"Promise of Freedom," the current exhibition at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. With care and objectivity, it digs beneath the schoolchild truism that "Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves" to expand on the creation of this landmark abolitionist document, issued by Lincoln as an executive order on Jan. 1, 1863 at the height of the Civil War.
My wife Selina and I were especially interested to check it out, because we each have a personal connection to the abolition movement. Mine is by mere circumstance, but still important to me. My beloved Bronx elementary school, Public School 31, had another name -- the William Lloyd Garrison School. Garrison was a famous abolitionist, which meant, I learned, that he was a leader in the fight to abolish slavery. A pretty weak link, I admit, but it's a childhood source of pride that's never left me.
Selina's connection, on the other hand, is by blood. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Passmore Williamson, a Philadelphian who holds a rightful place in the pantheon of abolitionist leaders. He drew international attention to slavery in the United States by spiriting away an enslaved black woman and her two children from their master while they passed through Philadelphia. For his role in this seizure of "property," he spent over 100 days in jail. For many years, we were the guardians of Passmore's marriage certificate, as well as a coverlet woven for him while he served out his jail term. These artifacts are now in the Philadelphia History Museum.
We came away from Promise of Freedom with a deeper understanding of this pivotal era of American history. It takes pains to highlight the complex, high-stakes nature of major social change. The release of the Emancipation Proclamation (a signed copy of which is on display) was far from a simple matter for Lincoln, who wrestled with philosophical, political, constitutional, and military issues before making it public. It did not, in fact, free all the slaves on American soil, and its authority would be very uncertain once the Civil War ended.
This is why Lincoln conjured up all of his political skills (and some darker tactics) to gain passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, making the abolition of slavery the law of the land. Along these lines, it's well worth seeing "Lincoln," the superb movie on this very subject, now playing in local theaters.
The Fairfield exhibition sheds light on lesser-known aspects of the abolition movement, such as the notion of re-colonizing slaves to Africa, a position held by several prominent Fairfielders. It also invites you to assess the nation's progress on the "promise of freedom" since 1863, highlighting Martin Luther King Jr.'s great "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial exactly one century later.
A continuously-running video of this speech shares a tight corner with a hooded Ku Klux Klan mannequin looming nearby. It's disturbing, and intentionally so, to hear King's towering oratory while a Klansman looks over your shoulder. This disquieting placement brilliantly evokes the clash of inspiration and horror that pervaded the civil rights struggle, still within the vivid memories of many of us.
For me, the most sobering and thought-provoking part of the exhibition was its unvarnished examination of slavery in Connecticut, and in particular, Fairfield. A previous column (April 11, 2012) touched on this sad chapter in our history, but I'm continually stunned by the presence of slavery in New England. There was no suggestion, even at the William Lloyd Garrison School, of slavery anywhere outside the south. It was startling to come to this troubling realization only in college, and to learn as well that Garrison himself considered Connecticut "the Georgia of the North."
The exhibition allows the facts to speak for themselves. Connecticut was the leading slave-holding state in colonial America, and had more than 5,000 slaves in 1800. There were strict laws governing the behavior of slaves (curfews, ability to assemble, etc.). A 1784 law freed no living slaves but decreed that any slave born after March 1 of that year would be free at age 25.
Fairfield, being among the more affluent towns in Connecticut, had a high population of slaves; some accounts stated that one Fairfield resident in seven had at least one slave. Southeastern Connecticut had larger farms, but slave labor never really approached plantation conditions there. In Fairfield, slaves provided household help and lesser levels of farm work. The most prominent families were slaveholders, including ministers, lawyers, and physicians. Finally, in 1848, the Constitution State officially abolished slavery.
I went home trying to imagine what it would be like to walk past a slave on the street, or to own another human being. If I were living then, would I have had the courage of a Lincoln or a Garrison or a Williamson to take action against such a scourge? And can we channel their sense of outrage today to face down a scourge of our own? Will we honor the memory of the 20 children and seven adults of Newtown with serious action to make these horrors less likely?
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.