Maybe Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all the slaves, but that hardly diminishes the document in the eyes of Russell Sage College history professor Andor Skotnes.
“The Civil War was about preserving the Union, but when Lincoln issued the proclamation it turned into a war against slavery,” said Skotnes, who will be one of the many speakers at the Capital District Underground Railroad Public History Conference held Friday through Sunday at Russell Sage in Troy and the Sage College of Albany. “Sure, it didn’t free all the slaves, only those people enslaved in those states in rebellion. But that shouldn’t be a source of cynicism. It still represented a great change in our war aims. Now, we were out to destroy slavery.”
This year’s conference is titled “Milestones on the Road to Freedom” and will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death, and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
‘Milestones on the Road to Freedom’
WHAT: 12th annual Capital District Underground Railroad Public History Conference
WHERE: Russell Sage College and Sage College of Albany
WHEN: Friday through Sunday, April 14
HOW MUCH: Prices for individual events, workshops and lectures vary
MORE INFO: 432-4432 or www.UndergroundRailroadHistory.org
Skotnes will take the spotlight for Saturday morning’s keynote address with his presentation, “The Importance (or Non-Importance) of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Today.”
“What I’ll talk about and explore is the original impact of the proclamation, and some of the mythology that still is around today,” said Skotnes. “Many people still think that all enslaved people were freed by the proclamation, and they don’t realize the nuance that was involved. Lincoln had a lot to deal with back then, and I’m going to talk a little about his own attitude toward slavery and the proclamation.”
Skotnes started attending the Underground Railroad Conference in 2006, and has been serving on the program committee since 2009, when Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, founders of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region, became a constant presence at Sage when they moved their offices into the Gurley Building on the Sage campus. The Stewarts founded the organization in 2000 and have been conducting an annual conference since 2002.
“It’s really become a great conference, and one of the things I like to stress is that it’s a very diverse group of participants,” said Skotnes, who is in his 23rd year at Sage. “We’ve been getting 300 or so people at each conference, and they are largely from outside our college community. We have a variety of ages that show up, and people from all walks of life, and what I think is really important is that it’s multicultural, much more so than anything else I’ve been involved in around Albany.”
Art and civil rights
There will be an educator’s workshop throughout the day Friday, followed by an opening address and reception at 7 p.m. at Sage’s Opalka Gallery at 140 New Scotland Ave. in Albany. Michele Wallace, an English professor at City College of New York, will speak about African-American art, in particular the work of her mother, Faith Ringgold, and Jacob Lawrence.
Ringgold is an artist best known for her painted story quilts. Born in Harlem in 1930, she is a professor emeritus in the visual arts department at the University of California at San Diego. Lawrence, who died in 2000, was a painter associated with the style called “dynamic cubism” and became famous for his series of paintings depicting the great migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North.
Among Saturday’s speakers will be Colia Clark, a leader among the youthful, militant wing of the 1960s Southern Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and Alabama.
“Colia Clark was present at virtually every major battle of the civil rights movement,” said Skotnes. “She worked with Medgar Evers. When you see the cops using firehoses and dogs on the marchers in Selma and Birmingham, she was right there. She’s a great storyteller.”
The third major theme of the weekend’s conference is Tubman, a former slave who escaped to freedom in the North and then served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping other slaves gain their freedom. “Harriet Tubman Then and Now: A Woman of Importance,” will be delivered by noted Tubman authority Kate Clifford Larson.
A graduate of Simmons College who got her master’s at Northeastern University in Boston and her doctorate at the University of New Hampshire, Larson’s 2003 biography, “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero,” was the first nonchildren’s book to be published about Tubman in more than five decades.
While Tubman is often credited with helping hundreds of slaves gain their freedom in the decade before the Civil War, Larson argues that the real number is around 50 to 60, and most were either family or friends. Larson also writes that there was never a reward of $40,000 for Tubman’s capture, and that she was generally unknown to Southern slave catchers of that time.
Larson, who is a consultant for the Harriet Tubman Special Resource Study of the National Park Service, also wrote “The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln.”
Sunday’s activities will be highlighted by a trip to the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence on Livingston Avenue in Albany for an open house from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. A site on the Underground Railroad, the house also served as an office for the Vigilance Committee, a group created with the intention of protecting fugitive slaves from re-enslavement.