Prologue Magazine

Voices of African Americans in Federal Records

Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

By John W. Carlin

On July 31, 1863, a woman named Hannah Johnson from Buffalo, New York, wrote to President Abraham Lincoln:

Excellent Sir My good friend says I must write to you and she will send it. My son went in the 54th regiment. I am a colored woman and my son was strong and able as any to fight for his country and the colored people have as much to fight for as any. My father was a Slave and escaped from Louisiana before I was born morn forty years agone I have but poor edication but I never went to schol, but I know just as well as any what is right between man and man. . . . They tell me some do you will take back the Proclamation, don't do it. When you are dead and in Heaven, in a thousand years that action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises I know it.


One hundred thirty years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) exhibited the fragile document for one week. The event drew thousands of visitors from around the country and inspired numerous radio, television, and press stories about slavery and emancipation, the Civil War and Lincoln, and the meaning and implications of all of this for our own time. Every year since, we have exhibited the Emancipation Proclamation for a few days, and it continues to draw enthusiastic reactions. One man from Missouri said that it inspired in him "near religious awe."

The record of what happened to the individuals who were personally affected by the Emancipation Proclamation are being collected in the University of Maryland's highly acclaimed documentary series, Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation. Supported by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, this series of volumes, drawn from letters and other documents in the National Archives of the United States, tells the emancipation story through the words of individuals themselves. In these federal documents is a record of African American culture and society— family life, labor problems, religious beliefs, political allegiances, race relations, and education. Along with official bureaucratic reports and instructions are hundreds of letters and depositions of former slaves, from the crude but eloquent letter of a laborer recounting his experiences in the war to an impassioned appeal of a father who has seen the forced apprenticeship of his child to a former slaveowner.

This issue of Prologue focuses on the documentation of the African American experience and the work of archivists and documentary editors to make that record accessible to the American public. Ira Berlin, founding editor of the Freedom series, opens the issue with a dedication to Sara Dunlap Jackson, an extraordinary figure at NARA, whose work and vision aided many researchers through the years.

The following articles cover the historical figures, the themes, and the documentary materials in the National Archives that are bringing to life the struggles and triumphs of African Americans. This once overlooked information now uncovered by historians, genealogists, archivists, and editors has found its way into television programs, films, scholarly books, textbooks, and other reference works, and into lectures geared for a wide variety of audiences from high school students to senior citizens. From the voices of people such as Hannah Johnson we continue our discovery of the African American story.