WASHINGTON — The house where President Abraham Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation some 150 years ago is confronting the reality that more people are held in modern-day slavery than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
A 2005 United Nations report based on reported cases of forced labor found at least 12 million people worldwide, including people in the U.S., are held in modern slavery and sex trafficking. The U.S. State Department has put the number even higher in its 2011 Trafficking in Persons report, saying as many as 27 million men, women and children are living in such bondage.
In an exhibit titled 'Can You Walk Away?" opening Friday, President Lincoln's Cottage in the nation's capital tells the stories of women working as domestic servants without pay, of women forced to work as prostitutes and of men held in servitude through debt contracts and other coercion. It will remain on view in a small gallery at the site through August 2013.
Curators partnered with the nonprofit Polaris Project, which operates a national human trafficking tip line to mobilize efforts with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to stop such crimes, to create the exhibit. The centerpiece is a series of filmed interviews with people who escaped modern slavery and with FBI agents who told their stories to mtvU's "Against Our Will" campaign and for the documentary "Not My Life."
Lincoln's Cottage developed the project to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and to further examine the present-day issue of slavery, said museum director Erin Carlson Mast. Many visitors come to the site to learn about Lincoln's ideas on slavery.
"Plenty of Americans see slavery as an issue that was resolved during the Civil War or by the 13th Amendment in the war's aftermath, not as a growing humanitarian crisis in our own country," she said. "But fundamentally, the same issue is at stake: People's right to freedom."
One victim named Debra who is portrayed in the exhibit had signed a contract with a family in Falls Church, Va., to work as a domestic servant and to care for children in the home. But she wasn't being paid. She was rarely allowed to leave but was able to talk to an FBI agent on Sundays while walking a child to church. A handful of similar cases have arisen in Washington's suburbs in Maryland and Virginia in recent years with some servants being threatened with deportation if they try to leave.
Another woman in the exhibit named Angie tells how she ran away from home as a teenager in Wichita, Kan., and was picked up by a pimp with other girls and was forced into prostitution. "I just wanted to die," she said.
The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse. The exhibit presents only their first names to protect their identities, and a disclaimer at the entrance warns visitors of its adult content.
Lincoln's thoughts on slavery also are interwoven throughout the exhibit.
"Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature — opposition to it, in his love of justice," he said in an 1854 speech in Peoria, Ill.
In his 1862 State of the Union address he said, "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free."
Since 2007, the Washington-based Polaris Project has received about 45,000 calls to its tip line, including about 11,000 from victims or others calling to report suspected forced servitude or sex trafficking.