Historian tells complex story of emancipation

Jun. 09, 2014 @ 06:30 PM

OXFORD — “Who Freed Whom? Emancipation and the 13th Amendment” was the topic of the day at Richard H. Thornton Library on Monday.

Gerald J. Prokopowicz, chairman of the history department at East Carolina University, said the oft-quoted statement, “Lincoln freed the slaves,” oversimplifies the issue.

In his presentation, Prokopowicz said there were other key actors in the process.

“In addition to Lincoln, another agent in the emancipation of slaves was the army,” he said.

And the slaves themselves played a part, he said.

“The army depended on former slaves for information, for labor and military manpower,” Prokopowicz said.

It was that kind of detail that impressed Mary Claydon of Oxford, who said she was attending her first event at the library.

Prokopowicz pointed out that the Emancipation Proclamation — which Lincoln issued on Jan.1, 1863 — applied only to slaves in states in rebellion and did not apply to those in the four loyal slave states. And it was a wartime measure, which would expire when the fighting stopped.

“It was the 13th Amendment that actually freed the slaves,” Prokopowicz said.

He described the original purpose of the Civil War as an effort to preserve the Union, not to free slaves. But freedom for slaves became a purpose of the war because they wouldn’t allow it to remain a non-issue.

Wherever the Union army went, slaves asked for sanctuary.

“Former slaves contributed in ways that no one anticipated,” Prokopowicz said, such as providing information and eventually fighting themselves.

Patrice Dunn of Oxford asked about the role slaves played in the Southern economy. Prokopowicz said freed slaves strove for self-sufficiency.

“They told their masters, ‘We supported ourselves and you. Now we’ll support ourselves,’ ” he said.

Slaves could supply the labor but lacked land. That lack led to the tenant farming system that dominated farming in the south for decades after the Civil War.

Prokopowicz asked who was actually freed and answered himself.

“The 13th Amendment freed the entire United States from itself,” he said.

He said the Constitution does not contain the word equality and makes no mention of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court in 1857 — which stated black Americans were not and could never be citizens — affirmed the constitutionality of slavery.

“The 13th Amendment reoriented the Constitution away from acceptance of slavery,” he said.

Gloria Boone of Stem said she had a personal interest in attending the presentation.

“I’ve been doing my own family history,” she said. “I’m interested because my family was free.”

Boone, who is African-American, said she has traced her family as far back as 1699 in Chase City, Virginia.

Prokopowicz’s presentation was made in conjunction with the exhibition “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War,” which will be on display at Thornton Library until July 11.


Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.