Today we continue our series of reports on the recent Organization of American Historians annual meeting with a concise summation of a lively discussion on abolition and emancipation, recorded by Evan Turiano.

Our first report from the 2018 meeting can be found here.


“Was abolition a fundamentally radical or conservative movement?” Joshua Rothman, Professor of History at the University of Alabama, presented this question as one of several that the panel of esteemed nineteenth-century historians could pursue at the OAH Conference’s “State of the Field: Abolition and Emancipation” roundtable session. This question proved central, engaging both the panel and the audience of nearly 120 people, who packed the hall of this primetime panel. The answer, it turns out, largely depends on context: are abolition and emancipation best understood in relation to the political and social movements that preceded them, or in relation to the shortcomings of Reconstruction that followed?

The panel featured a range of distinguished scholars whose research projects touch on emancipation from different angles. Stephen Kantrowitz, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, expressed in his opening remarks an interest in moving beyond the “slavery/freedom binary” and described the fruits of liberal emancipation as “disappointing.” He also called for an understanding of emancipation in the context of continental history, and of American empire. Manisha Sinha, the Draper Chair of American History at the University of Connecticut, assumed the opposite stance in her opening remarks. She warned that the long-fought scholarly efforts to overturn whiggish “slavery to freedom” narratives are at risk of being overdone, and can flatten the radical transformations inherent to abolition. She also warned that emancipation is too often considered as a contingent moment, one of wartime desperation, which obscures the long fight for abolition. Kidada Williams, Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University, considered emancipation from the Reconstruction era, and expressed particular interest in how an expanded source base, one that amplifies black voices, can add to our understandings of emancipation.

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

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