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IRA BERLIN’S “THE LONG EMANCIPATION” REVIEWED BY THE NY TIMES

By Edward E. Baptis, The New York Times

Ira Berlin ranks as one of the greatest living historians of slavery in the United States, in no small part because of his commitment to readers beyond academia. For almost four decades, he has been the moving force behind the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, based at the University of Maryland. He and his colleagues at the project have combed through millions of documents generated by emancipation and Reconstruction. They have found amazing characters, like the newly commissioned, recently liberated black soldiers who sent letters to their former masters, demanding that these white Southerners hand over still-­enslaved family members.

The Freedmen and Southern Society Project has released 10 volumes, as well as numerous other publications. Each one opens windows into Reconstruction, a period of American history that is not yet over. For, as Berlin insists in the opening to “The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States,” “History is not about the past; it is about arguments we have about the past.” When people argue about what the past means, they are usually debating about the present, and it would be hard to think of a period of American history more relevant to the present than the Reconstruction Era. For the arguments about whether Reconstruction “worked” are about what to do today to shape tomorrow.

The discussions we need to have about the long movement for emancipation in the United States before the Civil War, the focus of Berlin’s new book, are just as timely. The story begins with the American Revolution, which led to the halting emancipation of New England’s slaves. It continues through the early 1800s, when slavery was expanding rapidly in the cotton South. Most Northern whites were happy to spend money generated by cotton slavery, while simultaneously creating patterns of segregation that presaged Jim Crow — some of which still haven’t been eradicated.

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Date of Publication: 
9/15/15