March 30, 2016

Revisioning Our Conversations on Slavery and Emancipation

No two tours of President Lincoln’s Cottage are exactly the same. Even if a return visitor has the same guide, their tour can—and should—be a whole new experience. I gave my first tour at the Cottage in February 2010. Since then, my discussions of slavery and emancipation have evolved tremendously thanks to the conversations, questions and dialog we encourage on our tours. Every person on a tour brings a different set of interests, a different way of thinking and distinct life experiences, creating unique, thought-provoking moments.

Curtis Harris demonstrating how to use a primary source with VERV. | Courtesy of President Lincoln’s Cottage

The tours have always been rich in multimedia, using a combination of videos, photos and audio recordings of primary sources, but our delivery had been limited by available technology—TVs and speakers. Although my tours produced ever more complex discussions that would have benefitted immensely from additional primary sources, adding those sources to the system was a difficult and time-consuming process.

The introduction of the Visitor Education Re-Vision (VERV) program in fall 2013 greatly enriched the dialog on our tours by making it easy to add new primary sources. VERV still uses videos, photos and audio recordings but delivered via a tablet system that allows for the quick addition and manipulation of multimedia files. Essentially, every guide now has a digital toolbox filled with primary sources to augment each tour.

The primary sources available through VERV have made each tour highly curated. I can respond to visitor inquiries not only with my words but also with engaging historical information. This curated experience paired with our conversational style makes it easy to “meet” visitors where they are and progress from there in discussing slavery and emancipation.

VERV has made complex topics easier to address. I’ve chosen three examples to highlight both the complexity of the issues and the possibilities of addressing them honestly, without reservation or fear:

  • Why did the Confederacy form?
  • How extensive and pervasive was slavery in the South?
  • How effective was the Emancipation Proclamation?

Why Did the Confederacy Form?

This question, expressed in various ways, is frequently brought up by visitors, sometimes in opposition to what has been discussed thus far on the tour. Mostly, visitors are seeking concrete information regarding a topic on which they have never seen primary sources. My go-to answer is based on two sources: a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to Alexander Stephens on December 22, 1860, and Stephens’ infamous “Cornerstone Speech” on March 21, 1861.

Prior to VERV, I would have had to quote these sources from memory. My memory might be impeccable, but for a conversation of this gravity, it’s always best to present quotes directly. With VERV, I can present them verbatim.

Lincoln’s letter to Stephens:

“You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.”

Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech”:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Seeing the actual words not only precludes any errors on my part, but it also places the full weight of each quote in front of the visitor. We’re all staring at it, reading it, processing it, dealing with it. The Stephens quote in particular hits visitors hard. I’ve seen some people look on in disbelief, others heavily sigh after soaking it in, while still others just shake their heads in disappointment. And for visitors who may have downplayed the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, there is nowhere to run from these words. They must be grappled with, which often leads to this next question.

Map showing density of enslaved population across the Southern States in 1860. | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

How Extensive and Pervasive Was Slavery in the South?

Regarding the pervasiveness and extent of slavery in the South, visitors often ask: Why did poor whites fight for the Confederacy? How many white Southerners actually owned slaves? And how many people were slaves in the South? To tackle the subject, I created a slide featuring an 1861 map based on the 1860 Census. This primary source shows, by percentage, the population of enslaved people across the South.

This map works on many levels. For starters, if visitors are from one of the 15 slave states of the period, their curiosity instantly shoots through the roof. They eagerly insist that I find their county on the map so they can see the population of enslaved people there. Although no names are on that map, it deeply personalizes the discussion.

For the next step, I use either my home county (Galveston County, Texas) or the home county of a visitor. I ask visitors, for example, how it is possible for 25 percent (Dyer County, Tennessee), 40 percent (Stafford County, Virginia), 60 percent (Charleston County, South Carolina) or even 92 percent (Washington County, Mississippi) of a county’s population to be enslaved? Working through this question, the answer becomes quite clear: complicity from a large number of whites (poor, rich and in between) was required to keep that many people held against their will, regardless of who had formal legal titles to the enslaved people.

However, in the course of this discussion, another important point, perhaps the most important, is often raised: How did enslaved people react to the prospect of emancipation?

Undated photo of black and white soldiers from the Civil War. | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

How Effective Was the Emancipation Proclamation?

Abraham Lincoln’s crowning achievement at the Cottage was developing the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862. This momentous document is rightfully a cornerstone of our discussions of slavery and emancipation. However, visitors invariably ask, with justified hints of skepticism, how effective the proclamation was. How could the president guarantee freedom to persons enslaved in areas not controlled by the U.S. government?

The answer becomes much easier if we place individual African Americans as well as individuals in the U.S. military (categories that increasingly overlapped as the war progressed) at the center of the discussion.

Despite the obstacles of enslavement and disfranchisement, African Americans had been influencing the outcome of the Civil War from its outset. Black Americans in the North, for example, critiqued or praised federal policy in their newspapers. In the South, enslaved African Americans sabotaged equipment, slowing down production of important supplies for the Confederate military and also took to self-emancipation (running away) when opportunity struck.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not begin emancipation, but it allowed black Americans to officially join the U.S. Army and to place greater faith in the U.S. government defeating the Confederacy, reuniting their families and pressing for greater rights for African Americans after the war.

At this point, visitors often ask how enslaved people knew about the Proclamation, especially since most could not read. Referring back to the map I introduced earlier, I point out to visitors that the U.S. Army was positioned in areas such as the Mississippi River Valley and coastal South Carolina—regions with large populations of enslaved people. This meant that word of mouth—something often forgotten in this digital age—could easily originate from U.S. soldiers, spread the news and further galvanize African Americans who were already resisting the Confederacy.

However, the majority of enslaved people were still in bondage at the end of the war in April 1865. The South is enormous in physical size, and the institution of slavery was draped across the entire region—indeed, the entire country—not only in terms of physical shackles but also economically, politically and socially. The Emancipation Proclamation clearly had an effect, but I leave it to visitors to judge just how effective it was in the face of geography, resistance from the Confederacy and recalcitrant Northerners who opposed emancipation as a war aim.

At some point during this discussion, I again tap into VERV and bring up a poignant image of black and white Americans intermingled in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. I use this primary source as a reminder that the destiny, successes and failures of Abraham Lincoln and the United States rested on the shoulders of diverse individuals like those pictured.

All these events, people and pressures may seem like a whirlwind, but based on my experience, the zealous drive for information generated by the interaction between visitor and guide is enhanced by VERV. Visitors may not remember all the information presented, but they do remember the feelings and themes of our discussions. They will also remember that—perhaps for the first time ever—they had an honest, enriching conversation that helped them understand and address the wounds still festering from slavery and its legacy.

Curtis Harris is Marketing and Membership Coordinator at President Lincoln’s Cottage. Previously, he worked as a Museum Program Associate at the Cottage, and he is also a freelance sports history writer. Born and raised in Texas, Curtis has a B.A. in International Studies and an M.A. in History from American University.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

By: Curtis Harris

Have a story idea that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience? Read our Contributor Guidelines and email us at

More posts by guest authors (326)

Related Stories

The Mother Road turns 100 years old in 2026—share your Route 66 story to celebrate the Centennial. Together, we’ll tell the full American story of Route 66!

Share Your Story