American values: Our flag in Civil War abolition campaign Wayne Baker is traveling and, until Labor Day, is welcoming stories from the ReadTheSpirit “America” project exploring values that divide and unite us as a people. You can read more of the voices in this nationwide series via links in the right margin.

THE AMERICAN FLAG is a rare symbol of unity in the U.S., according to a recent nationwide survey of Americans conducted by Baker at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. More than 9 out of 10 Americans in the survey agreed that they feel pride in our flag and anthem. Asked by David and Benjamin Crumm (in the ReadTheSpirit project this month) what these potent symbols mean, Americans describe a wide variety of responses including a “revolutionary” meaning described by Barbara Mori in Monday’s story.

In two museums at New Orleans’ historic Jackson Square, the Crumms discovered yet another important association with the flag. The museums display photos of Rebecca Huger, an 11-year-old girl who played a major role in a Civil War-era campaign across northern states to raise support for abolition and the Union cause. Initially, many northerners did not support freeing slaves, fearing that these laborers might move northward and take scarce jobs. Abolitionists wanted to soften that opposition and convince northerners of slavery’s evils.

Because the port of New Orleans was captured by Union forces early in the war, and also because New Orleans had a relatively large and influential free-black community, the port city became a major source of anti-slavery campaign material. 

Rebecca Huger was one of three slave children featured in both public appearances and a multimedia campaign of widely distributed postcards and photographs. Earlier this year in an Atlantic magazine blog, senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates also summarized Rebecca’s story in his ongoing series about the struggle for freedom and civil rights.

The original magazine story about Huger appeared in 1864 in a Harper’s Weekly layout calculated to shock northern readers. The article focused on slaves who had only the slightest portions of black ancestry but nevertheless were held in bondage in the South. Among the featured children, Rebecca Huger prompted the greatest reader response. The New Orleans museums exhibit two of the many different widely distributed photos featuring Rebecca.

About the girl, Harper’s wrote: “Rebecca Huger is 11 years old, and she was a slave in her father’s house, the special attendant of a girl a little older than herself. To all appearance she is perfectly white. … In the few months (after she was liberated), during which she has been at school, she has learned to read well, and writes as neatly as most children of her age.”

Little Rebecca’s tour of major cities including New York and Boston drew huge crowds and an upswing in public support for both the Union cause and emancipation, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

In producing the iconic photos and postcards of Rebecca, abolitionists chose to pose her with an American flag, proclaiming: “Oh, how I love the old flag.” Peering back almost 150 years, the complex layers of this particular flag story are difficult to assess by today’s standards but, at the time, the image of Rebecca and the U.S. flag was credited as a milestone toward freedom.

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