Pentagon Lecture Highlights Emancipation Proclamation
By Nick Simeone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 2013 A noted author highlighted for Pentagon employees yesterday an often-overlooked fact: the loyalty that emancipated slaves displayed toward the country that enslaved them in the days leading up to the end of the Civil War.
Dr. Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, spoke at the Pentagon as part of the Defense Department’s commemoration of African-American History Month.
Ayers, a historian specializing in the Antebellum South and the author and editor of 12 books on the history of the southern United States, was invited to speak on the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in states that had seceded from the Union during the Civil War and allowed blacks to serve in the Union Army and Navy.
“With the Emancipation Proclamation, Jan. 1, 1863, African-American men can fight for the United States. They’ve been held at bay for two years, but with incredible loyalty to the nation that had betrayed them so badly, they come to the defense of the United States,” Ayers said.
But short of a military victory by the Union, that document would have been only words on paper -- it was the effort put forth by African-Americans themselves to ensure emancipation by supporting the military that became just as pivotal as the proclamation itself, Ayers said.
“The controversy among historians is, was it self-emancipation? Did the slaves free themselves? They risked everything that they could to free themselves, but without the presence of the United States Army, there was nothing to free themselves with,” the historian said. During four years -- from the first shots at Fort Sumter to the time the Civil War ended in 1865 -- some 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought on the side of the Union and for freedom.
But the black struggle did not end there, Ayers said. The South was left in ruins by the war, and as history has shown, the legacy of slavery continued to haunt the nation for decades.
“This is the beginning of the story. This is the beginning of America slowly becoming itself and fulfilling what it had promised,” Ayers said, noting that this process would continue for the next 100 years as black Americans fought to fully gain their civil rights.
Despite the struggle, Ayers pointed out, black Americans -- especially those in the military, then as well as now -- continued to show loyalty to the country that had long denied them.
“Beginning with the 180,000 black soldiers and 20,000 black sailors, African-Americans have stepped forward to defend this country from the very first hour that they were committed to, to today,” Ayers said.
The Emancipation Proclamation is on display in the National Archives in the nation’s capital.