A broadside recruiting
African- Americans into the
Union Army, 1863.

Freedom was a founding principle of the United States. Yet slavery flourished in all 13 colonies in 1776. Even after Northern states abolished slavery in the late 18th and early 19th century, cotton production was still crucial to the U.S. economy and slavery was a defining feature of the new country’s economy, culture and society. Slaves resisted their forced labor, stealing food, destroying tools, feigning illness. Slave culture was sometimes seen as a symbol of resistance, as in the folk tales of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, where powerful adversaries are overcome through guile. On rare occasions, slaves escaped to freedom or staged slave revolts.

“Wanted: Douglass, Tubman
and Truth 1997,”
by Faith Ringgold. A
painting depicting abolitionist
leaders and former
slaves Frederick Douglass,
Harriet Tubman and
Sojourner Truth.

Slavery and the debates over its expansion westward became the central issue of the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. Antislavery sentiment grew but the hostile rhetoric from both pro- and anti-slavery sides fostered a political/social battle that culminated in the Civil War. The Underground Railroad, whose most famous figure was Harriet Tubman, helped carry slaves to freedom in the northern states or Canada, while former slaves Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth proselytized for the abolitionist cause. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 made the Civil War a moral struggle to end slavery as well as a fight to preserve the Union. The passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 formally ended slavery in the United States, but not the struggle for freedom and equality.

A photo of an Emancipation Day paradein Saint Augustine, Fla., January 1, 1923. African-American communities around the country celebrated Emancipation Day on the day of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Abolitionists adopted Philadelphia’s Old State House Bell as a symbol of their movement, renaming it the Liberty Bell in the 1830s in an attempt to associate their movement with the American Revolution.

President Abraham Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation, which helped to transform the Civil War into a moral crusade to end slavery.