VCU Launches ‘Year of Freedom: Confronting Our Past, Facing Our Future’ to Reflect on the Continuing Impact of the Civil War and Emancipation

VCU’s “Year of Freedom: Confronting Our Past, Facing Our Future,” which begins this month, features a variety of guest speakers, activities and lectures that reflect on the important course of events in the war in 1862 and 1863 that led to the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“We think this is a great opportunity for people to learn about what happened in the past and think about how it impacts us today,” said John Kneebone, Ph.D., chair of the Department of History and chair of the Year of Freedom committee.

Kneebone said the proposal for VCU’s Year of Freedom was put together in the spring of 2011, when Catherine Ingrassia, who was associate dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences at the time, convened a meeting of interested faculty from the College of Humanities and Sciences, the School of Education, the School of the Arts and VCU Libraries. Kneebone was named committee chair in August of 2011.

Kneebone said the Civil War and Emancipation constitute the most important events in American history. Though the war would not end until 1865, the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg) took place on Sept. 17, 1862. And while the battle was tactically inconclusive, it was a strategic victory for the Union, allowing Abraham Lincoln to preliminarily issue his Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order created to free slaves in the 10 states in rebellion effective on Jan. 1, 1863.

“I can’t think of any year in Virginia history that has impacted us like 1862,” Kneebone said.

And even 150 years later, the Civil War and Emancipation bring conflicted perspectives in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, with celebrations of southern pride for the descendants of Confederate families and recollections of pain for the descendants of enslaved African-Americans.

“It’s a very complicated and difficult conversation to have,” Kneebone said. “On one side, remembering the war is a way to celebrate southern heritage with re-enactors, and, on the other side, Emancipation conjures up all of the pain of slavery.”

VCU’s Year of Freedom is meant to launch a conversation about that conflict on campus and in the community.

“We’re right in the middle of Richmond, a city filled with memorials to the losing side of a civil war. And we also enroll a large, diverse student body,” Kneebone said. “By the end of the year, we may have irreconcilable differences but we’re hopeful that we’ll have a common story that can be understood, if not embraced.”

Already this year, activities have included:
Lauranette L. Lee and Paige Newman of the Virginia Historical Society delivered a lecture titled “Unknown No Longer: A New Database to Track the Enslaved.”
VCU and the World Affairs Council of Greater Richmond presented an international panel of experts discussing the topic of “Freedom and Social Memory in Global Perspective.”
A live streaming was held at the University Student Commons Theater of a discussion at the National Museum of American History on the accumulation of several factors – including action by enslaved people to find freedom with the Union Army, the success at arms of the Confederates, political pressures in the North, lobbying by Frederick Douglass and the Union Army’s bloody victory at Antietam – that led to Abraham Lincoln issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

In addition, on Thursday, Sept. 20, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writer and senior editor for The Atlantic, will speak to a class in the morning and then deliver a public address titled “The Civil War and Emancipation in the age of Obama” at the University Student Commons Forum Room at 5 p.m. Coates writes about culture, politics and social issues for and the magazine and is the author of “The Beautiful Struggle,” a book about growing up in Baltimore during the age of the crack epidemic.

Additional activities will be held through the year, including a campus visit in November by the HistoryMobile, the traveling, interactive exhibition on Virginians in the Civil War and Emancipation-themed films being shown during the VCU Southern Film Festival in February.

A complete listing of activities and events may be found at

An RVAMaverick creation.