Researcher Opens Window to Lost History

John Muller | 4/18/2012, 2:47 p.m.

As goes the griot goes his audience. Last weekend, within the intimate confines of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site's visitor center in Anacostia, more than 50 people gathered to hear renowned historian C.R. Gibbs deliver a lecture on the history of D.C.'s Emancipation Day.

Aided by a salvo of slide projections that included historic newspaper clippings advertising rewards for runaway slaves, government documents pertaining to the 1862 District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, and excerpts from forgotten 19th century diaries and books, Gibbs demonstrated the self-agency of African Americans that has been excluded from popular history.

"His presentation brings honor to the struggle of those [who] resisted," said Reuben Steele, 34, a social worker from suburban Maryland. "Another significant part of the lecture was when he challenged the listeners to get involved in the continuous struggle against inequality, injustice, and oppression and to advocate for and discuss the current relevance of D.C. Emancipation Day along with the International Emancipation Day."

Author of the noted book, Black, Copper, &Bright: The District of Columbia's Black Civil War Regiment and other works, Gibbs' presentation was one of the activities coinciding with the city's sesquicentennial commemoration of D.C. Emancipation Day that Civil War reenactor Bernie Siler had circled as a must-attend event.

"He's one of the few researchers that has gone into such detail on the history of national movements in how they pertain to the city of Washington," said Siler, 60, a District resident who has an uncredited role in the 1989 movie "Glory," about the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. "He's grabbed on to a subject that needs to be thoroughly examined."

After taking a tour of Cedar Hill, Regina Blow stumbled upon the lecture. Blow, 51, a U.S. Army retiree, said that she found the discussion to be enlightening.

"It opened the window to me [about] the history that's been unspoken and not taught."

Blow, up from Ruther Glen, Va., with her husband, said Gibbs' lecture "pushed the borders of my understanding of American history. There's so much more to it."

Gibbs' Presentation

Chronicling the history of slavery in the city, D.C. Emancipation, and its celebration in the ensuing decades, Gibbs reached back to shine light on little known facts including William Lloyd Garrison's intention to publish his famed newspaper, The Liberator, in Washington, D.C. If you take a close look at the anti-slavery paper's masthead, in the left foreground is the old United States Capitol, Gibbs pointed out.

Following the Civil War, the celebration of D.C. Emancipation Day was a popular event up until the mid-1880s when a rift in the black community developed around the event. By the early 1900s celebrations had become largely private affairs, recognized by the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants (Colored). In 1962 the centennial passed with little notice. In the 1980s, Gibbs wrote an article that detailed the forgotten history and importance of D.C. Emancipation Day.

Deferential, modest, and empirical, Gibbs is a historian not detached from his subject matter and community.

"As the nation celebrates the Civil War, this may be our last chance for some time to come to celebrate and teach an event that is not taught in the public schools," Gibbs said as he showed a print-out of the home page of the D.C. Public Schools Web site.

"No explanation of the significance of why school is closed Monday. No essay contest, no oratorical contest, no posters," Gibbs lamented.

A true telling of African-American history that's been obscured, forgotten, and lost "helps place you on the landscape of human events. It gives you a reference point," Gibbs said.

"Far too often African-Americans have not seen themselves in the great tide of history either of their country or the world."