Through public talks, scholarly symposia and workshops, off-campus events with partner institutions, thoughtful programs related to undergraduate coursework, and essays, Emancipations launched important conversations about how slavery, its destruction, and its aftermath have shaped the modern world.
The academic year 2012-13 marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), President Lincoln's Executive Order that immediately freed slaves in the 'rebellious states,' heralding the final collapse of slavery nationwide. The Center for the Humanities marked this turning point with Emancipations, a year-long, in-depth series to interpret and explore how and why American slavery came to an end, what followed, and how these events relate to the broader patterns of slavery and freedom in other places and times.
Convened by Professor of History Stephen Kantrowitz, the roster of public events included talks by historians Steven Hahn (University of Pennsylvania), Heather Thompson (Temple University), Tiya Miles (University of Michigan), and Eddie Glaude (Princeton), all leading figures in the study of slavery's antecedents and legacies.
Major support for these programs was provided by the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities, the L&S Associate Dean for Arts and Humanities, and the Anonymous Fund of the College of Letters & Science. Events were sponsored individually by the Wisconsin Book Festival, Wisconsin Humanities Council, and the following UW-Madison organizations: A.E. Havens Center for the Study of Social Structure and Social Change; Institute for Research in the Humanities; Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History, and Environment; Department of Medical History and Bioethics; Departments of History, Afro-American Studies, English, and Gender & Women’s Studies; the Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies. Coordination support by Jesse J. Gant.
Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor in American History, University of Pennsylvania
The Dimensions of Freedom: Slave Emancipation, Indian Peoples, and the Projects of the New American States
Thursday, September 13, 2012 @ 7:30pm, Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, L160
Associate Professor of African and African American Studies and History, Duke University
"Negro Outlaws": Enslaved Women on the Homefront
Tuesday, October 16, 2012 @ 4:00pm, Ingraham Hall, Room 206
"Turned into the Streets": Black Women and Children Refugees in the Civil War
Wednesday, October 17, 2012 @ 4:00pm, Ingraham Hall, Room 206
Freedom's Price: The Historical Dilemma
Thursday, October 18, 2012 @ 12:20pm, Social Sciences Hall, Room 8108
Events sponsored by the Havens Center
Associate Professor of History, The Ohio State University
The Civil War as an Interracial War
Friday, October 19, 2012 @ 12:00pm, Wisconsin Veterans Museum
Event sponsored by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum
Stephen Kantrowitz and David Cecelski
Freedom Stories: African Americans and the Civil War
Thursday, November 8, 2012 @ 7:30pm, Overture Center for the Arts, Wisconsin Studio
Sponsored by the Wisconsin Book Festival
Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, Temple University
The Costs of the Carceral State
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 @ 4:00pm, Ingraham Hall, Room 206
Distorting Democracy: Rethinking Politics and Power in the Age of Mass Incarceration
Wednesday, February 20, 2013 @ 4:00pm, Social Sciences Hall, Room 8417
Events sponsored by the Havens Center
Assistant Professor of History, Connecticut College
Dying to be Free: The Health Conditions of Freed Slaves during the Civil War and Reconstruction
Tuesday, February 26, 2013 @ 7:30pm, Memorial Library Room 126
Event coordinated by the Nelson Institute
Eddie Glaude, Jr.
William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Department of Religion, and Chair, Center for African American Studies, Princeton University
Democracy in Black: Identity Politics in a Post-Soul Era
Thursday, March 7, 2013 @ 4:30pm, Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, L140
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Black Christianity and the Unfinished Quest for Emancipation
The 2013 Burdick-Vary Symposium, Featuring Barabara Savage, Paul Harvey, Matthew Z. Harper, Ed Pavlic, Craig Werner, Josef Sorett, Missy Dehn Kubotschek, and Eddie Glaude, Jr.
Friday, March 8, 2013 8:30 AM - 4:30 PM
Banquet Room, University Club (803 State Street)
Sponsored by the Institute for Research in the Humanities
Lincoln Slept Here
Jesse J. Gant • April 17, 2012
Last week, University of Southern California historian Richard Wightman Fox offered a preview of the University of Wisconsin’s upcoming Emancipations: The End of American Slavery as a World Historical Event series with his talk, “Memory Making on the Ground: The Elevation of Lincoln to Civic Sainthood.” His short presentation, delivered as the First Annual Merle Curti Visiting Scholar in U.S. Intellectual and Cultural History, and cosponsored by the UW’s Center for the Humanities, highlighted how early struggles to make sense of Abraham Lincoln’s final days helped the nation’s northern Protestant majority construct usable lessons from Lincoln’s life. By closely examining the process of memory formation during the Lincoln’s last ten days, Fox suggested that the making of Lincoln’s martyrdom effectively silenced understandings of how the nation’s enslaved or the Union’s black soldiers, for example, might have also contributed to slavery’s destruction.
In reflecting upon Fox’s points about how northern whites helped construct Lincoln’s saintly image in the immediate aftermath of his death, and in listening to the stories of Abraham Lincoln’s final days, I pondered Lincoln’s remarkable walk alongside and among Richmond’s newly liberated slaves on April 4, 1865. I thought, too, of my own experiences at one of Wisconsin’s last remaining Lincoln pilgrimage sites—the LincolnTallman Restorations in Janesville. The “Tallman House,” as folks in Janesville and throughout the state often call it, is a grandiose Italianate mansion situated just a few blocks from the city’s downtown, overlooking the banks of the Rock River. It is the last house still standing in Wisconsin where Abraham Lincoln once slept—a tie that matters enough to keep it operating, despite deep cuts to city and county budgets over the past several years. At the Tallman House, as I often tell my UW students, I took my firstever job as a docent at the age of fourteen, making minimum wage. During the summers and on weekends in high school, and throughout my first three years at college, it was my task to take whoever showed up at the home’s doorstep on a tour of the place, covering all twentysix rooms and most of the home’s 10,000 square feet. Talking about the history of my hometown paid for groceries when I went back to school, and helped defray the expenses of all the books I read, as both homework and for pleasure, in the gift shop filling time between tours. Through good and bad economic times, a slow but steady flow of Lincoln admirers from all over the country and world frequented our anonymous little museum. Lincoln’s continual, persisting presence, along with the many great conversations and connections the job helped forge, inspired me to become a historian.
The “Lincoln Room,” as we docents often described it in our tours, is located on the home’s second floor, just opposite the bedroom of one of the Tallman sons, and just off the main hall that runs down the entirety of the building’s upper floor. Before entering the Lincoln room, we always made a point of showing the portrait of John Brown that still hangs on the wall outside it, which the thenteenaged Tallman daughter, Cornelia Augusta, ordered in 1859 after hearing of the disastrous failure of Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. It seemed to smooth the entrance into that sacred space somehow, grooming the visitor’s entrance into the quiet place where the fabled Lincoln once slept.
Visitors always adopted a telling stare. The empty bed, positioned at an angle, jutted out from the corner of the room at a slant, the foot resting almost at the center of the spacious guest chamber. A bust of Lincoln, replete with his still cleanshaven face, stared out from near the window, reminding visitors that when he came to the Tallman’s home in Janesville in October 1859, he had still not grown the characteristic whiskers that became a hallmark of all those iconic photographs.
When I reminded guests that Lincoln was 6’4” tall, someone inevitably asked, “How did he fit?!” I would tell them that Lincoln came to Janesville once before, pushing Black Hawk’s people through the Rock River Valley during the last forced removal of Native Americans to occur east of the Mississippi before the Civil War. I would explain that by 1859, Lincoln was a rising star in the newly formed Republican Party. He was in Janesville in 1859 to stir up support for that new coalition through his words and speeches, something he was already being recognized for. People would then linger awhile, their eyes transfixed on the corner, waiting for his ghost.
In February 1859, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass also made his way to Janesville, Wisconsin. Douglass experienced quite a different kind of reception in the city. As he wrote upon his return to New York in his newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly, the Old Northwest was rarely perceived as a landscape of freedom in the eyes of many blacks: “The West was contemplated by us as new and hard soil for antislavery labor.” When Douglass went for dinner at a Janesville establishment called the American House, the proprietor, described as a “slightly unpleasant character,” met him. The man seated Douglass and his colleagues at end of the dining room, opposite from the rest of the clientele. There, it was impossible for leering whites not to notice them and their banishment: “All loafers of the bar room could come and feast their illnatured curiosity upon us,” Douglass explained, “and indulge a morbid feeling of pleasure at our isolation.” When the waiter served food “meant to resemble ‘negro fare’ on a slave plantation as nearly as it conveniently could,” as a “premeditated attempt to degrade and insult us,” Douglass and his friends had to stave off what could easily have become a dangerous situation. They paid their bill and solicited the services of a nearby restaurant instead. These were the everyday experiences of antebellum blacks throughout the region in the late 1850s.
Visiting Janesville today, you can still encounter the large common soldier monument honoring the Union dead in the city’s large courthouse square. It is still possible to take the short walk through the quiet and often fledgling storefronts of downtown up the hill to the Tallman House, and there see the bed where Lincoln slept. Out in the Tallman yard, you can still stand under the shade of trees that were there when Lincoln arrived at the home, his historic election to the Presidency in 1860 only eleven months distant. You can still walk further toward the outskirts of town, too, and see the gravesites of the Tallman family, sitting atop the hillside at Oak Hill Cemetery. What you will not find is a monument, or marker of any kind, commemorating the Douglass visit.
Memorializing the past alone, of course, will not necessarily correct or right the wrongs Douglass endured. Still, how a community remembers, and how a community chooses which stories it privileges over others, tells us much about the values a place shares. In Janesville, there is a growing gap between the community’s popular stories and the lessons recent scholarship has helped unearth. Some of the best recent work on the Civil War has illuminated just how important black abolitionists like Douglass and others were in pushing Lincoln and his Republican Party, both frequent proponents of white supremacist attitudes, toward their embrace of an Emancipation policy.
Next year’s Emancipations events, building upon the conversation Richard Wightman Fox started just this past week, offer all of us a chance to return to these stories, to reexamine these disparities, and to further connect the sometimes surprising pathways carved between the spaces we call home and the broader world we inhabit. To help guide us, Emancipations, in conjunction with the UW, the UW’s Center for the Humanities, and a wide range of community organizations based both on campus and off, will welcome Pulitzer Prize winning historian Steven Hahn of the University of Pennsylvania, along with MacArthur “Genius” award winner and University of Michigan Professor Tiya Miles, each among the world’s best scholars of the politics of slaves and exslaves, to campus. Through the careful and sustained reflection and dialogue their events and many others will offer, Emancipations gives us the opportunity to again remember that how we understand the end of slavery in this country matters, and matters a great deal.
Jesse Gant is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the graduate project assistant for the Emancipations Lab. His dissertation examines the role of racial ideology in the formation and development of the early western leadership of the Republican Party. Those with questions, comments, or a love for local history should feel free to visit his website at www.jessegant.net or write him at email@example.com.
Simon Balto • March 5th, 2013
Roughly 35,000 Wisconsin citizens will go to sleep tonight behind bars. That’s somewhere between the populations of Manitowoc and Brookfield, or, if you’ve been to a Brewer game at Miller Park in recent years, about the same number of people that pack the stadium for an average game. Expand the accounting to include Wisconsinites currently on probation or parole, and the number jumps to 100,000. Putting thatnumber in perspective, more Wisconsinites are in prison or jail, or on probation or parole, than there are undergraduate students at the state’s six largest public universities (Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Eau Claire, Whitewater, and La Crosse) combined.
Nationally, the reach of the criminal justice system is even greater. More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars. Roughly five million more men, women, and, yes, children, are on parole and probation. The majority of Americans caught up in this correctional apparatus are people of color– black men, in particular, though increasingly black women and Latinos, as well. Although scientifically the relationship between incarceration and crime rates remains vague, the United States imprisons more of its citizens, nominally in hopes of deterring crime, than any other nation on the globe — and by a pretty wide margin. The majority of these are petty or nonviolent offenders, many of them arrested and imprisoned on drug charges. The proportion of incarcerated Americans who constitute serious threats to public safety is small.
It hasn’t always been this way. Until the beginning of the 1970s, the U.S. prison population wasn’t particularly noteworthy. But the last four decades have seen a nearly sevenfold expansion of the prison population. The public and policymakers alike used to favor rehabilitation for criminal offenders; now both track toward retribution in the form of lengthy imprisonment.
Why has this happened? What have been the impacts of this radical reinvention of the size and function of the criminal justice apparatus? Taxpayers fund the correctional system to a significant degree (in Wisconsin as of 2011, in fact, more public money flowed to corrections than it did the state’s public universities), but what have they gotten in return? Has mass incarceration made modern America a better, safer place?
Heather Ann Thompson, a Temple University historian, has been at the forefront of a multidisciplinary group of scholars that are seeking answers to these questions. In mid-February, Thompson was on campus as a Visiting Scholar through the A.E. Havens Center for Social Justice, in coordination with the Center for the Humanities’ ongoing Emancipations series. Over the course of two public lectures and a faculty/student seminar, Thompson examined mass incarceration’s development, and explained the serious implications it’s had on the United States politically, socially, and economically. Echoing some of the Emancipations series’ central themes, Thompson’s talks raised important questions about freedom and “unfreedom” (prisoners, after all, are both legally and physically unfree); the relationships between race, justice, and democracy; and the shaping of modern America.
The story behind mass incarceration’s evolution is murky. Until recently, common wisdom was that crime was on the upswing throughout the 1960s, and that by the early 1970s, local, state, and federal governments responded in kind by implementing preventive measures to combat and punish it. But Thompson points out that the picture is actually markedly more unclear. The so-called War on Crime, which fostered the War on Drugs and in turn created the intense upward turn in the U.S. prison population that continues to this day, dates to 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson created the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance (OLEA). Soon after its creation, the OLEA was soon converted into the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which offered massive injections of federal funding to support state and local law enforcement in crime prevention and punishment. State and local officials moved quickly to take advantage.
But as Thompson shows, when the Johnson administration began constructing this framework in 1965, crime rates actually weren’trising. If Americans felt more at risk than they had in the past, it wasn’t actually because their world was more dangerous than at other points before or since.
And moreover, when crime rates did tick upwards at the close of the sixties, it was at least in part the result of LEAA creating incentives for over reporting crime: local and state governments had to show the need for crimefighting funds in order to receive them. Though historical work remains to be done in explaining the timing and political impulses behind this dynamic, the result was the same: the sustained entrance of the federal government, and more importantly, federal funding, into matters of local law enforcement. When the drug and crime wars escalated, it was these financial and functional relationships between the feds and state and local governments that would prove to be their main engines.
What’s more, 1965 didn’t just mark the moment that the federal government began its turn toward consistent and forceful involvement in local criminal justice issues. It was also the year that President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, intended to protect African American voting rights and giving meaningful federal support to the idea of a racially inclusive democracy. In other words, as the civil rights revolution succeeded in finally prying open some of the most tightly sealed doors of American democracy, the growth of the carceral state served almost immediately to begin circumscribing the postcivil rights nation’s democratic promise. Much as it had in the post-emancipation U.S. South (one of the other critical moments of democratic possibility in American history), a significant forward step for racial democracy ran up against a dramatic expansion and intense racialization of the criminal justice system.
The relationship between mass incarceration and democratic integrity is far from abstract — because in fact, Thompson argues, the former undermines the latter. Millions of Americans currently lack the right to vote because their states restrict the franchise for those serving a correctional sentence. The voting rights of 2.5 million more remain stripped, some for the rest of their lives, even though they’ve finished their sentences. One in thirteen black Americans can’t vote because of felon disenfranchisement. In elections from the local to the state to the national level, this has been shown to have real impacts on outcomes.
Mass incarceration influences the political landscape in other ways, too. While a majority of people in prison today are nonwhite residents of urban areas, the vast majority of prisons themselves are situated in predominantly white rural or smalltown areas. In many states (though not, at present, in Wisconsin) the communities where those prisons are located include prisoners in their census counts. In our system of proportional representation, this bloats the political power of those communities (the prisoners, after all, can’t vote). The physical relocation of imprisoned people from their own communities to someone else’s matters, then, in that it weakens the political influence and resource allotment of areas where prisoners come from, and bolsters that of the communities where they end up.
This shifting of political influence and power away from prisoners’ places of origin echoes and reinforces larger discordances in how different places and groups are affected by mass incarceration. Urban spaces in general, and distressed, low-income spaces of color in particular, have been dramatically criminalized over the past half-century. Especially with the advent of the War on Drugs, city governments hired more and more police to conduct ever more aggressive patrols, surveillances, and sweeps. This is true of streets and parks and sidewalks, where citizens are often stopped and questioned, and sometimes arrested, for very minor infractions of the criminal code. But it’s also true in less expected places, like city schools. In recent decades, built-in security forces with deep ties to the broader law enforcement apparatus have become fixtures in most cities’ public school systems. While there’s little denying that some of these schools need help for violence-prevention purposes, the intensity of the police presence in them has also resulted in the criminalization of certain things that kids have always done: skipping class, mouthing off, fighting on the playground, and so forth.
Mass incarceration also orphans children (more than two million kids presently have at least one parent in prison); hinders employment opportunities for offenders by creating a permanent stain on their record; and inflicts intense psychological trauma on some of those who spend time beyond bars. By removing potential wage earners from the community and parents from homes, it also concentrates poverty; dilapidated sections of some cities have begun to be known by the name “million dollar blocks” – not because of their real estate value, but because of the financial cost to the state of warehousing residents of that street in prisons and jails.
When considered in its totality, then, the answer to the question of whether or not large-scale incarceration makes us safer may not just be a simple no. Violent crime, after all, was significantly higher across the country in 1995 than it was at the outset of the War on Crime. And so part of what Thompson forces us to consider is the possibility that — because of what it does to the social fabric, the way that it concentrates and exacerbates poverty, the means through which it limits opportunity — mass incarceration may itself actually be criminogenic. In other words, what if mass incarceration actually cultivates more crime, and makes certain groups of people less safe?
The takeaway from Thompson’s Madison talks, then, is this: if mass incarceration doesn’t demonstrably, conclusively make Americans safer and better off; if it siphons billions of dollars from our economy; if it erodes our cities and imperils our democratic aspirations and strains our social fabric – if that’s all true, is it really a system that we can sustain? As the evidence mounts that shows that we can’t, it also becomes increasingly obvious that there are few clear reasons why we should even want to.
Simon Balto is a PhD candidate in History at UW-Madison. His current research focuses on policing and policecommunity relations in twentieth-century Black Chicago.
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Brian Hamilton • April 4th, 2013
Abraham Lincoln is praised for nothing if not his pragmatism. It is, many claim, what helped him become the Great Emancipator. To historian James McPherson, Lincoln is “a pragmatic revolutionary who found it necessary to destroy slavery and create a new birth of freedom in order to preserve the Union.”  Henry Louis Gates, too, presents the Emancipation Proclamation as the result of Lincoln’s “ingrained pragmatism,” and judges that President Obama and Lincoln share an “astonishing gift for pragmatic improvisation.” 
More recently and visibly, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln celebrates the political sausagemaking and eschewing of ideology behind Congressional approval of the Thirteenth Amendment.
But recent scholarship suggests that if Lincoln possessed an unrivaled pragmatism, he took leave of it when considering slavery’s demise. Historians have come to view emancipation as more than a single decision on the fate of the peculiar institution. Emancipation was instead a process, a succession of questions about what the country would look like after slavery. When facing these questions, Lincoln engaged less in realpolitik and more in magical thinking. Or, more precisely, he banked on a magic trick: making four million people disappear.
Lincoln was hardly alone in his desire to see black Americans vanish with a wave of a wand. After the annexation of the Louisiana Territory, upper South planters hoped, by selling their slaves west, to “whiten” their home counties and diffuse across those nearmillion acres the political and military threat that large concentrations of black people represented in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, several northern states and territories enacted measures to restrict or forbid the influx of black migrants. One delegate to Indiana’s constitutional convention went so far as to suggest, “without any hard feelings” toward black people, that white Hoosiers “kill them off at once,” much as “how the Puritans did with the indians.” 
Lincoln imagined not extermination, but deportation. Like his Whig idol Henry Clay and many prominent white politicians in the early United States, Lincoln favored plans for a decadeslong gradual emancipation coupled with compensation paid to former slaveowners and the voluntary colonization of former slaves beyond the borders of the United States.
He kept his head in those clouds as slavery collapsed across the South. In 1862, the Lincoln Administration appointed an emigration commissioner at the Department of the Interior, secured $600,000 in Congressional appropriations to send black Americans to foreign colonies, and made entreaties to the governments of Central America, West Africa, and European empires about the placement of such settlements. (To advance colonization plans, the United States at long last established diplomatic relations with Haiti.) At the beginning of December, after having made clear his intentions for emancipation, Lincoln reassured Congress that “new homes can be found for [former slaves] in congenial climes and with people of their own blood and race.”  On the day before issuing the final Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln authorized the only such plan his administration had managed to concoct. It called for resettling 5,000 black people on Île à Vache, off the coast of Haiti. Recruiters failed to find even a tenth of that number willing to go, and the venture failed within a year.
The Emancipation Proclamation made no mention of colonization, and historians have celebrated Lincoln’s abandonment of such designs as proof of his moral development, his capacity for growth. But we need not explain as a new tack of his racial imagination what was likely nothing more than his belated recognition that colonization was impossible. Such schemes were ever and always “utopian,” as historian Eric Foner puts it.  Even were it to have been logistically feasible to expatriate one in eight of the nation’s residents, there remains the stubborn fact that freed people did not want to go, and that they and their allies almost certainly would have been willing to take up arms to stay.
Such daydreaming came at a horrible expense. As Lincoln entertained utopian fantasies of black life after slavery, hundreds of thousands of thousands of enslaved people were breaking slavery’s bonds, making their freedom, and dying in droves. Jim Downs, associate professor of history and American studies at Connecticut College, exposed this grim reality of wartime emancipation in a public lecture on campus last month, sponsored by the Nelson Institute for Environment Studies’ Center for Culture, History, and Environment, as a part of the Center for the Humanities’ Emancipations series. He is one of several scholars of African-American history arguing that the Civil War spurred not only a massive slave rebellion, but also a refugee crisis, and that the federal handling of that crisis made things worse.
From the earliest weeks of the war planters had fled advancing Union forces, leaving tens of thousands of slaves without masters in the Lower Mississippi and along the Southeast coast. Even before shots fired at Fort Sumter, runaway slaves were presenting themselves at Union forts, declaring themselves free and seeking protection. By the middle of the war, the flood of fugitives to Union lines resembled, in the words of one officer, “the oncoming of cities.” 
After many months of halting and erratic policy, Congress and the Union Army agreed in the summer of 1862 that refugees from slavery would be considered contraband of war, either to be immediately dispatched into military service or held as reserve labor to be deployed on Union-occupied plantations. Rather than reaching freedom in Union lines, refugees found themselves captive once more, under tight military surveillance, with unreliable access to rations, packed densely in tent villages—or, in some cases, housed in the slave pens of antebellum auction houses.
In these camps, exposure, privation, and dysentery swelled. From them, epidemics spread. Downs, in his book Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, reconstructs the forgotten smallpox outbreak of the 1860s, which ravaged refugee encampments and spread throughout the South in the bodies of the men and boys relocated by Union officials, who all the while claimed that only gainful employment could protect the health of the former slaves.By the summer of 1865, 800 freed people were dying every week in the South Carolina Sea Islands. The story remained the same for years after the war, when federal agents would dedicate most of their funds to transporting ablebodied black men to regions where planters struggled to hire enough labor, while cutting off rations to dependents left behind to teach them the values of thrift and selfsufficiency.
The responsibility for what Downs labels the United States’ “largest biological crisis of the nineteenth century” does not fall on Lincoln’s shoulders alone. Atavistic racist notions of disease stultified medical officials, the economic necessity of reviving cotton production obsessed capitalists North and South, and a steadfast objection to the prospect of a biracial republic defined the politics of millions of white Americans. But the sickness and suffering that accompanied emancipation were not inevitable, even in this political context. There was sufficient epidemiological knowledge, laboring hands, and federal funds (including the vast sums that had been earmarked for colonization and compensation to slaveowners) to prevent this stillbirth of freedom for hundreds of thousands of former slaves. A little pragmatism could have gone a long way.
Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin Madison, where he is working on the environmental history of emancipation and Reconstruction. He is also the lead author of “Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement” and a graduate associate in the Center for Culture, History, and Environment.
 James McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution(Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1991), 41.
 Henry Louis Gates and John Stauffer, “A Pragmatic Precedent,” New York Times, January 18, 2009.
 Report of the Debates and Proceedings of the Convention for the Revision of the Constitution of the State of Indiana (Indianapolis: A. H. Brown, 1850), 574.
 Abraham Lincoln, “Second Annual Message to Congress,” December 1, 1862.
 Eric Foner, “Abraham Lincoln, Colonization, and the Rights of Black Americans,” in Slavery’s Ghost: The Problem of Freedom in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 489.
 John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln, and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907), 2.
 Jim Downs, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 4.
Jesse J. Gant • May 29th, 2013
It was a dark and stormy night...
When, during the long and hot summer of 1935, two youngsters in Alton, Illinois, found what appeared to be human skeletons. The bones were exposed at a construction site situated on a relative no-man’s land, a small island in the middle of big muddy, the Mississippi River. The boys enlisted the help of their intrepid friend, Will Brenner, who first made his way to the scene, armed with a shovel. Poking around in the dirt, Brenner identified three skulls, and what appeared to be the matching bones of three adults. Rumors spread through the town. Soon, key details began to emerge. The federal government, which had recently begun a new public works project, a dam, had authorized a company to dredge the largely unoccupied island. Workers uncovered a gravesite as their equipment carved away the earth. Early reports printed in the Alton newspaper tried to downplay the gruesome find as speculation swirled that dozens, even hundreds of bodies might be found. But by the end of July, as the air thickened with sweltering summer heat, mosquitoes, and humidity, the worst of the rumors were confirmed. A large gravesite had indeed been unearthed on what locals called “Smallpox Island.” Brenner, the dutiful detective, scooped up a pile of femurs and skulls, loaded them into a basket, and trudged down to the local paper’s offices, where his inspector-neighbors dutifully dusted off the bones.
A small, pyramid-shaped monument adorned with names marks the spot today. Standing near it, you can’t help but feel vulnerable to the onrushing thrust of the mighty Mississippi. The City of Alton sits hundreds of yards away, nestled safely, or so it would seem, above the current on the hills above. But many insist the town above is haunted. In fact, the island gravesite and memorial is a common reference on Alton’s ghost tours, one destination among many in a small local industry that each year helps buttress Alton’s reputation as one of “the most haunted small towns in America,” leading some to call the place, “Ghost City.” YouTube clips a-plenty document the scares and haunts available there. Yet the story of the grave uncovered in 1935 forms only a small part of how Alton’s famously haunted reputation came into being.
Alton is by no means the undisputed titleholder of Paranormal, USA, however. As University of Michigan scholar Tiya Miles reminded her UWMadison audience back in February, Alton is just one of many American towns and cities capitalizing on all things ghoulish. Many sites of extreme historical suffering, both foreign and domestic (be they Plantation homes and grounds, concentration camps, or battlefields), have seen the proliferation of ghost tours in recent years. The UK-based Institute for Dark Tourism Research has tracked and monitored their appearance since 2005. In her lecture, delivered as part of the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities’ series, Emancipations, Miles explored the example of the Sorrel-Weed House, a slavery-era Plantation home and mainstay of the ghost tourism circuit in Savannah, Georgia. Within weeks of her visit to Madison, Miles had addressed another audience on these and other topics at the conference, “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th” hosted by Gettysburg College. Today, Gettysburg may just be the most haunted place in America, judging by the sheer number of shops selling tickets to ghost tours along its famous Baltimore Street. Ghost Tours have become nearly as ubiquitous as the more traditional Civil War-themed restaurants, art galleries, and ice cream parlors that have long made Gettysburg an adorable, if kitschy, middle-class family destination. Indeed, as panelists at the Gettysburg College conference often said, ghost tours have been great for business. Without them, they routinely claimed, historic destinations like Gettysburg National Military Park would struggle to attract visitors.
The oddity of all this is that Alton, Gettysburg, and Savannah each have vivid, richly textured and compelling actual histories, which `would seem to undercut the need for any further embellishment. Consider, for example, what can be found by taking a short walk through downtown Alton:
- The site of the seventh joint debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, October 15, 1858.
- The site of the long-forgotten almost-duel between Abraham Lincoln and James Shields in September 1842. (Incidentally, the same site where all those bones were found in 1935 — more on that later.)
- The site of the murder of the anti-slavery editor Elijah Lovejoy, killed by a mob on November 7, 1837.
- The Mississippi River, one of the most significant natural features of the North American interior. The Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers also converge near this place, linking, across several centuries, waterways crucial to the experiences of New World exploration and western conquest, the expansion of chattel slavery, and the rise of global capitalism.
- Historic bluff murals overlooking the Mississippi, where father Jacques Marquette described the presence of “two painted monsters” in 1673. Known today in Alton as the “Piasa Bird,” the re-imagined drawings are thought to loosely resemble the originals left by the Mississippians headquartered in and around present-day Cahokia, Illinois. A few miles from Saint Louis, the ruins of this massive North American indigenous community are still clearly visible.
- The ruins of the first Illinois state penitentiary, constructed in the early 1830s and later converted to a federal prison, in 1862, to house Confederate soldiers captured in the opening campaigns of the Civil War.
- The confluence of rivers near Alton and Saint Louis that inspired Langston Hughes to write his first award-winning poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1920), as he traveled through the area to visit his father in Mexico. A mosaic inspired by the poem memorializes Hughes’ remains at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, New York.
- And, of course, the site where Lincoln held his reception for Republican Party supporters as they gathered to see him debate Douglas. Rumors abound as to where Lincoln actually slept that night.
All of these stories are commemorated on the landscape, either through the ruins of the sites themselves, through monuments to the figures involved, through markers and plaques, through artistic murals, and through other venues. The trouble is that these stories, as with all stories, no matter how plentiful, detailed, or clearly marked, carry with them omissions, silences, and gaps. In other parts of Alton, you can learn more about its other memorable residents, including: Miles Davis, James Earl Ray, Phyllis Schlafly, Paul Tibbets (pilot of the Enola Gay), and Robert Wadlow. One can also visit the former home of Lyman Trumbull, an Illinois Republican who helped draft the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Taken together, it is not hard to understand why the past has become a certain kind of problem in Alton, or why the place might feel haunted, as locals often put it, by the strange vortex of colliding “energies” residing there.
* * *
For all of these efforts to remember, there are still many forgotten stories. Take, for example, the long-silenced story of Illinois’ free black activists before the Civil War. Only a week removed from the crushing defeat of John Charles Frémont as the first Republican Party Presidential candidate in November 1856, black activists from around the state met at Alton not only to condemn the inequalities they had suffered at the hands of the state’s infamous “Black Laws,” but also to criticize the very mechanics of electoral politics. Illinois blacks shrewdly noted that the elections, from which they were largely banned, had undermined the credibility of American democracy. Sarcastically referencing the “the late great National Decision,” activists committed to re-organizing themselves, and to further exposing the nation’s exclusionary politics. But for all the historical infrastructure one encounters in Alton today, visitors would be hard-pressed to find reference to their story. Nowhere do you get a sense as to how crucial these activists were in holding the United States accountable to its loftiest ideals as the Civil War raged.
Where the full scope of antislavery activity goes unaccounted for, visitors to Alton will also struggle to find reference to the existence of chattel slavery itself in Illinois. Often misleadingly described as a “Free State,” Illinois (like Wisconsin and other northern “Free States”) maintained a far more complex relationship to slavery than most people recognize. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance did ban slavery in what became the State of Illinois in 1818. However, enslaved Indians and African Americans were crucial to the early history of the region, both before Illinois was admitted to the Union and afterwards. United States military officers were often responsible for bringing enslaved people, most often African Americans after the American Revolution, into the Illinois territory. Indeed, chattel slavery lasted as a de facto institution in Illinois up until 1848, when the state finally abolished slavery in its revised state Constitution. The 1848 decision to abolish slavery marked the culmination of efforts begun in the early 1820s to roll back efforts by pro-slavery Illinoisans, but for a good part of the early nineteenth century, the fate of slavery in Illinois remained very much an open question. Still, by 1860, nearly 63,000 African Americans called the Midwest home, despite the regressive laws put in place by their neighboring whites. In the Civil War, many of them, including Alton’s Louis Martin, a Private in the 29th United States Colored Troops, sustained grievous injuries defending the Union.
Many postwar blacks would return from southern battlefields to revitalize the region, as they did with the first all-black town in the United States at Brooklyn, Illinois. Located opposite the river from Saint Louis, Brooklyn, variably called “Lovejoy” by locals as a way to honor Alton’s martyr to abolition, Elijah Lovejoy, was one of many black towns that emerged and thrived in the nineteenth century Upper Midwest.
* * *
There is a link between the complexity of the past and the scale of the stakes of the contests over it that best informs an understanding of why ghost tourism has gained a foothold in Alton and other “historic” destinations. With so many competing narratives claiming ownership over the memory and meaning of the past, educators can really struggle to unify and render accessible all these competing claims. But as these claims are made, they also inevitably illuminate the dynamics of power. Walking through Alton, histories bombard the visitor at every turn. Stories blast forth from museums and their exhibits, from monuments, roadside markers, and painted murals. Ghost tours do the service, at least, of assembling them all; they refine and repackage them in a newly stylized menagerie of the macabre. They sift and winnow through stories told for generations by locals, taking what is familiar in order to guarantee a selection of the most relevant and entertaining ones. And this means Ghost Tour companies sometimes take the local tall-tales too, refashioning them all into more frightening, yet safer versions of themselves. The tours promise, through their cheap thrills and sugary formulas for goodoldfashioned mayhem, a more neutral entry point into a national narrative blown apart by today’s bitterly contested pasts and powerfully entrenched constituencies. In this way, they become appealing when compared to the always fraught, always politicized, always no fun past. Ghosts may follow you home after the tours, guides will warn you, but never are they the kinds of ghosts that can haunt entire nations.
All this, then, raises a range of ethical questions about how we confront and grapple with what Miles called the “emotionally laden past” in her Madison talk. As ghost tour proponents and representatives from both Savannah and Gettysburg readily conceded at the March 2013 Gettysburg College Conference, there is always a politics embedded in the way we tell stories. Ghost tour proponents are rarely of one mind about exactly what kind of politics get embedded in the ways they scare and thrill people, but their overall argument seems to be that while some places are undoubtedly rich in official “history,” they nonetheless retain a fairly limited, unimaginative, and frankly uninspired view of what history itself really entails. More often than not, they say, visitors are not given a chance to explore the connections they really want or are seeking, since, to take Gettysburg as an example, jingoistic battlefield monuments and heroic, stoically narrated roadside markers, with their courageous and often muscular take on redemptive battlefield violence, do not always seem inclusive to the widest possible demographic. Such places offer a cliché set of lessons on what, and especially who, makes history. Ghost tours, by contrast, open up spaces for exploring little-known stories that traffic in more fundamental lessons: terror, morality, revenge. According to tour proponents, appeals by historical professionals to return to telling the “real history” can foreclose not only the diverse and perfectly legitimate range of experiences visitors seek when they come to dwell in a place, but also the possibilities that might open up through playful engagement with themes, subjects, and spaces where history is also useful for its rich fabric or backdrop. Through camp and theatrics, ghost tour proponents have argued, the tours can conjure sensory experiences like disembodied voices, screams, even strange odors and gusts of air not easily approached or re-transmitted in the “objective” realm of detached, academic or other “official” venues of storytelling. They can approach social taboos, explore the intimacies of violence, and dwell in the morbid minutiae of the ghastly. But what is really gained from having these experiences? And are they really that worthwhile?
* * *
So there I was...
On the night of April 28, 2013, taking my very first ghost tour in Alton, Illinois. I wish I could say it was a dark and stormy night, but really it was just raining—it was so wet, in fact, that the day’s ongoing weather had unleashed torrents of water in the streets, soaking our feet as it scrambled on down the hills on the way to the Mississippi. Alton’s downtown had been sandbagged on account of new flooding, and the presence of the river presented the deadliest, and thus the most terrifying, part of our journey by far.
But we stopped at a variety of places as we went along, hearing precisely the kinds of stories you might expect: the Confederate prison where Rebel ghosts are still said to haunt; the local inn where a jealous lover was inspired to murder; the church where a reverend apparently hung himself. Questions of accuracy in remembering and repeating did emerge, but mostly to discredit the stories and myths propagated by other, rival ghost tour companies. More often, the past simply provided the atmospherics for better accessing the paranormal and unexplained, and in this way, the tour was more earnest and sincere than one might assume. Participants genuinely desired an encounter with a ghost, and some spoke openly of past encounters with ghosts. I should add that most of Alton’s historic landmarks have become sites for ghoulish embellishment, save one: the site where Lincoln debated Douglas was referenced simply as a place where “great Americans” once stood, with a brief editorial attached: “It doesn’t matter who won.”
One stop I should mention in further detail. Deep in the heart of downtown, there is a massive house standing tall about halfway up the bluff. The guide explained that Nathaniel Hanson, a local manufacturer, built the place back in 1857. Legend has it, the guide went on, that Hanson was active in the “abolition” movement, and apparently harbored fugitive slaves in a tunnel in the bottom of his house, sometimes for hours, sometimes days, and sometimes weeks at a time. “Everyone and their brother has an Underground Railroad story,” the guide admitted, but noted that here in Alton, the stories are the real deal. The family would apparently signal to the fugitives crossing the river from their cupola on the top of the house, and based upon their signals, those in flight would know whether or not it was safe to approach the home. As we made our way to the basement to see the tunnel, the guide turned out the light, and explicitly asked us to reflect on the “energy” of that place, repeating as he did so the question of how the torturous fear felt by fugitive slaves might have transmitted itself into the stones and very foundation of the place we now were. And there, in the darkened silence with fifteen or so strangers, I reflected on his questions as best I could, given the shortened time, the strangeness of the circumstance, and the stifling, omnipresent darkness. I snapped a quick photograph and stepped back outside into the rain.
As Benedict Anderson observed three decades ago, the American national imaginary is still defined by a “vast pedagogical industry” encouraging citizens to forget or otherwise deny the complexity of their experiences, particularly when it comes to remembering the experiences of the Civil War and slavery. And with ghost tourism, one could make a very compelling case that tourists have found a new and astonishingly insidious way of reremembering and, thus, re-forgetting.
* * *
The bones unearthed in 1935, it turns out, belonged to Confederate Army soldiers transferred in the 1860s to where Abraham Lincoln and James Shields nearly had a duel in 1842. Under the cover of midnight darkness, Federal guards, who were nervous the smallpox they saw decimating Confederate soldiers would further spread to the city’s residents, shipped infected men across the river and into quarantine on the island. Dozens and perhaps hundreds subsequently died there, and the bodies were placed, unmarked, in a mass grave, soon to be forgotten. It was this grave that the company dredging the island in 1935 unearthed, much to the horror (or was it delight?) of
Alton’s ogling residents. This is how the bones made their way into young Brenner’s basket.
It is hard to imagine what ex-Confederate soldier S.A. Harrison thought of all of this, or to know if he was even aware of the skulls that had emerged smiling into the July sunshine. He had returned to Alton for a visit the very same week Brenner and his friends discovered the bodies of Harrison’s one time comrades. The ninety-three-year-old veteran wanted to see the old prison where he had spent much of his Civil War. The Alton newspaper did its part to mitigate the obvious tension between the bones and the living veteran, meanwhile, in noting that Harrison visited with “all rancor gone from his heart.” Armed with such assurances, perhaps locals hoped he would not haunt the city with embittered stories about the time when almost half the federal Union, including some men from southern Illinois, left the country to defend the enslavement of four million blacks, leaving nearly 750,000 dead along the way, in addition to scores of still-unaccounted-for African Americans. As Harrison relayed to Alton reporters eager to weave a palatable story of reconciliation and redemption, the war had left him devastated, propertyless. But like many southern whites during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow years, he had slowly recovered. He had lived a long and apparently prosperous life. He would wear out his days, in peace, until his late nineties. He had a family, he had some time to travel, and he had some time to wax nostalgic on the good old days.
Harrison’s example shows that the costs of forgetting run deep in places like Alton. Painful pasts have long been denied, intentionally dismissed in the rush to promote healing and reconciliation. We can blame ghost tours for the amnesia we seem trapped by, but the continual forgetting of wartime emancipation goes much deeper than that. Even when, like ghosts, the past’s dirty secrets come
roaring back, power and privilege determine whether we can choose to ignore them. Or, to put it a different way, sometimes the past just pops up, asking to be dusted off like bones emerging out of the dirt. Who will carry them home and tell their stories? And under what terms? As the Greek historian and general Thucydides put it over two thousand years ago, himself referencing a scene of strewn, shattered bodies and limbs: “The People made their recollection fit in with their sufferings.” Our suffering, it appears, has increasingly become something like a ghost story. And like all ghost stories, it is made of stories so much safer than the real ones under our feet.
Jesse Gant (@GantJesse) is a PhD candidate in the Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He served as the Project Assistant for the Emancipations series, sponsored by the UW Center for the Humanities. He also attended “The Future of Civil War History,” hosted by Gettysburg College, March 1416, 2013.