Images of emancipation on Maryland's 150th anniversary

Events commemorate 150th anniversary of Maryland Emancipation Day.

Deborah Willis is familiar with the history of slavery. She co-wrote "Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery," a collection of photographs spanning from emancipation to the New Deal.

But she said not enough is taught about the slow pace of slavery's abolishment across the country, which took years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. Even she didn't fully understand Maryland's emancipation history, she said.

"There is a silence in the North when it comes to education about the emancipation," she said. "I want to retell the story of those people. These images have been visibly removed from history."

Willis led a presentation attended by about 100 people on Saturday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture about the African-American experience before, during and after emancipation.

The day coincided with the 150th anniversary of Maryland Emancipation Day, which commemorates Nov. 1, 1864, when a state constitutional amendment officially abolished slavery.

Similar events and celebrations have occurred throughout the state this month.

At the Lewis museum, one image of a statuesque, emancipated black woman during the Reconstruction period struck a chord with Jennifer Williams, an assistant professor of African American literature and women's studies at Morgan State University.

"These photographs tell the story that is more complex than we've been taught," Williams said as she looked at the woman photographed standing with her hand resting just above her hoop skirt. "These photographs tell a story that autobiographies haven't told us in that way."

"It never dawned on me to look at varying degrees of emancipated states," Williams added. "The emancipation wasn't the end-all, be-all. I didn't think of it as individual states getting information at different times. This was new for me. People had two different emancipations."

Slavery continued in some states for years after Lincoln's proclamation. Many states recognize Juneteenth to commemorate the day in 1865 when Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Civil War was over and that slaves were free.

By comparison, Maryland's emancipation has remained somewhat unheralded. Takkara Brunson, an assistant professor of history and geography at Morgan State University who attended the Lewis museum event, said she didn't know Maryland's history, either.

"I had never heard of it," she said. "In the South, Juneteenth is everything."

Brunson, who said she has been a fan of Willis' work for years, appreciated her latest. "To see the breadth of the collection is to see how diverse the images are," she said. "These are pictures that you don't see."

The museum has hosted similar events to commemorate emancipation in Maryland since 2006 — one year after it opened, said Lisa Crawley, resource center manager for the museum.

"With it being the 150th anniversary, so many are now celebrating this, which is wonderful," Crawley said. "I hope it will continue in the future."

Willis' book includes a number of images of emancipated people and historical figures, such as Frederick Douglass from Maryland, as well as portraits of black families and runaway slave advertisements.

Willis, a professor and chair of the department of photography and imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, said she wants to change the slave narrative.

"I want to change the language of slavery," said Willis, who co-wrote the book with Barbara Krauthamer. "Instead of calling people 'runaways,' I want to call them 'self emancipated.' It's about self empowerment."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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