At Loudoun Museum's Emancipation Day forum, most of the talk was about President Abraham Lincoln's order to end slavery in the Confederate states Jan. 1, 1863, and the response by liberated slaves, who marked the date with an annual Jubilee Day.
That celebration lasted for a century but ended in the late 1960s when civil rights leaders refused to embrace any event associated with slavery, said one of the speakers, Debra Newman Ham, a history professor at Morgan State University.
"It was black power," she said. "It was a turning against slave history and African Americans' past and Uncle Tom. It was a very different mentality."
Popular opinion seems to have shifted since then, as slavery, the proclamation and Lincoln's motivation in issuing it are again being discussed and written about. More than 200 forum participants, equally black and white, filled the fellowship hall of First Mount Olive Baptist Church on Wednesday.
The audience listened intently to Ham and history professors Edward C. Smith of American University, James Bryant II of Shenandoah University and Allen Guelzo of Eastern University, the James Madison visiting professor at Princeton University this year.
Ham spoke about the strong bond between Lincoln and blacks.
"There was something about Lincoln," she said. "There was a mysticism. . . . On Jubilee Day, there were celebrations all over the land. They thanked God and Mr. Lincoln. The president had made a difference in the lives of all these people."
Smith cited the relationship between Lincoln and statesman Frederick Douglass, a former slave, who met with the president at the White House and urged him to remember the equality promised in the Declaration of Independence.
Douglass got his wish when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, harking not back to the Constitution but to the Declaration, Smith said.
"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," Smith recited from memory. "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."
Smith said Lincoln translated the Declaration of Independence into national reality.
"Now everything is changed," he said. "The war to preserve the union is no longer but [a war] to make it better."
Guelzo spoke of Lincoln's timing in issuing the proclamation, saying he chose the riskiest time to do it -- Sept. 22, 1862. "It flew in the face of public opinion and his military generals," he said.
When Lincoln released his order that was to take effect the following Jan. 1, Guelzo said, his party had lost 45 seats in Congress and several governorships, and the Supreme Court was clearly hostile to abolition efforts. More important, Lincoln believed that Union Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and his officers might try to overthrow him.
Lincoln had hoped to persuade border states to accept a buyout of slavery but was rebuffed. With time, Guelzo said, he might have succeeded, but he couldn't wait.
"Lincoln doesn't have time," Guelzo said. "He has to act before McClellan can act. . . . In the end, Lincoln did resort to martial law based on his war powers."
Bryant, former historian for the Fredericksburg and Spotslyvania national military parks, said people forget that the Civil War is about more than battles.
"War is about formation of policy of a nation," he said. "War means change. In four years, politics, economics and society changed. . . . It is a legacy we all share."