This past week I had the opportunity to talk with Jerry Johnston (NET Radio) about the historic significance of the year 1862, now 150 years later. We talked about the Pacific Railroad Act, the Homestead Act, and the Morrill Land Grant Act, all passed in the summer of 1862 and significant to Nebraska.
But we also discussed probably the most important event in American history–Emancipation–which unfolded across the land in a series acts by individual enslaved men and women, members of Congress, military commanders, and President Lincoln. The interview will run on NET stations in the coming week, and is available online here.
1862 was the year of emancipation. One of the most interesting parts of our discussion centered on the new AMC drama “Hell on Wheels.” Set three years later in 1865, the show has become more and more interesting and arresting as historical fiction in large part because it deals so thoughtfully with the consequences of emancipation and the aftermath of the Civil War. I was particularly impressed with the quality and nuanced portrait of this period in last episode, which begins with African American railroad worker and freedman, Elam Ferguson (played by Common), nearly lynched by Irish railroad workers for consorting with one of the white prostitutes in town. One of the important premises of the show is that the transcontinental railroad building in Nebraska in 1865 became the crossroads for so many of the promises, causes, injustices, and experiences of the Civil War. They all seemed to find their way into Hell on Wheels. We see more clearly in this show than others that time did not stop in May 1865 when the war ended. Instead, we are thrust into the middle of an incomplete transition in race relations, labor relations, and capitalist and national expansion.
The conversation with Jerry Johnston went far beyond what is included in the NET broadcast, and we have much to look forward to in 2012 as we look back 150 years to one of the most important years in American history.