Much of the drama in Steven Spielberg’s new film “Lincoln” centers around the political maneuvering required to get the 13th Amendment passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Getting Congress to act – then as now – has never been an easy task, but Abraham Lincoln was not above a little backroom arm-twisting and deal-making when he felt that the cause was just.
In this case, Lincoln wanted to solidify the position that he had outlined in his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which was, in essence, an executive order freeing all slaves in the states at war with the Union. This act, based almost solely on the president’s war powers, Lincoln knew could be reversed in time of peace, so he pushed for a constitutional amendment, which passed fairly easily in the U.S. Senate but made much bumpier progress through the U.S. House. It passed that chamber only a couple of months before Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.
A special exhibit honoring the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s signing the Emancipation Proclamation and the rocky path that African Americans have had to tread since that momentous deed to achieve their civil rights is on display Monday to Jan. 11 in the lower gallery of USCA’s Etherredge Center.
The exhibit, entitled “Emancipation: Artists Express Black Americans’ Fifteen-Decade Struggle,” consists of about two dozen full-scale reproductions, each featuring the image of Lincoln as an abiding spirit – what exhibit organizer Michael Fowler calls “an active agent in freedom-making activities.”
This thesis is fully substantiated by a quick perusal of just a few of the items that I have chosen to highlight in this column.
The initial celebratory response to Lincoln’s momentous decision, for example, was marked by a number of commemorative portraits, such as an Edward Marchantís painting commissioned by the Union Club of Philadelphia. More images in the current exhibition, however, attempt to tackle the post-Emancipation challenges faced by African Americans. Witness Harry Roselandís 1904 oil entitled “Was it for the Best?” In this image, an elderly couple seems to find inspiration in gazing at a portrait of Lincoln displayed on the wall of their humble dwelling. According to Fowler, “even though many blacks questioned the upshot of emancipation ís benefits following the war, they purchased prints of Abraham Lincoln’s likeness,” from which they derived some comfort during the dark days of Jim Crow.
Equally evocative is F. G. Reneshís 1918 poster of a World War I veteran being welcomed home by his family after his service in the segregated army of the period – on the wall a flag-draped portrait of Lincoln looks down on the happy scene.
Consider also a work by Florence native William H. Johnson. His 1945 oil “Let My People Free” features the standing figures of Lincoln and ex-slave and eloquent autobiographer Frederick Douglass on either side of a table on which rests the Emancipation Proclamation; above the scene hover images of lynching and forced migration.
As one might expect, photographs also play a significant part in this exhibition, such as anonymous snapshots of two pivotal occasions when the Lincoln Memorial formed the backdrop for key moments in the struggle for civil rights: opera star Marian Andersonís recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in April of 1939; and Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark address as part of the 1963 March on Washington.
Fowler, an art professor at USCA, has long had an interest in Lincoln’s legacy – in 2009 he had a hand in organizing a travelling exhibit on how Lincoln’s image has been used over time for a variety of purposes.
In organizing this particular show, Fowler was particularly motivated by the following excerpt from the 2005 volume “Slavery and the Making of America” by James and Lois Horton: “Despite the progress made against racial injustice, slavery still has an impact on Americans more than a century after its abolition. The central issues under debate today – issues involving race, class, region, religion, and national identity – are all imperfectly understood without the historical context of American slavery and without an understanding of the means by which a freedom-loving people rationalized their tolerance of slavery ís development. Although it is troubling to consider, it is nonetheless true that slavery was, and continues to be, a critical factor in shaping the United States and all of its people. As Americans, we must understand slavery ís history if we are ever to be emancipated from its consequences.”
This is the message that Fowler “would like folks to take away from the exhibit.”
To celebrate the opening of the show, there will be a come-and-go reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday, in the lower gallery of the Etherredge Center. Food and music will be provided by the Center for African American History, Art and Culture here in Aiken and the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of African American Art and History in Augusta. For more information, call Fowler at 641-3304 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Tom Mack holds the G. L. Toole Chair at USCA. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” is now available in local retail outlets.