Kate Masur, author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C., writes in the New York Times’ Disunion series about Abraham Lincoln’s meeting with a delegation of African Americans in 1862.
Those interested in the history of abolition and racial equality would find few incidents in Lincoln’s presidency as dispiriting as the president’s Aug. 14, 1862, meeting with a delegation of five black men from Washington. It was dispiriting then as well: to the dismay of those hoping the Civil War would lead to full citizenship for African-Americans, Lincoln informed the delegation that “you and we are different races” and proposed that the five men be progenitors of a black colony the government would establish in Chiriquí, a region of what is now Panama.
Historians have debated Lincoln’s remarks and their context for decades. It was once conventional to claim that Lincoln’s proposal was an attempt to appease conservatives while he pursued the policy he truly believed in: a presidential proclamation of emancipation. But the more recent consensus is that Lincoln was speaking very much in character. The “Great Emancipator” was one of the many white Americans of the era who believed that if slavery were abolished, a “race war” would inevitably ensue. Since the United States was destined to be a white nation, emancipation must be accompanied by the emigration of freedpeople out of the United States.
For all the attention to Lincoln’s ideas and motivations, however, there has been very little focus on the delegates’ side of the story. For decades no one even knew who they were, much less what they stood for. Drawing on the work of the historian Benjamin Quarles, many believed that four of the five delegates were uneducated former slaves, hand-picked by Lincoln and his colonization commissioner, James Mitchell, to be pliable and subservient.
In fact, all five of the men who listened to Lincoln’s case for colonization were members of Washington’s free black elite, chosen by a formal meeting of representatives from Washington’s independent black churches. The delegation’s history – and more broadly, black Washingtonians’ responses to the variety of emigration proposals on offer in 1862 — reveal a vigorous and complex debate among African-Americans regarding their future in the United States.
Read the full article, “A Separate Peace,” at the NY Times to learn more about the men who met with Lincoln and their views on his proposal for African American emigration.