Discussions of slavery in the United States and the world, of the Civil War and Reconstruction and of the lasting impacts of emancipation drew scholars, the U.S. poet laureate and about 150 audience members to the University of Delaware's Emancipation Symposium on April 6.
Held at the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington, the symposium was one of the signature events of UD's Emancipation Semester, which has included a workshop speaker series and a campus-wide course, as well as exhibits at the UD Library, exploring the subject. It was timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the Confederate states at war with the Union.
The semester was organized by the University's Department of History, where many faculty members have expertise and conduct research on the subjects of slavery, in the United States and worldwide, emancipation and related fields.
"The University of Delaware has some renowned scholars on these subjects, not just historians but also experts in literature and public policy and other areas," said Anne Boylan, professor of history and of women and gender studies, who was instrumental in creating the Emancipation Semester. "When you look at this larger picture of scholarship that all fits together, we decided to bring it into a semester focusing on emancipation."
At the April 6 symposium, "Emancipation and Its Legacies at 150," moderator Leland Ware, UD's Louis L. Redding Chair and Professor for the Study of Law and Public Policy, first noted that Lincoln's proclamation was symbolic, because it applied only to the states that had seceded. But, he said, issuing the proclamation was "a very important symbol that may have turned the tide of the Civil War."
Featured speakers at the symposium were:
Peter Kolchin, Henry Clay Reed Professor of History at UD, specializes in 19th century U.S. history, the South, slavery and emancipation and has written comparative histories of U.S. slavery and Russian serfdom. Throughout history, he said, "War frequently weakened slaveholder regimes," and that happened in the American Civil War as well.
"It increasingly became a war about slavery," Kolchin told the audience. "If not for the Civil War, the United States might have outlasted Brazil" as the last Western nation to abolish the practice.
Jonathan Russ, associate professor of history at UD, specializes in the history of Delaware and of modern American business and spoke about the legacies of emancipation in 19th and 20th century Delaware. He began his talk by telling the audience, "Delaware is a peculiar place" that "plays a central role in the history of American emancipation."
Before the Civil War, he said, Delaware had Quaker and Methodist traditions that helped African Americans establish churches and community organizations, and the state remained loyal to the Union. But, he noted, "Delaware was not at all progressive when it comes to race relations," with some 1,800 slaves held during the Civil War and not freed until the 13th Amendment — which the state failed to ratify until 1901 — took effect nationwide in December 1865.
Brett Gadsden, a Wilmington, Del., native who now is associate professor of African American studies at Emory University, is the author of Between North and South, which chronicles the 30-year history of school desegregation in Delaware. His talk at the symposium focused on the idea that took shape in the early 1970s of busing children to different schools to remedy the segregation that had occurred due to housing patterns.
"The segregation was rooted not in the law but in geography, [and busing] sent a wave of anxiety" through the white community, Gadsden said. Even liberal politicians with good records on civil rights were leery of busing, he said, as were many African Americans. "It aroused great debate within communities, not just between communities," he said.