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The past is inscrutable in many ways.
In the collections of the Missouri History Museum, we have a framed sketch of a solder in a Civil War uniform. We know his name is Elijah Madison and that he was born a slave in 1841, lived on a plantation near St. Louis, and joined the Colored Infantry of the Union Army at Jefferson Barracks in 1863. His descendants, who gave us the sketch, told us, and available documents and our curators’ research added other facts to their story. We can learn more.
There is much we can never know, and much more we can only surmise. All we have of the past is what has been hauled into the present, what has survived through happenstance or deliberate preservation in objects, documents, and stories.
But we do know that Elijah Madison, even when he was in bondage, could feel joy in a spring morning, pleasure in friendship, sadness at a loss, fear in danger. We know all that and more because Elijah Madison, despite vast differences in years and circumstances, was a human being, and his feelings and failings, his very humanity, is not much removed from ours.
We can, and we must, explore the humanity we share with the generations that have gone before us and sustain it for the generations to come after us. Thus Elijah Madison's story becomes our story too.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society