President Lincoln’s Cottage

Students Are Opposing Slavery with the Help of President Lincoln’s Cottage — Here’s how you can join them

Slavery. It’s an issue that still exists today. In 2012, four teens founded Students Opposing Slavery at President Lincoln’s Cottage — the site where Lincoln spent one quarter of his presidency as he led the country through the Civil War and the consequences of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

June 2017 marks the 5th International Summit of Students Opposing Slavery, which has won awards for its power and importance in raising awareness about modern slavery — including the EdCom Award for Excellence in Programming from the American Alliance of Museums, and the Leadership in History Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History.

And, in October 2016, SOS received the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the White House meeting of the President’s Interagency Task Force to monitor and combat this issue.

President Lincoln’s Cottage CEO and Executive Director Erin Carlson Mast (pictured right) explains:

“The SOS participants are committed to ending slavery in their lifetime. Through the Students Opposing Slavery International Summit,” Mast insists.

“We bring dozens of youth from around the world to President Lincoln’s Cottage to gain knowledge and training, which they use to continue the fight for freedom in their communities.

President Lincoln’s Cottage Associate Director for Programs Callie Hawkins, who organizes the Summit, adds:

“Thanks to the Summit’s presentations, workshops, and reflection exercises presented by experts in the anti-trafficking field, students in the SOS network have emerged as leaders and have become trusted voices on the issue internationally. They have started NGOs; published articles; participated in stakeholder meetings with federal agencies; and organized assemblies, concerts, fundraisers, and school-wide art shows to raise the awareness of this problem.”

Click here to watch our video interview with Mast, Hawkins, and a student who has attended two SOS Summits.

Scroll down to read more about this fascinating conference that empowers high school students to help eradicate slavery. 

To get involved, click here to apply to participate in the June 2017 Summit, which empowers high school students to help eradicate slavery:

Questions? Send an email to

Hope Katz Gibbs: We are thankful to be here today at President Lincoln’s Cottage to talk about the upcoming 2017 Students Opposing Slavery Summit with Erin Carlson Mast, Callie Hawkins, and high school student Cameron Gadson, who has attended the annual Summit twice. Erin, when four teens came to you with the idea to start SOS, what did you think?

Erin Carlson Mast: We thought it was a perfect fit for us. Part of our mission is to continue Lincoln’s fight for freedom and give people the history and resources they need to take up Lincoln’s unfinished work. We were encouraged by many to create a “youth Lincoln Leadership program,” but that never seemed quite right to us. We didn’t want to create a roomful of Lincolns — part of Lincoln’s success in tackling slavery was having a network of people doing different things, thinking differently about a common problem.

What did you do to get the first international Summit up and running?

Callie Hawkins: We had been working with four local high school students for some time on the best way to engage their peers. They had had some success raising awareness about modern slavery through student assembly presentations at their schools, but we wanted to find ways to engage youth on a deeper level.

Then, we had an opportunity to travel to Thailand to see how youth in Southeast Asia were involved and tackling this issue. That gave us a blueprint of what was possible. We relied heavily on our existing relationships with federal agencies and nonprofits that provide services to victims and survivors to develop a week-long program with immersive workshops, content sessions, and time to build the students’ relationships with one another to ensure a strong network.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Cameron, you have participated in two Summits so far. How did you learn about them?

Cameron Gadson: It was my mother who recommended the SOS program to me when I was a freshman. She thought I’d really enjoy it, and she was right. After the one-week program ended, I was totally shaken up by all the information I learned. Since then I’ve tried to carry that information to my classmates, to my friends outside of my school, and even to my family.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Callie, tell us more about what students learn during the Summit.

Callie Hawkins: First and foremost, they learn the history of President Lincoln’s Cottage and the work Lincoln did here to end slavery in his time. The SOS content sessions are developed to give students a deeper look at modern slavery in the United States and around the world — who is affected by it, where it exists, and age-appropriate ways they can help end it. SOS doesn’t end with the Summit — our work with the students is year-round — but it’s an essential experience for training and building a cohesive network. They build trust, they build skills, they build understanding.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Erin, as the CEO and executive director of President Lincoln’s Cottage, tell us what your goals are for the Summit in the coming years.

Erin Carlson Mast: A key goal is that through this Summit, with these youth abolitionists, we’re planting the seeds of emancipation across the world. That’s a key goal — to make this network stronger and more global with each passing year, and to find better ways to support them as they go off to college and chart their careers. That’s what we’re looking at next, SOS College. We already have alumni of SOS involved at the college level — some have served as mentors at the SOS Summit. There is a need to grow the network beyond high school, and our goal is to answer that need.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Callie, how can more students get involved in the Summit?

Callie Hawkins: Programs like this require a great deal of support. For every student who comes, there are travel expenses — visas, flights, trains — in addition to needs while they’re here. We have generous donors who sponsor every student who gets involved, but we could always use more support.

Thank you for watching — the video channel of David Bruce Smith’s, and We look forward to coming back to President Lincoln’s Cottage in June to attend the 2017 Students Opposing Slavery Summit, and bringing you a documentary about the important work that teenagers are doing to raise awareness about modern slavery. Stay tuned!

For more information on President Lincoln’s Cottage Students Opposing Slavery and the SOS International Summit, visit, or send an email to

Who Was “The First Emancipator”?



We know that Abraham Lincoln — as well as several of the Founding Fathers — wanted to abolish slavery in the United States. But long before the Civil War, one man broke with his peers by arranging the freedom of his nearly 500 slaves.

His name was Robert Carter III, and on Sept. 5, 1791, this pillar of Virginia’s Colonial aristocracy wrote the “deed of gift.” This signed document voluntarily and without recompense transferred ownership from his possession to the men and women who had been his slaves.

Yet, despite Carter’s courageous move — or perhaps because of it — his name has all but vanished from the annals of American history, according to Andrew Levy, author of The First Emancipator, which explores the confluence of circumstance, conviction, war, and emotion that led to Carter’s extraordinary act.

As Levy points out, “Carter was not the only humane master, nor the sole partisan of emancipation, in that freedom-loving age. So why did he dare to do what other visionary slave owners only dreamed of?”

Scroll down for our Q&A with the author, who is also the Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University in Indianapolis, IN.

andrew-levy-46408661David Bruce Smith: “My plans and advice have never been pleasing to the world,” said Robert Carter III to his daughter Harriot in 1803. It seems he wasn’t someone who thought it was important to fit in, but rather to do what was right. How did you come to know about Carter, and what inspired you to write this book?

Andrew Levy (pictured right): It was an accident. I was reading a book by Fox Butterfield called “All God’s Children,” and he had a short passage, a couple of sentences, about someone named Robert Carter III, who had conducted the largest emancipation in American history prior to the Civil War. And the way he made the reference, so casually, and the nature of the achievement — I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t ever heard of it and assumed it was a piece of common knowledge. So I looked it up and could find practically nothing. The more I looked, the more I didn’t find anything, and it hooked me. I went to his grave site — unmarked — and that hooked me even more.

Hope Katz Gibbs: In the introduction you explain that Carter’s “deed of gift” was a dry document — lists for the most part — that didn’t possess Thomas Jefferson’s polished rage or James Madison’s keen ideologies. But, you explain, “it was among the most incendiary songs of liberty to emerge from that freedom-loving period, so explosive in its implications that it has remained obscured into our present day.” Can you elaborate about how it was received?

Andrew Levy: It was largely ignored. There was one sentence in The Virginia Gazette, and it was placed next to the theatre reviews. His neighbors and family, of course — there was resistance, efforts to undermine it, angry anonymous letters, two decades in the courts. But it persisted, and was still working to free the descendants of the initial slaves 60 years later.

David Bruce Smith: In your book, you point out that there are two mysteries in Carter’s revolutionary document: why he freed his slaves, and why most Americans don’t know about it. What is your assessment? And was he well-known to the public in his time?

Andrew Levy: He actually owned more slaves than Jefferson, Washington, and Madison combined. You’d be amazed how much energy has been expended on the idea that the Founding Fathers would have freed their slaves if only there had been a practical method for doing so. It’s a hard argument to make when someone in their social circle, someone they all knew personally, was doing just that. In fact, the idea that slavery was impossible to eradicate — not whether or not it was right to do so, but whether it was practical to do so — was far more deeply entrenched in American culture than most care to admit. Even now. It’s a blueprint for political expediency on race that persists, even if the issue set changes.

Carter was not that well known at the time, but he was part of what was arguably the most famous family in Virginia. He had plantations scattered across the state. But he stopped being a political factor in Virginia politics around 1772, just before the events that would launch men he had dinner with, played music with, done business with, to the status of founders of a powerful nation. Instead, he retired to his plantation, avoided the public eye, and asked for an unmarked grave. And got it.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Now let’s dive deeper into the details of “The First Emancipator,” which is divided into two parts — Part I: Revelation, and Part II: Revolution.

Specifically, “Revelation” begins by describing the only known portrait of Robert Carter. What can we learn from this aristocratic painting, by London artist Thomas Hudson, about the man who would go on to subvert the principles he was raised to uphold?

RobertcarteriiiAndrew Levy: That he was born rich — super-rich, actually, by the standards of his time. He was the grandson of Robert “King” Carter, who at the time was one of the three or four most powerful men in America at the turn of the 18th century. This portrait was painted in London when Carter was about 21. He already had some reputation as a “rogue,” illiterate and unusually licentious. To me, the portrait, with its wash of silver and gold, suggests someone known for money. But he’s got a Mona Lisa smile, too, and that suggests that the portraitist saw something deeper.

David Bruce Smith: How did the political climate of the early 1790s influence Carter about his beliefs regarding slavery?

Andrew Levy: In two different ways. There were fervent debates about freedom and slavery at the time — petitions to the early Congress for emancipation were being offered, and Americans were watching, some with a certain measure of infatuation, the events in France and even in Haiti. And some other Southerners were creating emancipation plans. Simultaneously, those petitions to Congress for emancipation were repressed, and much political compromise over slavery took place in order to suture together the new nation. The timing suggests that Carter waited until it was clear no national or state government was going to effect emancipation and then turned to private means.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What were Carter’s religious beliefs, and what impact did they have on his decision to draft the “deed of gift”?

Andrew Levy: In 1777, he underwent a smallpox inoculation, and during the fever that ensued he claimed to have some sort of spiritual illumination. It led him away from the conventional religions of the elites, and even the more cerebral Deist belief systems of friends like Thomas Jefferson, and toward the religions practiced by Thomas Jefferson’s slaves. He then adopted the Baptist faith, which at that time was a dissenting and marginalized sect with interracial social practices. For the rest of his life, he drifted from one religion to another, developing some reputation for erratic behavior as a result. But what linked his religious practices was his decided preference for congregations that leveled race and class. It was definitely madness with a method.

David Bruce Smith: In Part II of the book, “Revolution,” you describe the influence Carter wanted to have on his children. Tell us about the type of father he was, and what did he wish the world would be like for them as they grew up?

Andrew Levy: Well, first, he had a lot of children: 17 of them, and 10 lived to adulthood. And they were scared of him — the boys clearly were. But one of the more amazing things he did during the 1780s, in the decade before the “deed of gift,” was to try to get them away from the influence of slavery. He sent his daughters to Baltimore and instructed their caretakers to raise them without slaves in the house, and he sent two of his sons to Providence, RI. When his wife died, the sons wanted to come home to Virginia for the funeral, and he wouldn’t let them, telling their headmaster he didn’t want them around slavery even for a short while.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Why do you think that Robert Carter has barely been a footnote in the history books? And is that changing?

Andrew Levy: It is changing a bit. Just this year, the state of Virginia decided to put up a historical landmark on the site of his plantation. There’s a pretty good Wikipedia page, and some genealogical websites providing resources to descendants of the freed slaves. But basically, he’s still buried under the reputation of the founders, still an odd character who doesn’t really fit any of our narratives about liberation. Too religious, but not committed to any one church, so no church celebrates him. A bad writer, a man who actually calculated that the emancipation most likely to succeed would be one that worked as quietly as possible. To the end, a little too autocratic — too businesslike on the one hand, too mystical on the other — to fit our categories.

David Bruce Smith: What has your experience been since making Carter’s story public?

Andrew Levy: Extremely rewarding. It’s been more than 10 years, and I’m still talking to folks like you. As much in the last year as in the five or so preceding, in fact. Maybe more. I still believe that the American story is better if he’s in it.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What are you working on now?

Andrew Levy: In December 2014, Simon & Schuster published my book about Mark Twain and Huck Finn entitled, “Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece.” And, I’m mostly teaching right now at Butler University, where I hold the Edna Cooper Chair in English.

Click here to read more about Andrew Levy’s newest book in The New York Times.

Lincoln’s Respite: Historian Erin Carlson Mast Shows Another Side of the President at Lincoln’s Cottage


As the executive director of President Lincoln’s Cottage, Erin Carlson Mast has worked on a variety of key projects since 2003—including historical research, interpretive planning, and site development.

She also has overseen the launch of several exhibitions, the development of the “Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions” program, which won the 2008 American Association of Museums Silver MUSEAward, and several online interpretive programs, including “Lincoln’s Commute,” a collaboration with the White House Historical Association.

So it was grand to get a personal tour of Lincoln’s home-away-from-the-White House from the woman who oversees Lincoln’s Cottage at Soldiers’ Home. Just three miles from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Erin Carlson Mast explains that it took Lincoln about 45 minutes to travel to the Cottage—just about as long as it takes in traffic today. Be sure to check out more fascinating facts and insights in our interview with Erin Carlson Mast. (more…)