Emancipation and the Meaning of Freedom

Art and African American History

Some of the works of art in this section date to a much later period than the war itself. These were created in honor of the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, which occurred during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. As such, the artworks reflect an important effort to acknowledge and commemorate African American service in the Civil War. For instance, Jennie Scott Washington's 54th Massachusetts Volunteers depicts the assault by this unit on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, and memorializes the important contribution of the United States Colored Troops to Union victory. Today, black soldiering is seen as a central part of the story of the war, thanks in part to the work of such artists.

<em>54th Massachusetts Volunteers</em>

54th Massachusetts Volunteers

The service of black soldiers had largely been denied or forgotten by the public between the Civil War’s end and the Civil Rights Movement, mostly because the country failed to incorporate African Americans as full-fledged citizens after the war. Though voting and basic civil rights were ensured by federal law during Reconstruction, by the 1880s, most of these gains were lost to violent and racist repression in the South, which was tolerated or ignored by whites throughout the United States. Only the Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century would make the promise of emancipation a reality for African Americans. Artists commented on this betrayal in their works by highlighting African American contributions to the war effort, and to the salvation of the Union. Gus Nall’s Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond, for instance, shows him at flanked by loyal black soldiers at the moment of the Union’s greatest victory.

<em>Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond</em>

Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond

The Civil War arose out of conflicts over slavery’s place in the United States, but emancipation itself was a product of war. Armed conflict provided enslaved people the leverage they needed to resist their owners, and flee to a new life. It forced the Union’s leadership to recognize the military importance of emancipation and African American soldiers to the war effort, and it ultimately made it possible for abolitionists to obtain passage and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery in 1865. But as the artworks here also remind us, emancipation was only the beginning, not the end, of another, much longer, struggle for freedom, equality, and justice in America.