Columbus-Lowndes Public Library Archivist Mona Vance adjusts panels of the "Forever Free” exhibit Wednesday at the library. During the six weeks the national touring exhibition is in Columbus, the library will host numerous related programs examining Lincoln’s legacy — in this, the year the nation marks the bicentennial of his birth. Photo by: Kelly Tippett/Dispatch Staff
February 8, 2009
When Mona Vance and then-library director Ben Petersen worked on a grant in 2005 to bring the “Forever Free” exhibit to Columbus, they had no way of knowing the timing of its eventual arrival would turn out to be so auspicious.
The Columbus-Lowndes Public Library archivist is pleased to have the national touring exhibition make its only stop in Mississippi during the bicentennial of Lincoln’s Feb. 12, 1809, birth. It also coincides with Black History Month and the first weeks of presidency for Barack Obama, the first African-American to hold that office, Vance noted.
“Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln’s Journey to Emancipation” follows the transformation of the roughhewn politician, from an antislavery moderate to the “great emancipator” he was later called. From the exhibit’s 30 panels, somber faces and life-altering words tell their story. Images of various Lincoln papers, in his own handwriting, accent the timeline of divergent forces that led to arms. It fell to Lincoln — birthed in Kentucky, reared in Indiana, elected from Illinois — to guide a young country through the most tumultuous period in its national history, the Civil War.
“We’re thrilled to offer the community this opportunity to learn more about the complex reasons behind Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue not only one, but two Emancipation Proclamations,” said Vance, pointing out the first was signed in 1862 and the other a year later.
“The exhibit explores not only the moral, but also the military and political motivations behind, and consequences of, this document,” she added. “It also dispels the belief that the proclamations ended slavery. In fact, it wasn’t until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 that slavery was officially outlawed throughout the United States.”
An enlightening series of related events accompanies the exhibit’s six-week visit, which opened Thursday with a reception and remarks by Dr. George Rable, of the University of Alabama. Children’s skits, a Lincoln re-enactor, an HBO documentary, a Civil War gun crew and numerous scholars addressing topics from “Women’s Civil War Diaries” to “Music of the War Between the States” will shed light on the man and the times.
Seeds of discord
In 1776, slavery was legal in all states. “The American Revolution left a contradictory legacy of freedom and slavery. Most of the founding fathers thought slavery was wrong, but could envision no peaceful way to end it,” reads an early panel of the exhibit.
Although northern states had ended slavery by the time Lincoln came to political power, early on, there were few cut-and-dried lines in the sand, as most people tend to believe. The reality was there were defenders of both abolition and slavery in both North and South.
“Most northern whites opposed abolition ... ,” one panel reads, to the surprise of some. Sad incidents such as the 1837 mob murder in Illinois of antislavery editor Elijah Lovejoy, and the destruction of his press, underscore the conflicted passions on both sides.
“Unionism in Mississippi,” in fact, will be the topic of a library talk March 18 by Dr. Thomas Cockrell, of Ripley. The co-editor of “Chickasaw, A Mississippi Scout for the Union” has done extensive research on the subject.
Lincoln himself began as a moderate who believed and hoped the containment of slavery would lead to its eventual demise. But the country’s growth westward propelled the issue to the forefront. “The fight over the spread of slavery into the western territories was the wedge that finally split the Union.”
A new Republican party sprang up in the free states, its defining mission the restriction of slavery. In 1858, Abe Lincoln, the obscure lawyer little known outside the boundaries of Illinois, gave the “House Divided” speech which would launch his rapid ascent to the presidency just two years later.
Chris Small, of Tennessee, loves being Lincoln. The re-enactor and founder of The Lincoln Project will be in Columbus Thursday to resurrect the historical figure for school groups at 9 a.m. and for the general public at 6 p.m. at the library.
“The Lincoln Bicentennial is keeping me busy,” said Small, who recently completed shooting on location for two films about the president he has been portraying for more than a decade.
“The look you see in people’s eyes when they catch the importance of what he had to say is one of the main things that keeps me coming back to it again and again. He talked about values that are timeless, values that are still important now.”
Sam Whitehead, of Starkville, also relishes the rush of immersion into an earlier time and place. As a Civil War re-enactor, he and other history buffs in the First Mississippi Light Artillery Turner’s Battery will be on the grounds of the library Saturday, March 7, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.
“We’ll have both Union and Confederate soldiers,” Whitehead stated. “We’re bringing a gun crew and authentic cannon that was used in Vicksburg and donated to our club.”
Although firing even blanks so near downtown Columbus is highly unlikely, the Starkville man explained the projectiles weigh 10 pounds and require about a pound of powder to fire. “The gun recoils about 10 feet, so you have to push it back, so every shot with that gun was like a first shot,” he explained, offering a glimpse into the challenges faced on earlier battlefields. “We welcome new recruits who are interested in living history,” Whitehead noted. Anyone interested in learning more may contact Whitehead at 662-282-7571.
Vance stressed, “The public is urged to take advantage of these free events offered at the library through March 18. This is a rare opportunity to study more closely the thinking and events that changed a nation.”
“Forever Free” events
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.