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A rare signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation is displayed on Juneteenth

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today is Juneteenth, long a celebration for Black Americans and now a federal holiday. Broadly speaking, it commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, and that history was made possible in part by the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. Over the next couple of weeks, a copy of the proclamation is on public display at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., which is where we have reached the executive director of the library, Christina Shutt. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHRISTINA SHUTT: Thanks for having me today.

KELLY: So I gather you're standing, what, like 20 feet away from the Emancipation Proclamation? This is one of a number of copies still in existence, is that correct?

SHUTT: It is. So there are about two dozen that are left sort of across the world, but what's unique about ours is ours, of course, is signed by President Abraham Lincoln himself. And so it's pretty cool when you think about what words on paper - they weren't just words. They actually meant something to people. They were bringing freedom to enslaved people as the United States Army is taking territory held by the South.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, I mean, the content of the document is summed up by the title - the Emancipation Proclamation - although President Lincoln wasn't actually freeing all enslaved people. What does the document actually say?

SHUTT: It only frees enslaved people that are held in territory that was held by the insurgency. So any state that was a border state, such as Missouri, where I'm originally from - those enslaved people were not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation. Also if the state was partially under United States control, so you think about port cities and other places where the Union Army had already captured those places, those - not affected by the document. But what it does do is it actually opens the door. So not only does it kind of treat enslaved people as the sort of property that the South was claiming they were by confiscating them and saying that, well, now if you're going to treat them as property, we're going to treat them as property, and we're going to free these folks, but it also allows for the enlistment of Black soldiers, which, of course, becomes a huge turning point for the United States armed forces, as about 200,000 Black men start to enlist in the Army.

KELLY: Oh, so this was hugely consequential in terms of changing the course of the Civil War, which, as we mentioned, was underway.

SHUTT: Absolutely.

KELLY: And then on slavery itself - the institution of slavery - this is, of course, separate from the ratification of the 13th Amendment that formally ended slavery. That came in 1865. So what was the practical impact of the document?

SHUTT: Well, the practical impact becomes this kind of inspiring touch point, particularly for enslaved people. You know, they start burning down barns. They start trying to undermine the Confederacy in any way they can.

KELLY: As a scholar of Lincoln, do you learn anything about Lincoln from reading the document, from looking at it?

SHUTT: I think one of the things I learn about Lincoln is that, you know, Lincoln changed his mind. Lincoln starts really always as a person who was against slavery, but he is not someone who early on in his presidency sees that he has the ability to end slavery. He can keep it from going into other territories, but he can't stop slavery. And here we're seeing him take a - frankly, a radical step for him and saying, OK, no more slavery in states that are at war with the U.S. And this becomes an important move for him. I think that's something that we can all learn - right? - that - the idea that it's OK to change your mind. It's OK to grow and to be impacted by those around you. You know, as Lincoln's visiting these camps where Black people are fleeing into D.C., he's hearing their stories. He's learning from them about the horrors of slavery, and it's really starting to change his mind and involve his thinking in so many ways.

KELLY: Yeah. I was going to ask what it means to you to stand there and be right next to it and on Juneteenth, of all days.

SHUTT: Well, I have to say it's pretty cool. I mean, so my family actually goes back to the 1790s, all the way back to Missouri through my enslaved ancestors. And one of the things, of course, is that our family wasn't impacted by the Emancipation Proclamation. We were in a border state. We were more impacted by the 13th Amendment, but I think for me personally, one of the things that the Emancipation Proclamation does is it sets in motion what will become the 13th Amendment that will become freedom for my ancestors. And so it's pretty impactful to be able to stand next to it, but not only to stand next to the document, but really have the job to protect the document so my children and my children's children will be able to understand what it has meant for our legacy as our family.

KELLY: Christina Shutt is executive director of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. Thank you so much. Happy Juneteenth.

SHUTT: Happy Juneteenth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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