No event in American history matches the drama of emancipation. More than a century later, it continues to stir the deepest emotions, and properly so. In the United States, emancipation accompanied the defeat of the world's most powerful slaveholding class and freed a larger number of slaves than did the end of slavery in all other New World societies combined. Clothed in the rhetoric of biblical prophecy and national destiny and born of a bloody civil war, it accomplished a profound social revolution.
The Freedmen and Southern Society Project was established in 1976 to capture the essence of that revolution by depicting the drama of emancipation in the words of the participants: liberated slaves and defeated slaveholders, soldiers and civilians, common folk and the elite, Northerners and Southerners.
Drawing upon the rich resources of the National Archives of the United States, the project's editors pored over millions of documents, selecting some 50,000. They are presently transcribing, organizing, and annotating them to explain how black people traversed the bloody ground from slavery to freedom between the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 and the beginning of Radical Reconstruction in 1867. The documents vividly speak for themselves, and interpretive essays by the editors provide historical context.
The documents convey with first-person immediacy the experiences of the liberated: the quiet personal satisfaction of meeting an old master on equal terms and the outrage of being ejected from a segregated street car; the elation of a fugitive slave enlisting in the Union army and the humiliation of a laborer cheated out of hard-earned wages; the joy of a family reunited after years of separation and the distress of having a child involuntarily apprenticed to a former owner; the hope that freedom would bring a new world and the fear that, in too many ways, life would be much as before.
Placed in the context of the Civil War and Reconstruction with the aid of original essays, the documents uncovered by the project's editors are presented in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867. A total of nine volumes of Freedom is projected; six have been completed
Freedom has shaped a new popular understanding of emancipation in the United States. Its documents and interpretations have helped historians rewrite the history of the Civil War era and the African-American experience. Museum exhibits, textbooks, and television documentaries have employed the documents and interpretations found in Freedom. Ken Burns, creator of the acclaimed PBS series, “The Civil War,” has said that “reinterpreting the meaning of the Civil War for a general audience would not be possible without the pioneering scholarship of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project.”
Editors and associates of the project are also involved in efforts to revise precollegiate curricula. Freedom has been used by the DeWitt Wallace/Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the College Board, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and local school districts to improve secondary-school teaching. The Freedmen and Southern Society Project's website has been designated “one of the best sites on the Internet for education in the humanities” and is showcased on EDSITEment, a joint project of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Council of Great City Schools, and MCI Communications Corp.