Emancipation did not begin or end during the Civil War with Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration. This is the underlying message of a project of the University of Richmond, Visualizing Emancipation. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

Edward L. Ayers, a historian and president of the University of Richmond, calls the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War “the least-understood social transformation in American history.” A new interactive map he helped build shows that emancipation didn’t occur in one moment, he says, but was “an unfolding,” happening from the very first years of the war to the very last. And, he adds, it happened because of African-Americans, not merely for them, or to them.

“Looking at the map, there’s no single event that you can point to and say, ‘Emancipation happened here,’” Mr. Ayers said. “But in the absence of the defining moment, you start to see patterns of how African-Americans helped the Union and followed the paths of the armies and fought for their own emancipation. Here, the emancipated people appear as key players in their own stories, not told through the eyes of someone else.”

Now that the map is published online, Mr. Ayers and Mr. Nesbit are inviting the public and members of other universities to contribute more information from primary texts. So far, they have received about 12 submissions.

From the earliest forays of the Union forces into the South, slaves used the opportunity to seek their freedom. And Union officers de facto emancipated slaves with the president’s approval:

Union troops in the field, meanwhile, were unsure what to do with African Americans who escaped slavery by crossing into Union lines. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required that they be returned to their owners, and this is exactly what a Confederate colonel demanded when three of his slaves fled to Fort Monroe [Virginia] in May 1861. [General Benjamin F.] Butler ordered that because Virginia had seceded from the Union, its citizens could no longer claim the protection of U.S. laws. Furthermore, he argued, because these particular slaves had been helping to construct fieldworks, they should be considered “contraband of war” and defined as property with military value. Lincoln approved, and in August, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act. It declared free all slaves being used directly in the Confederate war effort. When another Union general, John C. Frémont, attempted to go further than that—on August 30, he ordered emancipated all Missouri slaves owned by active Confederates—he was overruled.

Like the Confiscation Act,  the Emancipation Proclamation was not intended as a purely benevolent act towards the slaves. Lincoln calculated that the Northern electorate was ready to support the abolition of slavery in the South as a device to bring the war to a conclusion. The proclamation exempted the slave holding states not in the Confederacy. And it gave states in the Confederacy the same opportunity to be exempt if they quit the Confederacy by January 1, 1863.

Visualizing Emancipation cannot be appreciated without a visit to the website.

Added June 15, The Root: When Were Blacks Truly Freed From Slavery?

Though President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slaves in Texas had no knowledge of their freedom until two and a half years later. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and declared the end of the Civil War, withGeneral Granger reading aloud a special decree that ordered the freeing of some 200,000 slaves in the state.

Because of the delay, many African Americans started a tradition of celebrating the actual day slavery ended on June 19 (also known as Juneteenth). But for some, their cheers were short-lived. Thanks to the South’s lucrative prison labor system and a deceptive practice called debt peonage, a kind of neo-slavery continued for some blacks long into the 1940s. The question then arises: When did African Americans really claim their freedom?

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II by Japanese troops, Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 (pdf), giving teeth to the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867, which criminalized the practice. Dispatching a federal investigation, Roosevelt’s team prosecuted guilty whites and effectively ended peonage in 1942. …