How has the image of President Abraham Lincoln, The Great Emancipator changed of the years in the African-American community?
Dr. Edna Greene Medford, chair of the History Department at Howard University joined Roland Martin on the set of Washington Watch to discuss this and more.
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS (AS PRES. ABRAHAM LINCOLN): Euclid’s First Common Notion is this: things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it works – has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is self-evident.
You see? There it is. Even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law, it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.
MR. MARTIN: Folks, that was a clip from Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln,” which is getting tons of attention all across the country.
Of course, when first told of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, a former slave reportedly said, quote, “The colored people have lost their best friend on earth,” unquote. That is from an article to be published in “History” in January. The article goes on to talk about how the image of Lincoln as The Great Emancipator changed over the years in the African-American community – and not necessarily for the better.
Here to talk about that is the author of that article, the chair of the History Department at Howard University, Dr. Edna Greene Medford.
Welcome to “Washington Watch.”
DR. EDNA GREENE MEDFORD: Thank you.
MR. MARTIN: All right. So, anytime folks talk about this, they say, “Oh! The Great Emancipator. He freed the slaves,” but we always have to go back and understand that that actually wasn’t the case. Let folks know the real story of who actually was freed and who wasn’t.
DR. MEDFORD: Um-hum, sure. It’s a complicated issue. Emancipation certainly was not as simple as we’ve made it over the years. We –
MR. MARTIN: ’Cause the way it’s been made, oh, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and [it] began January 1st. Oh! All the slaves [are] freed. It’s great.
DR. MEDFORD: Uh-hum. It was a presidential decree that indicated that enslaved people who were still in the states, or parts of states, still in rebellion as of January 1st, 1863, would be free.
MR. MARTIN: So, those that seceded.
DR. MEDFORD: Those that had seceded and were not under Union control, because there were certain parts of these Confederate states that were now under Union control. And so certain areas of Virginia were exempted from the proclamation, certain areas of Louisiana, all of the Border States: Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky and Delaware. Enslaved people did not get their freedom in those states.
MR. MARTIN: And also, states that were still a part of the union that still had slaves –
DR. MEDFORD: Right. Those were the Border States, so they were still a part of the Union. No, their enslaved laborers were not freed at that time – and, of course, it took the Thirteenth Amendment to officially end slavery throughout the United States.
MR. MARTIN: Now, also when you think about this history, when you think about how folks felt about Lincoln … you hear these stories. Lerone Bennett, of course, has written books about it as well. And, look, he said that Lincoln has said – you know, the writings are there – if he could have ended the Civil War [with] slavery still being intact, he would have. If he needed to end slavery to do it, he would have. His whole focus – it wasn’t slavery; it was keeping the Union together. True or false?
DR. MEDFORD: Absolutely. It was about preserving the Union. It was about getting those southern states that had seceded back into the Union. And he believed that if he issued the proclamation, it would actually throw the South into chaos, and so it would be inviting black people to leave the plantations. Of course, they were already doing that before the proclamation, but the proclamation did make a difference, because it gave people license to actually pick and run. And they did, in even greater numbers than they had before. But it was a military measure, and Lincoln admitted that that was the case. It was not for humanitarian reasons. It was a military measure.
MR. MARTIN: When did the shift take place in terms of how African-Americans viewed Lincoln?
DR. MEDFORD: Well, African-Americans started off viewing Lincoln as The Great Emancipator. I mean we are responsible, in large measure, for that term because formerly enslaved people really believed that Lincoln had issued the proclamation because he cared so much about them. They didn’t realize that it really was about bringing the South back into the Union.
But I think even had they know that this was about military necessity, formerly enslaved people didn’t care. What they knew was that the proclamation opened the door to their freedom, and that’s what they cared about. They revered Lincoln.
When Lincoln died, however, the promise that was perceived by African-Americans – the promise of equality – did not occur. And so because Lincoln was seen as the guarantor of that promise, and it was not realized, over time, African-Americans started thinking, “Well, Mr. Lincoln really didn’t care that much about us after all.”
MR. MARTIN: And, of course, that promise, folks [say], has yet to be answered even today.
DR. MEDFORD: We’re still working on that one.
MR. MARTIN: Absolutely.
Dr. Medford – also, have you seen the film?
DR. MEDFORD: Yes, I have.
MR. MARTIN: Okay. Your thoughts?
DR. MEDFORD: It’s great acting, [a] great movie – for what it is. I was disappointed in terms of the way African-Americans were represented. There are here and there some scenes where we are, but I think we’re really cardboard figures. I don’t think the substance is there.
There were all kinds of possibilities for bringing us in more fully. It didn’t happen. Frederick Douglass was not even in the movie, and I thought, “This is really odd,” since he was the most important African-American in the country at the time. And you don’t get a sense of what slavery was like from this movie. There are photographs of a child looking at photographs of enslaved people, but you don’t actually see these enslaved people. Everybody – every black person in the movie is well-dressed – and probably free and in Washington, which is not the standard during this period.
I would have preferred to have seen a plantation scene, or a contraband camp – that would’ve been interesting – to give us the real view of what was happening during that period.
MR. MARTIN: All right. We certainly appreciate it. Thanks a bunch for the article, and [I] enjoyed it.
DR. MEDFORD: Thank you.
MR. MARTIN: Thanks a bunch.
Folks, you can read the full article in the January issue of “The History Channel Magazine.”