Take Nothing for Granted: Reflections on the Freedom Project

James Marten is Chair of the history department and Director of the Freedom Project, a year-long commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War that explored the many meanings and histories of emancipation and freedom in the United States and beyond.

4. Freedom Project - Logo-RGB

As the 2012-2013 academic year comes to a close, so, too, does the Freedom Project, Marquette University’s com- memoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.  Many colleagues at Marquette contributed to a very suc- cessful year, including William Welburn in the Office for Diversity and Inclusion in the Office of the Provost, who helped fund the initiative; the faculty and staffs of the Performing Arts Department and the Haggerty Museum of Art who mounted an entire theatrical season and three separate exhibits as part of the project; Dean Janice Welburn, Eric Kowalik, and many others at the Raynor Memorial Libraries, which hosted and maintained our website and created several exhibitions; members in the Office of Marketing and Communication, who designed our logo and publicity materials; and the Law School, English Department, and Women’s and Gender Studies Program, which, respectively, sponsored a poetry reading by A. Vann Jordan, a lecture by Columbia University historian Eric Foner, and a talk by Jeanne Theoharis, biographer of the civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks.  In the History Department, Kristen Foster organized the Mellon Grant-funded symposia on antebellum emancipation in the fall and on domestic surveillance in the twentieth century in the spring, and Andrew Kahrl administered our monthly brown bag discussion of notions of freedom in the U. S. and beyond (speakers included Laura Matthew, Dan Meissner, Alison Efford, Sarah Bond, Julius Ruff, and Chima Korieh).

We did not keep an official count of attendance at Freedom Project events, but at least 500 people attended history department offerings alone, and hundreds more attended the plays, art exhibits, and other events.  Speakers traveled from the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, Brooklyn College, the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Georgia State, and Gonzaga University.  WUWM’s “Lake Effect” program offered two separate segments on the Project, while the Marquette Tribune and Marquette Magazine featured the project early in the year.

It’s fun to offer lecturers and performers to our students and colleagues and to the larger community, and it’s gratifying that so many people participated and contributed to the success of the Freedom Project.  But we also learned something from every event and speaker:

We learned from the “American Slavery/American Freedom: The Possibilities and Limits of Black Freedom in the 19th century” symposium, featuring Kristen Foster, Kate Mazur, and Rob Baker, that African Americans prior to the Civil War refused to wait for freedom to arrive.

We learned from Klement Lecturer Steven Hahn that, although the Republican Party was, indeed, the party of emancipation, the party also used some of the same ideology and notions of government power to engage in the “imperial projects” that settled the west and expanded U. S. power beyond North America. (Watch Hahn’s lecture here.)

We learned that civil disobedience has often promoted the idea and the practicalities of freedom. In the nineteenth century, Metcalfe Lecturer Richard Blackett showed us, participants in the Underground Railroad truly subverted social, racial, political, and legal assumptions. (Watch Blackett’s lecture here.)  In the twentieth century, according to Jeanne Theoharis, men and women like Rosa Parks led “rebellious” lives of reform and protest. (Watch Theoharis’s lecture here.)

We learned from Rebecca Scott’s Casper Lecture of the tragically ambiguous definitions of freedom in the early nineteenth century, when slaves supposedly liberated in San Domingo were re-enslaved when they fled to Louisiana. (Watch a video of Rebecca Scott and her co-author discussing the book on which her lecture was based here.)

From professor emeritus Athan Theoharis and three of his former PhD students we learned that, although the U. S. government has often played a role in identifying and protecting freedoms, it can also be an obstacle to freedom.  (Watch this symposium here.)

There were no doubt many other lessons and insights absorbed by the students and faculty and others who witnessed the Freedom Project this year.  But I hope all came away with the most important idea of all: the history of freedom is still being written.

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