At the New York World's Fair of 1939, there was a diorama in one national pavilion in which workers, without hope, dragged scythes across a wheatfield in the gloaming of gray dimness. Suddenly, with the word "revolution" (and the flip of a switch) the scene was flooded with the warmth of golden sunlight. Backs straightened and fields of amber grain fell to well-driven mechanical harvesters.
Something of the same magical instant-change has been on exhibit in our perception of American emancipation. Abraham Lincoln wrote the words "forever free," and, to cries of "jubilee" and with pledges of eternal gratitude, black slaves stepped forth from the degrading darkness of slavery into the light of freedom.
Ira Berlin and his colleagues, Barbara J. Fields, Thavolia Glymph, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, have crated this myth and packed it off to the warehouse. In its place they have spread before us a collection of documents in which the slaves who are becoming freed people speak of their hopes and terrors as they confront the opportunities and obstacles presented by both their white neighbors who, uneasily, were yielding their human property and by invading Union soldiers. We witness not an ahistorical tap on the shoulder by fate, but a human process.
There are fewer statements by the black people themselves than we (and the editors) wish there were, but letters written by white observers underscore the power of the stories the former slaves tell. Many of the letters and affidavits are pleas for help, but these were not helpless people. They were agents of their own freedom. A family would decide that the husband and father should go off to enlist in the Union army, knowing the rest of them would have to remain and endure their master's fury, roused by the loss of a worker more valuable than those who stayed, until the soldier had achieved the long-sought, secure place outside slavery for all of them. If the treatment of those left behind was sufficiently grim, they might become refugees seeking the uncertain shelter of the Union army camp where the soldier was stationed.
These people, freeing themselves, were willing to endure greater physical deprivation than they had known as slaves in order to achieve a new position in a society that was most unwelcoming. And all of this struggle went on in the context of a brutal war; this is a book not only about people seeking their emancipation, but about civilians caught between warring armies.
Something should be said about how to read this book. It is about ordinary people and it will be a greater shame if, having been highly praised, it is then consigned to a top shelf and consulted only by professional historians in search of a footnote. When you go into a new supermarket, you do not analyze the arrangements of the aisles or ask for a treatise on the history of food marketing, you go straight to the cantaloupes and start poking and sniffing. Do the same thing with this book. The arrangement of the material in geographical sections is logical, the historical essays describing emancipation are excellent, but the flesh is in the documents themselves. Pick a part of the country that interests you -- the District of Columbia or the Mississippi Valley, for instance -- and then browse and, alerted by unschooled spelling, you will find yourself in contact with a person with a powerful story to tell. The voice you will hear will be clear and honest, the message ineffably sad and brave.
This is not to say the accompanying essays should be skipped. Discussing the several regions invaded by Union armies, the District of Columbia, and the Confederacy itself, where slavery was also breaking down, they make clear that emancipation came in different ways. The complexities in the border states are particularly striking. The book's general introduction is the best treatment of American emancipation that we have. Those who enjoy the never-ending argument over whether Abraham Lincoln was perfect or only nearly-perfect will be disappointed. This essay makes clear that he was a reluctant emancipator and that the credit for turning the war to save the Union into a war to end slavery belongs in far greater degree to others.
Superbly edited collections of historical documents have been a hallmark of American scholarship for decades. None is more valuable than Freedom. The present volume is the second to be published; the first, The Black Military Experience, contained documents written primarily by black soldiers in the Civil War. As the books arrive in your library,gnore the complicated numbering system and pay attention to the volume title -- this one is The Destruction of Slavery. Open the book and you will have before you rich sources for the understanding of the complex and inspiring story of how black Americans -- who still must struggle to give the word meaning -- achieved their freedom.