Remarks at President Lincoln's Cottage

Luis CdeBaca
Ambassador-at-Large, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Washington, DC
February 23, 2012

As prepared for delivery

Thank you all very much. And thank you, Brad Myles. The Polaris Project is on the front lines of the fight against modern slavery. A few years ago, a hotline was set up to report suspected cases of trafficking in persons. It’s a phone number that teachers and neighbors and concerned individuals can call when something looks suspicious. It’s a phone number the U.S. Government gives out to immigrants entering the country along with information about their rights and the potential warning signs of trafficking in persons. It has resulted in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers.

When those phones ring, they ring in the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which the Polaris Project operates. And thanks to Brad’s intrepid leadership, the Resource Center is growing busier all the time.

And I’d like to thank Erin Carlson Mast and all the staff here at President Lincoln’s Cottage, both for working to make this new exhibit a reality and for all they do in their work for the National Trust. The National Trust for Historic Preservation does more than just maintain important sites across our country–they preserve our history and our heritage.

They preserve for posterity parts of our history such as this house, where Lincoln put pen to paper and took the first steps toward a policy of Emancipation. The Trust also preserves sites such as the Belle Grove Plantation, about 80 miles west of here, where for more than a century, hundreds of slaves labored on thousands of acres. Where in 1864 blood was spilled and lives lost as General Philip Sheridan rallied his men against a surprise attack, putting an end to the Confederate invasion of the North.

These are the places where our country was made, where our history—good and bad—was written. Places that allow us to hear, if we only listen, the voices reminding us who we are, and what we must become.

And sometimes the men and women who work at the Trust have brought voices that we don’t always recognize. Not just Lincoln or Sheridan or Douglass, but like the people whose voices are heard once again because of the Trust’s Vice President for Historic Sites, my friend and classmate Estevan Rael-Gálvez. Because of Estevan, we know about Rosario Romero, a Navajo woman who lived in New Mexico in the latter half of the 19th Century. Her given name, Ated-bah-Hozhoni, meant “Happy Girl” in Navajo, but she was taken from the wreckage of her family after a raid. She was sold to a man named Martínez for 150 pesos and given the name Rosario.

She lived 70 more years. During most of that time, slavery had already been outlawed, but for three generations the census places her in the service of that same family, listed in the census records from the time as a “servant,” and a “day laborer,” and a “wool weaver.”

The reality, of course, is that she had been a slave. A tragedy in the unknown history of Indian Slavery in our country. Not just forgotten, but in a society that tried to make sure everyone forgot, that the crime went unnamed, unremarked. And it would have, but for Estevan.

The Trust is working to make sure these stories are told. And they need to be told. They need to be seared into our collective memories, because the dark chapters in our history as well as our triumphs need to guide us as we chart the course toward our country’s future.

Of course, there is no greater blemish on our nation’s history—no darker chapter in the story of America—than that of chattel slavery. And there is no greater inspiration—no greater example of American values and the American spirit—than men and women who dedicated themselves to seeing that institution eliminated.

Whether they themselves escaped the bonds of slavery and then made it their work to help others do the same, or led soldiers into battle, or sat in a room and wrote the ideas of the Abolitionist Movement into our law, the fruits of their labors illuminate our history. Their example stands today as a challenge to fight this evil, no matter where or when it may occur.

And President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and the other members of the Cabinet are heeding that call, fighting what the President calls “the intolerable yoke of modern slavery.”

On the first of this month, we marked National Freedom Day, commemorating the date that President Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. Freedom Day. It started under President Truman; it grew into Black History month. In fact, the Freedom Day movement was founded by Major Richard Wright, born into slavery but by the end of his life a successful businessman. A survivor, whose voice could not be stilled.

And later this year, we will reach the 150th anniversary of the date on which President Lincoln issued the Executive Order beginning the process of freedom – the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation that let millions of voices lift and sing.

But as we sit here, perhaps in the very room where those words were first written, there are estimated to be 27 million men, women and children around the world living in slavery today. Twenty-seven million. More than at any time in history.

Just as in New Mexico in the late 1800s, people want to turn away, to act as though it is not happening. Frederick Douglass once ridiculed the euphemisms that polite antebellum society used to avoid actually saying the word “slavery” outright. He might be surprised by the lack of progress we’ve made in that regard.

The polite term we now use to shield ourselves is “trafficking in persons.” “Trafficking” evokes movement, but at its core this is a crime of exploitation. The U.S. government broadly considers trafficking in persons to be all of the conduct involved in reducing a person to or maintaining a person in a state of compelled service for labor or commercial sexual exploitation. In a nutshell, slavery.

It takes many forms. It occurs in every country. And although the policy attention to “trafficking in persons” as a concept is relatively new, at the end of the day this phenomenon is nothing more than the newest manifestation of an ancient crime. As Secretary Clinton says, “Let’s just call it what it is – it’s modern slavery.”

A little more than ten years ago, led by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, the international community came together to address this problem, and here at home we updated our own laws. Nearly 150 countries today are parties to the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, which established what we call the 3P Paradigm—prevention, protection, and prosecution—as a guideline for fighting human trafficking.

In the United States, President Clinton issued what I think was the first Executive Order on this issue since President Lincoln, and signed into law the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which focused our anti-slavery laws on these new types of exploitation and established my office, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, within the State Department to spearhead our efforts to combat trafficking abroad.

And now, under now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, my office is responsible for diplomacy and foreign assistance to root out modern slavery around the globe. We produce the annual Trafficking in Persons Report to assess nearly every government, including our own, on their efforts to stop trafficking.

In fulfilling these responsibilities, my staff and I spend a lot of time engaging with others who are part of the fight against modern slavery—whether our foreign government counterparts, or leaders in the NGO community, or academics, or business leaders. One of the things we try to make clear is the reason why the United States government considers this effort a priority.

These conversations are often geared toward those concerned with laws or development issues or a gamut of other policy concerns, and our rationale for fighting this crime often fits with those concerns. Trafficking in persons undermines the rule of law. It threatens our security. It devastates communities and hurts families. These are all very good and sound reasons for pressing full steam ahead in our battle against trafficking in persons; it is “fitting and proper that we should do this.”

But the way I usually end those conversations is to say that—as important as all of these policy reasons for fighting slavery might be, fighting slavery is also simply part of who we are as a nation. It’s part of delivering on the promise of freedom. It’s part of building on the legacy sprung from this very house, 150 years ago.

Why is this not simply a policy priority, but something more ingrained in the stuff of our country?

It’s because those two documents I mentioned earlier—the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment—reflected the ultimate goal of the Abolitionist Movement, but they aren’t merely words in our law and history books. And they don’t mark moments in America’s history when slavery all of a sudden ceased to exist.

They’re promises. A promise that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist. A promise written in the blood of all who lived and died in slavery. In the blood of all who answered the Battle Hymn’s challenge to, if necessary, “die to make men free.”

Abraham Lincoln said famously “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” And he bound us with a sacred promise: neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever again exist.

Not then. Not now. Not ever.

But maybe that doesn’t have to be my closing point anymore. Maybe people are starting to make that connection themselves. Just think: here I am, an American official who fights against slavery every day, standing in a room where Abraham Lincoln thought about – perhaps even actually put pen to paper to write – the Emancipation Proclamation. And what’s on display here 150 years later? An exhibit about modern slavery. About delivering on the promise of freedom.

It’s not just here. Last week, I spoke at an event commemorating the birthday of Frederick Douglass. Tomorrow, members of my staff will visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati to explore ways to amplify that remarkable exhibit which focuses on the continuum between chattel slavery 150 years ago and what we call “trafficking in persons” today.

You see, whether here, in the Park Service, or in the civil rights museums, it seems that the people who are entrusted with preserving and interpreting the legacy of our country’s original sin are already reaching the conclusion that I have tried unartfully to make in my speeches and my diplomatic interventions:

Slavery, and our promise to end it, are not just part of the past. Emancipation was a promise for all time. Those of us who care about civil rights bear a responsibility to continue the fight.

So now that we’ve drawn that line, from past to present, how does the slavery of 150 years ago inform our struggle today?

First of all, when the 13th Amendment became the law of the land, this became the government’s fight, because slavery was from that moment forward illegal. Today, slavery is a crime, and we have an obligation to respond to it accordingly. And while the values that underlay the abolition of slavery and the promise of freedom haven’t changed, slavery itself has, and so has the way we’ve responded to it.

Over the last 150 years, enforcing the 13th Amendment has required laws that adapted to the way slavery had evolved. In the first half of the 20th Century, involuntary servitude and slavery continued across the American South as what we called peonage. It was debt bondage. Sharecropping.

A few administrations, under Presidents Grant, both Roosevelts, and Carter, made some progress curbing this crime, but those efforts always dropped off when power changed hands.

The longest sustained effort we’ve seen has taken place in the last 15 years. It has spanned three administrations and both major parties. When President Obama declared last month Slavery and Trafficking Awareness month, he continued and intensified the commitment shown by former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Another thing that’s changed is America’s role in the world. As the United States has become a global leader and worked to advance our interests abroad, we count among those interests the eradication of slavery.

Part of our foreign policy agenda reflects the belief that trafficking in persons should be eradicated wherever it occurs, and thanks in part to our leadership, much of the international community has partnered in this struggle. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights track almost verbatim our Constitution’s 13th Amendment; the United Nations’ “Palermo” Trafficking Protocol closely mirrors our own anti-trafficking law of the year 2000.

These are the structures that in the last 15 (and indeed the last 150) years have been built around the promise of ending slavery. But laws and policies and college courses and the annual Trafficking in Persons Report—while all these things help us understand the changing nature of slavery and allow us to counter it—those things themselves aren’t slavery.

Slavery today is what slavery has always been about. Slavery is about people. People trapped under the power and cruelty not just of a system or a culture, but under actual cruel masters.

Slavery is about a woman leaving her home and her family because she’s been promised an opportunity for a good job, only to find herself locked in a basement as a domestic worker, or made to work in a field without pay or a way to leave. Slavery is about a man on a fishing boat, forced to work 18 hours a day for months on end, and beaten when he fails to catch enough fish in a day or asks for just a little chicken in his rice.

It’s about children who should be learning to read and write, but are instead forced into the worst kind of exploitation imaginable. Like Frederick Douglass as a small boy experienced when he was sent to be a “house servant” in Baltimore, it is the escalating violence of the curse… then the hand… then the belt.

That is why we continue this struggle.

And as much as our laws and policies are rooted in the past, so is the constant reminder that this crime is about people. It’s because we know about the life of Frederick Douglass that we’re so sure that the experience then can help us tackle this challenge today. It’s because we know that survivors like Harriet Tubman and Richard Wright endured and accomplished that we can truly see the line from the plantations of the antebellum South to the sweatshops and brothels where exploitation occurs today.

Frederick Douglass, of course, shed his bonds to become one of the great orators and statesmen in history. He travelled the country railing against the evil he had endured and escaped. He pushed President Lincoln to action. His activism expanded beyond the issue of slavery. His words and ideas about suffrage and immigration and civic responsibility still illuminate our nation’s great debates. He was one of the first to insist that Emancipation must apply to Hispanics and Asians, and to warn that slavery would not truly be snuffed out if we turned our backs.

I mentioned Richard Wright earlier. After Emancipation, young Richard Wright and his mother settled in Cuthbert, Georgia. He graduated valedictorian of Atlanta University. He eventually was appointed by President McKinley to be Paymaster of the volunteers of the U.S. Army, and was the highest ranking African American in the US military.

For 30 years, he was President of the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, now Savannah State University. At the age of 67, he enrolled in Wharton Business School and opened the first bank in the North owned by an African American. It was thanks to his leadership, his determination to commemorate the day Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment, that we now celebrate National Freedom Day on February 1st. It’s why February is now Black History Month.

These are the stories we all know, and we should. Harriet Tubman and others’ flight into the darkness – their journey on the Underground Railroad guided by Polaris the North Star – is as intrinsic to the fabric of America as are Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg.

One story I didn’t know until recently is about a man named Jourdon Anderson. Some of you may have seen this floating around the Internet in the last week or so. Jourdon Anderson was born into slavery in Big Spring, Tennessee, and after Emancipation moved his wife and children north to Dayton, Ohio.

According to some of the documents that emerged, in the summer of 1865, the man who had enslaved him, also named Anderson, wrote to Jourdan and actually asked that he come back to Tennessee and work on that farm where he had been held for 32 years.

Jourdon Anderson replied with the help of someone who could write, and apparently made his letter available to the press. It was published contemporaneously in the Cincinnati Commercial and the New York Tribune.

“I want to know particularly,” he wrote, “what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well.”

He went on, addressing the particular points of his former abuser’s offer, and I’m going to read a good portion of this because it’s truly remarkable. I apologize for such a long quote, but his voice, lost for so long, deserves to be lifted and to ring:

“As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to…. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense…. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.”

He ends his letter by saying this: “The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.”

Whether we’re talking about the famous or the should-be-famous, Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman or Richard Wright or Jourdan Anderson, when we look at what each of them accomplished, the way they lived their lives, what we don’t see are helpless people plucked out of enslavement by some righteous rescuer. We see survivors.

We don’t see men and women who needed someone else to confer agency upon them before they moved onto their lives as advocates and teachers and businessmen and mothers and fathers. They weren’t waiting around for someone to free them so that they could become all of these things. Those who secured their freedom on the Underground Railroad didn’t steal away in the middle of the night because somebody told them it was OK.

Did they have help along the way? Of course. Did Emancipation clear a roadblock? Absolutely. But I would wager that whether or not the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville had given Jourdan Anderson his free papers, in Jourdon Anderson’s mind, his freedom would still have been a fact.

The men and women who lived in chattel slavery didn’t fall victim to a cruel and exploitative institution because they were incapable or pitiful. And once free neither were they incapable or pitiful. We know this because once empowered it was through their own will and determination that they lived out their lives the way they wanted. Orators and advocates. Educators and businesspeople. Important to the entire world, or only to their family and friends – it was their choice. Mothers and fathers whose desire was to give their children an education. To get the education they themselves had been denied.

Census records show that Jourdon Anderson lived in the same house in Dayton, Ohio for many years, and after he died, his children and grandchildren were there for many more years. Those census records from 40, 50, 60 years later are the epilogue to that letter. The records tell the result of his journey to freedom. That his children and grandchildren got the education that he wanted so much for them.

These individual accounts of people like Jourdon Anderson or Rosario Romero show us that history isn’t a monolith. It’s a fabric woven of countless threads, each thread as unique as the experience it represents. And so today, when we consider the victims of modern slavery, we must first consider that modern slavery isn’t just happening in theory, or to some statistics. It’s happening to individuals with families and talents and hopes and lives as unique as those whose legacies we honor today.

Now, some have suggested that those of us who work to combat trafficking in persons envision ourselves as heroes swooping in to save the day, helping those who can’t help themselves. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the lives of those who survived and moved on with their lives, if there’s one thing we should remember today as we think of all those who still endure exploitation, it’s that our goal should be to provide survivors the opportunities to lead the lives they choose.

Because they typically still want the lives the traffickers denied them. Many of them got enslaved because they were trying for a better life for their families. Because they were willing to chance it to get an education for their little sister, medical care for their grandmother, a roof for their parents’ hut.

Survivors may need protection from pimps or bosses. That doesn’t mean throwing them in a shelter and forcing them to stay there. If they’re immigrants, they may want to return home, or they may want to stay here and start a new life. That means providing them legal recourse. They may want to face their accuser in court; they may want to just walk away and leave their past behind. That means giving them the choice. It means letting their choices – and their voices – mean something.

Like Shamiya Hall. For years, the America she knew was the garage in California where she was kept by the family that enslaved her. They went to jail; she’s going to college and wants to be a federal agent, so that she can free those still in bondage. A few weeks ago, she became an American citizen. She had the opportunity. She is living a life she sought for herself. Like Douglass and others, she is a survivor whose voice cannot be stilled.

So when we talk about those laws and structures that surround modern slavery, we have to ask how the necessary government action—indeed, the primary responsibility for fighting this crime around the world rests with governments—how does that responsibility balance with the aim of empowering survivors?

The answer to that question depends on how far a government has come in addressing human trafficking. As I often say, no government is perfect at fighting modern slavery; no government is doing enough. But some are doing more, a lot more, than others. The governments doing the most have adopted the modern 3P Paradigm I was discussing before—prevention, protection, and prosecution.

It’s what we call a victim-centered approach. Whether in law enforcement or prosecution or survivor care, we focus on those who have been exploited because, again, at the end of the day this crime is about people. It isn’t a crusade to rescue those who can’t help themselves. At its best, effective government action is prosecuting and punishing the traffickers—something only governments can do—and providing survivors the assistance they need.

That’s the help we can give along the way, like so many did on the Underground Railroad. Treatment and counseling. Job training and education. We can level the playing field. We can put opportunity more within reach. But the reality is that many of the men and women who are freed from modern slavery are freed because they had within them the courage to walk away. To go to the police. To tell someone. Their courage gets them 90 per cent of the way there. Our role must be to get them across the finish line.

But not every government is there yet. Some have adopted modern anti-trafficking laws, but fail to use them; they’ve built the machine, but they’ve never switched it on. Some governments are resistant to call modern slavery what it is, and instead treat the exploitation as an immigration issue or a labor violation or some lesser crime. Some governments deny altogether that modern slavery occurs within their borders.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that slavery isn’t taking place. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a robust NGO presence on the ground, or that there aren’t activists and leaders pushing for the sort of changes needed to effectively combat this crime. It doesn’t mean that people aren’t toiling unseen and unheard. It means that they simply have no way to let their voices be heard.

Often the difference between the governments that use their laws and the governments that don’t; between the governments that have enacted modern anti-trafficking statutes and those where such provisions languish in legislatures; between acknowledging the problem of modern slavery and sweeping it under the rug — the difference is political will.

In too many places, that political will does not exist.

This room, these walls, this house, constitute a symbol of that political will. It didn’t all happen here. Political will existed and grew in different corners of our country for many years prior to Emancipation, and continued to evolve for many years after. It pushed Lincoln as much as he pushed it. And he tried to calibrate what was right and what was possible.

Because when the war came, Lincoln had face the consequences Thomas Jefferson had predicted when he said of slavery in 1820, “We have the wolf by the ears and we can neither hold him nor safely
let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

But the moment when the activism and the arguments and the opportunity and the bloodshed reached a tipping point come together in the very human and very daily life of President Lincoln. The ideas, and words, and decisions that Lincoln struggled with in this house.

This house will stand for a very, very long time as a monument to that moment. But if there’s one lesson to learn from that history—if there’s a bit of wisdom to glean from this place—it’s that as long as slavery endures, we need to keep building Lincoln’s Cottage.

We need to build it over and over again in halls of government around the world. We need to build it in our statehouses and our town halls. We need to build it in our board rooms and in the church basements where community groups lay out their agendas.

Just as Americans 150 years ago pushed and fought and died in pursuit of the promise that went forth from these walls, so too can we all contribute to making that moment happen again, and again, and again.

You don’t need to work in the anti-trafficking movement to be a modern-day abolitionist. We can all help to solve this problem. We can do it by learning the way our lives touch modern slavery—the way the goods we consume may be touched by forced labor—the way we are too accepting of a culture that permits exploitation in prostitution. We can do it by making sure people understand this lingering challenge, in our congregations, and our schools, and our community clubs.

Let’s write that final chapter. The promise made here demands that we continue to act. That we continue to be a voice for those who cannot lift their own. That we walk with them on that road to freedom and to recovery.

Lincoln foresaw the gravity of what he undertook here, and he understood what it took to write those words. The phrase on the wall behind me: “If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” This is our history. And it’s the promise we work to fulfill today. Because we all deserve to live in Abraham Lincoln’s world – a world free from slavery.

Thank you.