nation were viewed as hypocrites abroad for enslaving Africans.
Matched only by America’s treatment of indigenous people, slavery is by far the darkest period of U.S. history. Even after the Civil War, Blacks in America endured another century of Jim Crow while fighting for civil rights. Even today, the struggle for Black lives continues, as racist systems and politicians continue to erode our democracy.
Even today, the struggle for Black lives continues, as racist systems and politicians continue to erode our democracy.
America wouldn’t be America if not for the wealth generated by Blacks forced into domestic slavery. So as we celebrate Black History Month — a too-short 28-day memorialization highlighting the contributions of Black Americans — I invite you to consider how their contributions benefited the greater good of society despite malicious attacks on our freedom.
Harriett Tubman literally brought slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. She was also a political activist and armed scout for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Sojourner Truth, meanwhile, was an early advocate for women’s rights alongside Susan B. Anthony. Her work paved the way for future leaders like Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement that’s done so much to raise awareness about pervasive sexual assault in our society.
If you want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, just look to Black Americans at the helm of freedom and justice movements throughout the nation.
Barack Obama said, “Our freedom depends on you being free too.” Freedom for all begins with freedom for those marginalized. The Black community has been denied basic freedoms for centuries, which is why we inherently understand what it means to truly be free.
This article appeared earlier in Other Words.