Slavery and Emancipation at Pack Library

Asheville's history is inextricably tied to the "peculiar institution" of slavery in America. Both the large picture and the local are spotlighted in the exhibit "Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln's Journey to Emancipation" at Pack Memorial Library through Oct. 31.

Road to Emancipation: At its opening reception last week, the exhibit "Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln's Journey to Emancipation" drew crowds. The touring exhibit remains at Pack Memorial Library through October. Photo by Jonathan Welch

The exhibit, which opened Sept. 17 with a reception complete with an actor reenacting scenes from Lincoln's life, charts the history of slavery in America: its introduction and acceptance, the divisive debate over it that eventually sparked the Civil War, and Lincoln's eventual declaration that "We must free the slaves or ourselves be subdued."

The exhibit has been a long time coming. Applications to host the traveling exhibit went out five years ago from a local coalition including the Center for Diversity Education. Asheville is one of three North Carolina stops on the tour.

Focussing on Lincoln's efforts to abolish slavery during the Civil War, the exhibit is a collection of panels that contain reproductions of rare historical documents, photographs, political cartoons and handwritten letters composed during the heart of America's struggle with slavery.

Deborah Miles, executive director for the Center for Diversity Education, notes that the exhibit is especially serendipitous not only because 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth but also because of the message sent by the election of President Barack Obama.

"Who would have thought we would be so fortunate to have a president and first family who are so reflective of a dream so many had?" Miles says.

Slavery is still a current issue. Worldwide, she points out, there are 27 million people working under conditions of forced labor. "And in many ways, we benefit from that forced labor," she adds.

But the exhibit at Pack is not limited to the touring materials. A large portion is also dedicated to examining Asheville's own role in the history of slavery. Display tables and notebooks contain local documents including testimonials and letters from the Civil War era and slave deeds dug up from Buncombe County property records.

Prior to 1850," Miles says, "People were considered property." And files noting the transfer of people still exist. Over the past 10 years, high-school students have worked under the direction of the center to find and copy such records.

"They are there," Miles says,"But unless you were an archivist and went in and got it out, it was hidden from history."

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