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Week of December 10, 2012

‘Proclaiming Emancipation’ story resonates with Human Trafficking students

The story of slavery in America, recalled in an exhibit marking the Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th anniversary, could be seen as thankfully buried in a shameful past.

But for law students studying modern day cases of slavery, the past is very real today. This is among impressions Bridgette Carr and her Michigan Law Human Trafficking Clinic students carried from a recent tour of the Hatcher Graduate Library exhibit “Proclaiming Emancipation.”

In his Civil War sketchbook, surgeon Harry A. Simmons, sailing July 8, 1862, from New Jersey to Baton Rouge aboard the schooner USS Sophronia, saw an escaping slave and produced a pencil, pen and watercolor drawing titled “The Contraband’s Escape. Vicksburg.” Photo courtesy William L. Clements Library. Below, after the Emancipation Proclamation, some enslaved people remained uncertain about their status. Annie Davis in the border state of Maryland wrote directly to Abraham Lincoln, asking for clarification. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

 

“Every day my students and I represent victims of modern day slavery. I thought touring the exhibit would be a great way to step back and think about their work in a historical context,” says Carr, clinical assistant professor of law, who directs the clinic. She and the law students in the clinic work on several cases from around the world and throughout the United States.

Human trafficking can be found in industries including agriculture, spas and massage parlors, hotel work, domestic service and prostitution. In 2011, the clinic launched the nation’s only comprehensive online database of human trafficking cases.

“For us, sadly, being compelled today into service is real. Our clients have experiences sometimes very similar to the slaves in the exhibit. For us, the exhibit doesn’t feel like its 150 years ago,” Carr says.

Lara Finkbeiner, one of Carr’s trafficking students who plans on working in asylum-immigration law after graduating in May, says she was struck by two things after seeing the exhibit — the paternal image of Lincoln as projected against the victims of slavery, and abuses justified in the name of capitalism.

Finkbeiner says the exhibit includes a statue of Abraham Lincoln standing erect and holding up the Emancipation Proclamation, his foot resting on various legal texts. An emancipated slave crouches in his shadow. She says the racial dynamics and theme of paternalism made her think about her work at the clinic.

“Most of the clients we represent are not white. It made me reflect on how to best avoid continuing paternalistic dynamics while at the same time providing much needed legal support to our clients,” she says.

Finkbeiner adds that it is striking that issues surrounding slavery then are still in play, particularly the connection between slavery and the capitalist economy. “It seems like whenever profit is at stake, we turn a blind eye to the exploitation of others — whether you call it slavery, forced labor or paying below minimum wage,” she says.

Student Elena Peifer says that because of her work in the clinic and her background as a gender studies major, the exhibit presentation that resonated the most for her were drawings that a soldier made of the slave women. The panel made her think of the presentation and representation of slavery, particularly the sexualization of slavery, through the lenses of power.

“During the Civil War, it was representations made by soldiers: white, male soldiers. Today, it is representation of sex trafficking, prostitution, and sex work in the media and the news,” she says, adding the media doesn’t acknowledge the existence of other forms of slavery. Peifer plans after graduation in 2014 to work in immigration law on remedies for women and children victims of gender-based crimes.

Carr recalls the exhibit display that moved her the most; a letter from a slave to Lincoln: “She says, ‘I told my mistress, Aren’t I free?’ She essentially wanted Lincoln to write back to say it was OK so she could go. That voice was compelling to me, our clients today use ‘mistress’ sometimes in reference to their trafficker; that really struck me.”

The exhibit is presented through Feb. 18 in the Hatcher Library Gallery, Room 100.

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