There are a few elements of Barry Glassman’s commentary published on Feb. 16 for Black History Month I’d like to address.
First, a moment to discuss the terms used and the current terminology being used, not only in the field of history, but also in all areas touching upon enslavement. Slave, slavery or runaway slave are all terms that have long been seen as “needless dehumanizing” to the people who were forced into bondage. Discussed for decades, but pushed into the forefront of many conversations by the 1619 Project, the terms enslaved man/woman/person, enslavement, and self-emancipated person have taken the place of the previously mentioned words.
Instead of describing any person kidnapped from their home, trafficked thousands of miles away, as a slave, as if this condition was their entire identity — they are now referred to as an enslaved person, recognizing that this condition of enslavement was placed upon them by outside forces. Similarly, the term “runaway” leads the reader to believe that the enslaved person was running away from their enslaver, or effectively “stealing themselves.” This continues to dehumanize enslaved peoples. To continue to combat this, the term “self-emancipated” has replaced it, showcase their survival instincts to remove themselves from a soulless situation.
Second, while there is an undeniable tie between President Lincoln and the Black community, there is quite a lot about Lincoln for a commentary about the United States Colored Troops of Harford County, meant to celebrate Black History Month. There is the implication in the commentary that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed a significant number of enslaved peoples which lead to an increase of Black soldiers in the Union Army. However, that was not the case. The Emancipation Proclamation, announced after the Union victory at Antietam in Western Maryland, went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but only impacted the “areas still in rebellion.” Enslaved peoples in border states like Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky or Missouri remained enslaved until the passage of the 13th Amendment. Yes, there were formerly enslaved peoples who served, however, many of them had self-emancipated or had been freed when Union Troops had marched through their areas.
Lastly, the United States Colored Troops was the official Army designation for the regiments where Black troops were segregated from white soldiers. USCT soldiers were discriminated on a daily basis. They were paid less, given only the worst assignments, died trying to earn the respect of their brothers-in-arms; all while the Army refused to promote them higher that sergeant because they did not want a situation to arise where a Black man could possible give an order to a white man. Still, as County Executive Glassman said, more than 179,000 men volunteered for service, while being discriminated against by nearly everyone they met. Some regiments, like the Massachusetts 54th, volunteered for incredibly dangerous missions, suffering significant losses, in part to try to prove that they were as worthy as all of the other people wearing the uniform.
I absolutely believe that Black and African-American history should be fully intertwined with American history instead of relegated to a single month. Black and African-American history is American history. So, I appreciate that County Executive Glassman has taken this step to highlight Harford County’s history, however, the telling of this history must be told with care and an eye for inclusion.
The author is an assistant professor of history and Associate Dean, School of Arts, Sciences, and Business at Notre Dame of Maryland University.