Visualizing Emancipation: Examining its Process through Digital Tools

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There are a handful of wonderful online tools for the study of history and archaeology, particularly African American history. Some that come to mind are the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS) at Monticello, The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Database, or the Virginia Historical Society’s recently released Unknown No Longer database of slave names. These sites all use the power of the web to present historical and archaeological data in searchable and visual means, so researchers can access tons of data in new and different ways. At the University of Richmond, a new tool has been released that takes this same approach, and applies it to process of emancipation during the Civil War. A production of Richmond’s Digital Scholars Lab (which has produced a number of digital tools relating to emancipation and the Civil War), the tool is called Visualizing Emancipation, and I think it is a valuable tool that allows archaeologists and historians to examine the transition from slavery to freedom as a process, not a shotgun moment in time.

This is an important component of the research that I am conducting for my dissertation research, and it is a product of a lot of the recent historical scholarship that addresses emancipation as just this: a process that occurred through time, not a single, shotgun moment. Most of us learned that Emancipation was a product of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and that the 13th Amendment made it all official. While this is somewhat true, it does quite a lot to obscure the actual story of how the Emancipation Proclamation came to be and what it actually did (and didn’t) do, and what the 13th Amendment was, as well. In both cases, we are dealing with military and government actions that post-dated events that were occurring on the ground: they were the results of a process put into motion by African American slaves who fought for their own freedom. Visualizing Emancipation portrays these actions through the presentation of time and space.

Let’s remember: the Civil War, initially, wasn’t (technically) supposed to be about slavery, it was about state’s rights and preserving the Union. However, the enslaved in the South, and those who were enslaved in the Northern border states like Maryland, were certain that it was about slavery, and it was through their actions that they pushed that envelope. But how? We are talking about slaves, here, and they didn’t have much power, and certainly couldn’t vote or run for elected office or be in the military. This is certainly true, but it didn’t mean they weren’t human: they have agency, can make choices, and can effect change through those actions, no matter how small or seemingly meaningless. Typically framed as “resistance”, archaeologists and historians have dedicated countless studies to identifying the hows and whats of resistance, ranging from more passive actions like identifying spiritual activity to crafting goods with African influences to naming traditions, to more aggressive forms, like violence, insurrection, or running away.

Of particular importance to the Civil War, slaves were politically active within their own communities (Hahn 2003). When they ran away, they were making political statements about their views of the institution of slavery . An entire literary genre, the Slave Narrative, was built around the accounts of runaway slaves, and used as political weapons by the abolitionist movement to dictate the horrors of slavery. Slave runaways were so politically damaging to the public perception of slavery that the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 as a means of keeping these stories out of the public sphere. This Act required that escaped slaves remained the property of their owners, and that those harboring them were in violation of the law. Their actions of resistance, therefore, had an impact.

It was at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, where the Civil War started to become about slavery. Escaped slaves began to show up at the Fort, looking for freedom. The Fugitive Slave Act required that these slaves be returned to their owners, and the federal government was slow on developing a policy. Pressured into making a decision, Major General Benjamin Butler decided that these slaves would be kept by the Union Army as contraband of war, a decision that changed the course of the war. Gradually, the policies regarding escaped slaves moved more towards emancipation, particularly as the Union moved further South and more slaves escaped. Eventually, Lincoln acted with the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all the slaves in the Confederate States. It was not until the 13th Amendment that the Federal Government outlawed slavery in throughout the United States, after all the states had adopted Emancipation in their state legislatures. Even so, the Union Army did open its doors to black enlistment, and many slaves escaped from Union slaveholding states to enlist. In Maryland, many slaves escaped to Washington, D.C., where slavery was illegal, and proclaimed themselves escaped slaves from the South: this resulted in their emancipation (Fields 1988). In many ways, emancipation was a process that occurred over time and was led by enslaved African Americans, not a single moment when black slaves were freed by “The Great Emancipator”.

Visualize Emancipation is a wonderful way to see this process. The entire tool is a map of the location of a historical document where a slave achieved freedom during the Civil War. You can view the map through different time periods, watch animations, and get all the information about each document. It shows other items, as well, such as where Union camps were located over time, and the railroad system, all important components of escape. What is powerful about this is that, as it grows (and it will, since it provides an opportunity for the public to submit their own documents), it will provide a better opportunity to see the process by which African Americans were achieving their own freedom. Singular documents often make it difficult to envision collective action, but this tool allows us to see many documents that tell us the same thing moving through time and space. In all, it is digital projects like these that are beginning to open the door for historians and archaeologists to begin to understand deeper questions and ideas about the past. And it is the collaborative spirit of these databases that will allow scholars to do this work together, transparently, and with a greater eye towards public engagement.


Fields, Barbara J. 1985 Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hahn, Steven 2003 A Nation Under Our Feet. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


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About Terry Brock

Terry is an archaeologist who lives in Virginia with his fiancee and is writing his PhD at Michigan State University. In his spare time, he writes for Gradhacker, an Inside Higher Ed Blog, and tweets @brockter. His favorite thing he's ever written is Swimming Buddies and a Pipe Cleaner Necklace.