09/25/2012 06:39 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

New York Celebrates Lincoln and Emancipation But Important Things Are Missing

A traveling exhibit organized by the New York State Museum is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, an important step in the campaign to end slavery in the United States. The exhibit, The First Step to Freedom: Abraham Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, just completed a four-day stay at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and its was definitely worth visiting. It includes a hand-written draft by Abraham Lincoln of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a 1962 speech by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered on its 100th anniversary, as well as a series of panels that explore the struggle for African American Civil Rights from slavery days to the present.

After stops in Syracuse and Buffalo, the exhibit returns to the New York metropolitan area on Monday and Tuesday October 15 and 16 and will be on display at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at Long Island University's C.W. Post campus. It then travels to Plattsburgh, Rochester, Binghamton, and Albany where it will end up at the New York State Museum. I strongly recommend that middle school and high school teachers sign up their classes to view. A 24 page curriculum guide with pre- and post visit lessons is available online.

The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln as a wartime measure on September 22, 1862 following a major Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. It announced that the federal government would free all enslaved Africans in rebelling states unless that ceased hostilities within the next 100 days.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in The Atlantic, praised Lincoln's "extreme moderation" and ranked the Preliminary Emancipation in importance with the Declaration of Independence and the end of slavery in the British West Indies. Emerson declared Lincoln an instrument of "Divine Providence" who has done more for America than any other American man." Emerson's celebration of Lincoln is reprised in the exhibition and was my only real criticism. The Lincoln superlatives mask divisions in the North over ending slavery and Lincoln's own hesitation to act.

Lincoln had to be pushed into issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and supporting an end to slavery while dragging his feet every step of the way. In November 1861, Lincoln fired Major General John C. Frémont as Commander of the Union Army in the West because Frémont confiscated the property of secessionists and freed enslaved Africans in Missouri. Lincoln also rescinded an April 1862 order by General David Hunter that would have ended slavery in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in an effort to promote black enlistment in the Union army.

During the spring of 1862, Lincoln launched a campaign for Congress to approve a compensated emancipation program for Washington D.C. that would have the federal government pay slaveholders in the national capital to free their slaves. The measure included a plan to colonize former slaves out of the country somewhere in Central America or the Caribbean. In a speech on July 12, 1862, Lincoln also offered the same deal to slaveholders in border states that remained within the union. In the speech, Lincoln emphasized to representatives from the slave-holding border states how he had blocked efforts by his field generals to arbitrarily free enslaved Africans. Then, at an August 14th meeting with prominent local Black leaders in Washington DC, Lincoln proposed to resettle formerly enslaved Africans in the Chiriqui region of what is now Panama. Lincoln told the Black leaders, "It is better for both of us, therefore, to be separated."

Throughout the summer of 1862, New York abolitionists, including Horace Greeley, editor of the influential New York Tribune, pressed Lincoln to support emancipation. Following an editorial in the Tribune written by Greeley, Lincoln wrote;

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

The story of how a hand-written draft by Abraham Lincoln of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation ended up in the New York State archives is fascinating in itself. According to the exhibit, Lincoln donated the document to the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which raffled it off at the Albany Relief Bazaar to help raise money for the Union war effort." Gerrit Smith, a prominent New York State abolitionist, won the raffle and sold the document to the New York State Legislature, which deposited it in the New York State Library.

The exhibition was organized by the New York State Board of Regents and the New York State Education Department in partnership with the New York State Museum, New York State Library, New York State Archives, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library; and National Archives and Records Administration.