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Slaves had key role in emancipation, professor says


Frustrated screams from centuries of injustice echoed in every corner of the cramped, dank cabins and shacks where black slaves daily swallowed several helpings of suffering and humiliation.

So by the time the Civil War came to divide the country in a conflict whites believed stemmed from property rights and preserving the union, the slaves had already decided the war was being fought to secure their freedom.

"The slaves knew [the role the war would have to play] during a period when they had nothing more than blind faith," Dr. Leslie S. Rowland told the 50 people gathered Monday night in McDaniel Lounge at Western Maryland College. "The slaves knew even before Lincoln knew that he would have to be an emancipator."

Dr. Rowland, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland College Park's history department, illuminated the role the slaves played in their own salvation during a lecture called "Who Freed The Slaves?"

The talk was sponsored by the WMC history department as part of African-American History Month.

The professor's talk was based on information from the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, a scholarly examination of slavery, the South and the events during the years between 1861 and 1867 told from the perspective of ordinary people.

"One of the most important findings in our research is the role the slaves had in the emancipation," said Dr. Rowland, the project's director. "The Civil War opened a chink in the system that gave the slaves the opportunity to act."

Dr. Rowland's talk highlighted the process by which slavery ended in this country, which to most Americans means the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation.

"It was a revolutionary document. It changed fundamentally the purpose of the war," Dr. Rowland said. "From that moment on, every advance of the Union Army meant more free territory."

But the professor pointed out what few people realize: the

proclamation "freed not a single slave who was not already free by some earlier act of Congress."

She also showed many audience members that the wheels were in motion long before the ink had touched the parchment paper.

"The slaves knew they couldn't depend on the northern whites for their salvation and they certainly couldn't appeal to their oppressors for help," Dr. Rowland said before the lecture. "They steadily ran away to the north, which forced federal authorities to act in some way."

Slaves with knowledge of the south offered to guide troops through the enemy lines. Some slaves who had helped the Confederate army build fortifications knew where they were and what their weaknesses were.

The slaves would get to Union lines and make themselves indispensable to the troops, some of whom became their allies "out of principal, but some were strictly utilitarian."

"Whether it was to capture them and send them back or refuse to do return them to the south, they [federal authorities] had to make a decision about the issue," Dr. Rowland said. "It was the initiation of the slaves that pushed the congress and the president into action."

Few in the audience realized that by running away to the north and entrenching themselves in Union regiments, slaves forced the issue into the president's agenda and exercised great -- albeit unknown -- political power.

"In the middle of the war, the slaves, people who were not thought to be respectable in society, became not only the voice of morality, but the voice of common sense," Dr. Rowland said.

"I never realized . . . that the actual slaves played apart in their own freedom," said Erica Amrhein, a senior sociology major. "In school you learn that it was Lincoln and the proclamation that freed the slaves."

Sophomore Kim Riley agreed.

"A lot of the ideas were presented that I had never before learned about in history classes," said Ms. Riley, a business administration major. "I learned that there were a lot more people involved and a lot of complicated issues at hand that influenced the final document, the Emancipation Proclamation."

Dr. Rowland and several other researchers have worked on the project since 1976, drawing on thousands of documents and resources in the National Archives.

They have written several reference books which present a comprehensive look at nature of slavery and the meaning of freedom in American society that evolved after it ended.

Products of the project have won various awards and grants for the researchers. Most recently, "Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War" -- the abridged version of the researchers' reference work -- won this year's $50,000 Lincoln Prize from the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College.

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