Chapter Five


No more peck o’corn for me,

  No more, no more,—

No more peck o’corn for me,

  Many thousand go.

No more driver’s lash for me,

  No more, no more,—

No more driver’s lash for me,

  Many thousand go.

No more pint o’salt for me,

No more, no more,—

No more pint o’salt for me,

   Many thousand go.

No more hundred lash for me,

  No more, no more,—

No more hundred lash for me,

  Many thousand go.

No more mistress’ call for me,

  No more, no more,—

No more mistress’ call for me,

  Many thousand go.


What my people wants first, what dey fust wants is de right to be free.


NOT LONG AFTER HEARING of their freedom, two young house servants on a plantation in Florida, unaware that they were being overheard, sat on the back porch one evening and exchanged thoughts about the kind of future they envisioned for themselves. One of them, Frances, had been a childhood gift to her equally young mistress, Martha, who had taught her to read and write. Like so many newly emancipated slaves, Frances had her full share of fantasies about a new life under freedom. To talk about them, as she did with another servant, had a way of making them seem almost real.

Frances: “Bethiah, isn’t that a pretty piece Miss Martha is playing on the piano?”

Bethiah: “I dunno. I wasn’t a-lisenin’.”

Frances: “Well, you listen, Beth. It’s such a pretty piece, and it’s a new piece, too. But I can sing every note of it. Lieutenant Zachendorf says this time next year all the white folks will be at work in the fields, and the plantations and the houses, and everything in them will be turned over to us to do with as we please. When that time comes I’m going straight in the parlor and play that very piece on the piano.”

Bethiah (scoffing): “You cain’t do it—you dunno how!”

Frances: “Yes, I do, too. You’ll see—but what are you going to do?”

Bethiah: “I’se a-gwine upstairs an’ dress up in de prittiest cloes dey-all is got, an’ den I’se a-gwine ter ax my beau ter walk rite in de parler an’ set down on de white folks sofy, an’ I gwine ter pull up one o’ dem fine cheers what we-all ain’t ’lowed ter set in, rite long-side o’ dem an’ us ’ill lissen ter you play de pi-an-ner!”

Frances (thoughtfully): “I don’t believe I would like to see my young lady working in the field—don’t mind about the rest of them—but I think I’ll keep her in the house for my maid.”

Bethiah: “No, let ’em all work—it’ll do ’em good! I ’spect dey will soon be ez black ez me when de sun teches ’em hot an’ steddy.”

Frances: “Le’s take a walk out to Camp.”

The two young women then vanished into the darkness. Several months after their conversation, without saying anything to the former owner, every freed slave on the plantation had left for new jobs and places. The day on which they made their mass exodus seemed somehow appropriate: New Year’s Day 1866, the third anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Several of them would soon return, however, their bodies lean with hunger and ravished by disease, their expectations shattered and their hopes deferred. Frances and Bethiah were apparently not among them, but they, too, like so many others, were bound to discover that “revolutions may go backward.”3


EVEN AS SLAVES, black people had often tried to conceptualize for themselves a life outside of bondage and beyond the plantations and farms which constituted the only world they knew. After learning of their freedom, however, the conversations in the quarters, in the fields, and in the kitchens turned to alternatives that were suddenly real, to new ways of living and working, and to aspirations they might hope to satisfy in their own lifetimes. To talk about the possibilities could be downright exhilarating, even infectious. But when it came to acting out these feelings, the old fears and insecurities and the still pervasive dependency on their former owners would first have to be surmounted. That came easily for some but not for most. “They were like a bird let out of a cage,” a Virginia freedman explained. “You know how a bird that has been long in a cage will act when the door is opened; he makes a curious fluttering for a little while. It was just so with the colored people. They didn’t know at first what to do with themselves. But they got sobered pretty soon.” That same imagery of birds freed from a cage occurred to a white Georgian, but she could think only of birds who were “helpless” and others, like the hawk, whose release would most likely inflict “mischief” on everyone.4

The Confederacy lay in ruins. The white South, however, demonstrated remarkable intransigence and evinced few signs of repentance or enlightenment. Rather than rethink their values and assumptions, most whites preferred to romanticize about the martyred Lost Cause. Although resigned to legal emancipation for nearly four million black men and women, most whites clung even more tenaciously to traditional notions of racial solidarity and black inferiority. Whatever “mischief” emancipation unleashed, what it could not do, as a Georgia editor suggested, was far more crucial: it could not transform the Negro into a white man.

The different races of man, like different coins at a mint, were stamped at their true value by the Almighty in the beginning. No contact with each other—no amount of legislation or education—can convert the negro into a white man. Until that can be done—until you can take the kinks out of his wool and make his skull thinner—until all these things and abundantly more have been done, the negro cannot claim equality with the white race.

Even the white conquerors of the South might not have thought to question the universal wisdom of that comforting observation. The Cincinnati Enquirer, in fact, offered its own variant of a popular theme: “Slavery is dead, the negro is not, there is the misfortune. For the sake of all parties, would that he were.”5

To what, then, could freed blacks aspire in a society dominated by white men and women intent on using any means to perpetuate that domination? For any freedman or freedwoman to linger too long over that question might be both demoralizing and self-deprecating. If emancipation by itself could touch their lives and destinies in any significant way, some blacks expressed the hope that it would turn them white. In one Virginia household, a young servant expressed her disappointment over the failure of emancipation to do precisely that. Nor did the reassuring words of her mistress—“You must not be ashamed of the skin God gave you. Your skin is all right”—make any impression on the young woman. “I druther be white,” she persisted. Reflecting later upon this incident, the mistress’s daughter concluded that there had been “something pathetic in the aspiration.”6

But what this discouraged black youth had suggested, in her own unique way, were simply the dimensions of the problem her people now faced. Despite emancipation, she realized that to be free was not to be like everyone else. With equal clarity, she perceived that to be white in American society was to be something, perhaps everything. That was a doctrine more fundamental and far-reaching in its implications than scores of emancipation proclamations, constitutional amendments, legislative enactments, and court decisions. George G. King, a former South Carolina slave, knew that only too well from his own experience. Born on a plantation appropriately called “two-hundred acres of Hell,” he had been subjected to a “devil overseer,” a “she-devil Mistress,” and a master who “talked hard words.” He would never forget the sight of his mistress walking away laughing while his mother screamed and groaned after a brutal whipping. Having witnessed and endured all of this, how much could he have expected of emancipation? His master had tried to allay any initial misconceptions. “The Master he says we are all free,” King recalled of that day, “but it don’t mean we is white. And it don’t mean we is equal. Just equal for to work and earn our own living and not depend on him for no more meats and clothes.”7

Although emancipation left skin hues unaltered, freedmen might still wish to fashion their aspirations and way of life after those who had always enjoyed freedom and whose comforts, diversions, and manners they had observed for so many years. To be free invited flights into fantasy, grandiose visions of a new life, not a life in which oppression and exploitation are vanquished but in which the roles are reversed and the blacks find themselves in the seats of power and the whites are relegated to the kitchens and fields.

Hurrah, hurrah fer freedom!

  It makes de head spin ’roun’

De nigga’ in de saddle

  An’ de white man on de groun’.

After all, only a few years before, who would have thought it conceivable that slaves would be armed and would march through the countryside to do battle with their “masters”? Nothing seemed impossible any longer, not even the division of the master’s lands among his former slaves. “It’s de white man’s turn ter labor now,” an ex-slave preacher told a torch rally near the Lester plantation in Florida, and that was as it should be.

When de white man set on de piazzy an’ de Nigger sweated in de sun—when de white man rode it through de sand—when de Nigger made de cotton, an’ de white man spen’ de money—now, Glory, halleluyer, dere ain’t no marster an’ dere ain’t no slave! Glory, halleluyer! From now on, my brudders an’ my sisters, old things have passed away an’ all things is bekum new.

The elderly slave woman in South Carolina who had welcomed the Yankees with visions of “settin’ at de white folks’ table, a eating off de white folks’ table, and a rocking in de big rocking chair” might have witnessed such scenes by visiting the plantations and town houses abandoned by the owners and occupied by former slaves. Whatever had induced such visions was less important than the way in which freed blacks chose to manifest them. The housemaid who had experienced a lifetime of reprimands, the field hands who knew no other routines, the urban laborers whose earnings had been pocketed by their owners might now aspire to something different. After still another scolding for her alleged incompetence, a servant finally turned on her mistress and retorted, “I expect the white folks to be waiting on me before long!”8

To indulge in such fantasies might be momentarily satisfying but it did nothing to resolve the slave’s immediate predicament after emancipation. At some point, he would have to appraise his position realistically and define for himself the content of his freedom. After three days of “shoutin’ an’ carryin’ on,” the blacks at Wood’s Crossing, Virginia, began their first Sunday as free men and women in a reflective mood. “We was all sittin’ roun’ restin’,” Charlotte Brown recalled, “an’ tryin’ to think what freedom meant an’ ev’ybody was quiet an’ peaceful.” Suddenly, Sister Carrie, an elderly black woman, began to chant:

Tain’t no mo’ sellin’ today,

Tain’t no mo’ hirin’ today,

Tain’t no pullin’ off shirts today,

It’s stomp down freedom today.

Stomp it down!

When she came to the words “Stomp it down!” the others began to shout along with her until they finally made up music to accompany their words. Like Sister Carrie’s chant, the initial attempts to define freedom drew largely on the most familiar images of slavery. If the future still seemed clouded with uncertainty, what blacks had experienced as slaves remained abundantly clear and vivid, so that freedom in its most immediate and meaningful sense could best be understood in terms of the limitations placed on white behavior. On the Sea Islands, slaves had interpreted the flight of their masters as meaning “no more driver, no more cotton, no more lickin’,” and with freedom they were “done wid massa’s hollerin’ ” and “done wid missus’ scoldin’.” The popular wartime spiritual “Many Thousand Go” similarly dwelled on freedom as a release from the most oppressive aspects of bondage: the inadequate rations, the whippings, the work routines, and the harassment—“No more peck o’corn for me,” “No more driver’s lash for me,” “No more pint o’salt for me,” “No more hundred lash for me,” and “No more mistress’ call for me.” Even the “hard times” and arduous labor that would characterize the postwar years in no way diminished the value ex-slaves placed on their freedom. “I’s mighty well pleased tu git my eatin’ by de ‘sweat o’ my face,’ ” a newly freed slave wrote his brother, “an’ all I ax o’ ole masser’s tu jes’ keep he hands off o’ de Lawd Almighty’s property, fur dat’s me.9

Although former slaves chose to manifest their freedom in many different ways, with each individual acting on his or her own set of priorities, nearly all of them could subscribe to the underlying principle that emancipation had enabled them to become their own masters. And those were precisely the terms they most often employed to define their freedom. When the earliest contrabands reached Fortress Monroe, they testified that the most compelling idea in their minds had been “to belong to ourselves.” To the familiar question so often put to them as slaves, “Who do you b’long to, boy?” a Georgia freedman responded in 1865, “Ise don’t b’longs to nobody, Missus. Ise owns self, en b’longs to Macon.” For many of the emancipated slaves, freedom of action—the chance “to do something on their own account”—went to the very heart of their new condition. Not surprisingly, few other manifestations of black freedom would prove more irritating to their previous owners, many of whom failed to appreciate the importance of this concept in the lives of people whose actions they had tried so rigidly to control. “ ’Twould be amusing if it were not too pitiful to hear their idea of freedom,” sighed Grace Elmore, a South Carolina woman, after she discussed the question with one of her servants. “I asked Phillis if she likes the thought of being free. She said yes, tho she had always been treated with perfect kindness and could complain of nothing in her lot, but she had heard a woman who had bought her freedom from kind indulgent owners, say it was a very sweet thing to be able to do as she chose, to sit and do nothing, to work if she desired, or to go out as she liked, and ask nobody’s permission. And that was just her feeling. ‘She wished the power to do as she chose.’ ”10

When asked what price tag he now bore, an Alabama freedman replied, “I’s free. Ain’t wuf nuffin.” The northern visitor who asked the question did so after hearing that plantation hands in the Black Belt districts had no real understanding of freedom. Whatever remained vague about their new status, every freedman realized that he was no longer an article of merchandise, subject to sale at the whim, bankruptcy, or death of his owner. He understood, too, that freedom secured his family from involuntary disruption. If the freedman could not immediately support his wife and children, he at least had the satisfaction of knowing that any income or property he henceforth accumulated from his labor would be his to retain. That realization was in itself immensely gratifying. After earning his first dollar, working on the railroad after the war, a former Arkansas slave recalled that he “felt like the richest man in the world!” Even ex-slaves who had been treated well readily appreciated this crucial difference between bondage and freedom. “I was brought up with the white folks, just like one of them,” declared a slave refugee who had fled to the Union lines; “these hands never had any hard work to do. I had a kind master; but I didn’t know but any time I might be sold away off, and when I found I could get my freedom, I was very glad; and I wouldn’t go back again, because now I am for myself.” That same point was made by a South Carolina freedman when a reporter asked him why he did not want to return to a mistress who, by his own admission, had treated him well. “Why, sar,” he explained, “all I made before was Miss Pinckney’s, but all I make now is my own.”11

Other than instructing them to “labor faithfully for reasonable wages” and “to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence,” the Emancipation Proclamation provided newly freed slaves with no real guidelines. Nor did subsequent Federal policies provide any underpinning for their new status. Clearly, black people were now free. But how free? Few knew for certain, though many whites had ideas about both the quality and the durability of black freedom. “These niggers will all be slaves again in twelve months,” a Mississippi planter told a Union officer. “You have nothing but Lincoln’s proclamation to make them free.” He had, in fact, made a telling point. No official document by itself could turn a slave into a free man, nor could the Yankees, the white missionary teachers, or the most sympathetic southern whites perform that feat. To know “de feel of bein’ free” demanded that the ex-slave begin to act like a free man, that he test his freedom, that he make some kind of exploratory move, that he prove to himself (as well as to others) by some concrete act that he was truly free. The nature or the boldness of that act was far less important than the feeling he derived from it. The action undertaken by Exter Durham of North Carolina, for example, could hardly be described as a startling break with the past. Upon being informed of his new status, he gathered his few belongings together and left the Snipes Durham plantation in Orange County for the George Herndon plantation in adjoining Chatham County. But to Exter Durham and his wife, Tempie Herndon, who had belonged to different masters, this move meant everything—“kaze den me an’ Exter could be together all de time ’stead of Saturday an’ Sunday.”12

By enlarging the freedman’s sense of what was attainable, desirable, and tolerable, emancipation encouraged a degree of independence and assertiveness which bondage had sharply contained. To leave the plantation without a pass, to slow the pace of work, to haggle over wages and conditions, to refuse punishment, or to violate racial etiquette were all ways of testing the limits of freedom. No doubt a Mississippi freedman derived considerable satisfaction from refusing to remove his hat when ordered to do so in the presence of a white man, as did a Richmond black who turned down the request of a white man to help him lift a barrel, telling him at the same time, “No, you white people think you can order black people around as you please.” To those long accustomed to absolute control, even the smallest exercise of personal freedom by a former slave, no matter how innocently intended, could have an unsettling effect.13

Acting as individuals and families, usually without the semblance of organized effort, freed slaves began the arduous process of ascertaining the boundaries of freedom. If few of them indulged in land seizures, arson, or physical attacks on whites, this suggests that most blacks perceived the need to exercise their freedom with some degree of appreciation for where the power still rested in their communities. But whatever action a freedman deemed appropriate, no matter how restrained or insignificant it may have appeared to others, the objective remained essentially the same—to achieve some recognition, even if only grudgingly given, of that new sense of dignity and self-respect which emancipation encouraged in them. Few expressed it more graphically than an elderly freedman in South Carolina when he explained to a black schoolteacher why he rejoiced over his new status: “Don’t hab me feelins hurt now. Used to hab me feelins hurt all de time. But don’t hab em hurt now, no more.” Whenever he reflected back on slavery, Stephen McCray testified many years later, he thought invariably of the story of the coon and the dog. “The coon said to the dog: ‘Why is it you’re so fat and I am so poor, and we is both animals?’ The dog said: ‘I lay round Master’s house and let him kick me and he gives me a piece of bread right on.’ Said the coon to the dog: ‘Better then that I stay poor.’ Them’s my sentiment. I’m lak the coon. I don’t believe in ‘buse.”14

To dwell only on the most dramatic manifestations of freedom would distort the experience entirely. If a former slave should decide, for example, to change his employer, that might simply entail a move from his old plantation to the next one down the road. This was not about to alter in any significant degree his day-to-day life but to many a freedman, as to Ambus Gray of Alabama, that had been the “one difference” between freedom and bondage: “You could change places and work for different men.” Even if a slave chose to stay with his master after emancipation, even if his demeanor remained unchanged, even if his fidelity to the “white folks” stood unshaken, this did not necessarily mean that nothing had happened to him or that he failed to grasp the meaning of his freedom. “When you’all had de power you was good to me,” an elderly black man told his former master in May 1865, “and I’ll protect you now. No niggers nor Yankees shall touch you. If you want anything, call for Sambo. I mean, call for Mr. Samuel—that’s my name now.”15

To determine the “one difference” between freedom and bondage, the ex-slaves found themselves driven in many directions at the same time. But the distance they placed between themselves and their old status could not be measured by how far they traveled or even if they left the old plantation. That “difference” could most often be perceived in the choices now available to them, in the securing of families and the location of loved ones who had been sold away, in the sanctification of marital ties, in the taking of a new surname or the revelation of an old one, in the opportunity to achieve literacy, in the chance to move their religious services from “down in the hollow” to their own churches, in sitting where they pleased in public places, in working where the rewards were commensurate with their labor. What emancipation introduced into the lives of many black people was not only the element of choice but a leap of confidence in the ability to effect changes in their own lives without deferring to whites. “What I likes bes, to be slave or free?” Margrett Nillin, a former Texas slave, pondered over that question many decades after her emancipation. “Well, it’s dis way,” she answered. “In slavery I owns nothin’ and never owns nothin’. In freedom I’s own de home and raise de family. All dat cause me worryment and in slavery I has no worryment, but I takes de freedom.”16


NOTHING EXHILARATED Charlie Barbour more in the aftermath of emancipation than to know “dat I won’t wake up some mornin’ ter fin’ dat my mammy or some ob de rest of my family am done sold.” With even more vivid memories, Jacob Thomas, who had seen his parents separated by sale, had no difficulty many decades later in relating what for him had been the overriding significance of freedom: “I has got thirteen great-gran’ chilluns an’ I knows whar dey ever’one am. In slavery times dey’d have been on de block long time ago.” For the tens of thousands of slaves who had been involuntarily separated from their loved ones, freedom raised equally exciting prospects. Rather than have to wait for the heavenly reunions they had sung about, they might anticipate seeing each other again in this world. To William Curtis, a former Georgia slave whose father had been sold to a Virginia planter, “dat was de best thing about de war setting us free, he could come back to us.”17

Few scenes acted out in the post-emancipation South exceeded the drama, the emotion, the poignancy that marked the reunions of families which had been torn asunder by slavery. The last time Ben and Betty Dodson had seen each other, they had begged their master to sell them together; twenty years passed before the couple met again—in a refugee camp. “Glory! glory! hallelujah,” Ben Dodson shouted as he alternated between embracing his wife and stepping back to reassure himself that it was really she. “Dis is my Betty, shuah. I foun’ you at las’. I’s hunted an’ hunted till I track you up here. I’s boun’ to hunt till I fin’ you if you’s alive.” In many such reunions, the passage of time and the effects of bondage made recognition nearly impossible. Not until the woman at the door removed her hat and the bundle she carried on her head did a young Tennessee freedwoman discern the scar on her face, and only then did she know for certain that she was gazing upon her mother, whom she had not seen since childhood. In a Virginia refugee camp, a mother found her daughter, now eighteen years old, who had been sold away from her when only an infant. “See how they’ve done her bad,” the mother declared to anyone who would listen. “See how they’ve cut her up. From her head to her feet she is scarred just as you see her face.”18

Each reunion had its own incredible story, revealing the extraordinary resourcefulness with which husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters sought each other out in the immediate aftermath of Union occupation and emancipation. Family members embarked on these searches, a much-impressed Freedmen’s Bureau officer reported, “with an ardor and faithfulness sufficient to vindicate the fidelity and affection of any race—the excited joys of the regathering being equalled only by the previous sorrows and pains of separation.” The attempts freedmen made to relocate loved ones forcefully belied the commonly held theories about a race of moral cripples who placed little value on marital and familial ties. Even some of the most dedicated abolitionists subscribed to these theories, attributing the blacks’ moral insensibility, “licentiousness,” and “false ideas touching chastity” to the evil influences of bondage. Like most whites, they tended to underestimate the depth of familial love and emotional attachment that induced so many former slaves to make the location of relatives their first priority after emancipation. “They had a passion, not so much for wandering, as for getting together,” a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in South Carolina wrote of the postwar migrations of blacks; “and every mother’s son among them seemed to be in search of his mother; every mother in search of her children. In their eyes the work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited.” In North Carolina, a northern journalist encountered a middle-aged freedman—“plodding along, staff in hand, and apparently very footsore and tired”—who had already walked nearly six hundred miles in his determination to reach the wife and children he had been sold away from four years before.19

Although viewed as a post-emancipation phenomenon, the attempt to reunite with loved ones actually represented an ongoing impulse that had frequently manifested itself in the antebellum period. Except for punishment, no other factor had accounted for as many runaway slaves; indeed, a significant number of such escapes came immediately after a master had sold a spouse, a parent, or a child.20 Equally important, the strong commitment to family ties had kept thousands of slaves from resorting to flight. Emancipation made the search for lost relatives less perilous, though not necessarily more successful. Where contact had been maintained during the period of separation, either through letters or the “grapevine,” reunions were effected with little difficulty. The wartime contraband camps, by bringing together thousands of uprooted and “runaway” slaves, provided valuable information about separated families and reunited many of them.

For countless numbers of freed slaves, however, the attempt to find lost relatives became an arduous, time-consuming, and frustrating task, requiring long and often fruitless treks into unfamiliar country, the patience to track down every clue and follow up every rumor, and the determination to stay on a trail even when it suddenly appeared to vanish. “Dey was heaps of nigger families dat I know what was sep’rated in de time of bondage dat tried to find dey folkses what was gone,” Tines Kendricks recalled. “But de mostest of ’em never git togedder ag’in even after dey sot free ’cause dey don’t know where one or de other is.” Of the “dozens of children” Jennie Hill knew who searched for parents “sold ‘down the river,’ ” as well as parents who looked frantically for their children, she could remember only one case in which the family was reunited. “Some perhaps were killed in the battles but in the majority of the cases the children of slaves lost their identity when they were taken from the place of their birth into a new county.” Martha Showvely, who was twenty-eight years old at the time of emancipation, had not seen her mother since they were separated by sale in 1846. After the war, she reached the county where her mother reportedly resided, only to learn that death had claimed her life three years earlier. The efforts to reunite with loved ones sometimes involved risks other than disappointment over failure. Hoping to find any members of his family, James Curry ventured back to the county in North Carolina from which he had escaped more than twenty years before the war; whether provoked by his earlier escape or by his association with northern abolitionists, enraged local whites assaulted him.21

Despite herculean efforts, the prospects for a successful reunion remained slim. Many years had passed since relatives had last seen each other and inevitable changes had altered physical appearances. The searcher usually carried with him only a visual image of what a spouse, a child, or a parent had looked like numerous years, even decades, earlier. No sooner had a missionary teacher in South Carolina returned from a trip to Virginia than an elderly black woman tearfully pleaded for any information she might have gathered about the whereabouts of her daughter.

As soon as she heard I had travelled through Virginia, she came to me to know if I had ever seen her “little gal.” … And she begged me to look out for her when I went back. She was sure I should know her, she “was such a pretty little gal.” It was useless to tell her the girl was now a woman, and doubtless had children of her own. She always had been and always would be her “baby.”22

The Freedmen’s Bureau did what it could to help, acting as a clearinghouse of information and providing free transportation in some cases; at the same time, northern teachers and missionaries, many of them stationed in the contraband camps, frequently spent entire days writing letters for ex-slaves who were trying to make contact with a relative, invariably on the basis of the scantiest information. “Ellen Cummins; least dat was her name, w’en dey dun toted her off to Florida,” an elderly black woman replied when asked for the address of her daughter, who had been sold away from her twenty years before at the age of four. Upon learning that his brother, whom he had not seen for twenty years, was in Virginia, a Mississippi freedman immediately dictated a letter in the hope of effecting an early reunion.

I’s gwine tu buy a lot, an’ build me a hut on it; an’ den, Jack, you is wanted down yere, tu see you’ ole brudder. Fur de last time he seed you, he wuz standin’ on de auction block, an’ Mass’r Bill was a turnin’ he round, like a ’possum on de spit, so’s de driber’d see me fa’r an’ squar’. Neber min’, Jack. I’s tryin’ tu let by-gones go, an’ jes’ look out fur number one; an’ I’s powerful glad I’s a free man now, for shore. Come a Christmas, ef ye kin, Jack.23

If the initial efforts proved unsuccessful, the search for family members might span several decades. Until well into the 1870s and 1880s, the newly established black newspapers, both in the South and in the North, abounded with advertisements in which relatives requested any information that might assist them. If physical descriptions were given at all, they tended to be sparse and badly outdated; more often, family members had to content themselves with listing whatever leads they had accumulated over the years about the location of loved ones.

Information Wanted, of Caroline Dodson, who was sold from Nashville, Nov. 1st, 1862, by James Lumsden to Warwick, (a trader then in human beings), who carried her to Atlanta, Georgia, and she was last heard of in the sale pen of Robert Clarke, (human trader in that place), from which she was sold. Any information of her whereabouts will be thankfully received and rewarded by her mother. Lucinda Lowery, Nashville.

$200 Reward. During the year 1849, Thomas Sample carried away from this city, as his slaves, our daughter, Polly, and son, Geo. Washington, to the State of Mississippi, and subsequently, to Texas, and when last heard from they were in Lagrange, Texas. We will give $100 each for them to any person who will assist them, or either of them, to get to Nashville, or get word to us of their whereabouts, if they are alive. Ben. & Flora East.

Saml. Dove wishes to know of the whereabouts of his mother, Areno, his sisters Maria, Neziah, and Peggy, and his brother Edmond, who were owned by Geo. Dove, of Rockingham county, Shenandoah Valley, Va. Sold in Richmond, after which Saml. and Edmond were taken to Nashville, Tenn., by Joe Mick; Areno was left at the Eagle Tavern, Richmond. Respectfully yours, Saml. Dove, Utica, New York.24

Not only had physical features changed in the intervening years but new loyalties and emotional commitments had often replaced the old. Husbands and wives who had given up any hope of seeing each other again were apt to have remarried, and children sold away from their parents had been raised by other black women or by the white mistresses, creating innumerable post-emancipation complications. Even if the search for family members succeeded, then, the reunions might be less than joyous occasions, and some couples who had remarried thought it best to avoid seeing each other again. Few revealed the emotional torment raised by such problems more graphically than the husband of Laura Spicer. Several years after their forced separation, he had remarried in the belief that his wife had died. When he learned after the war that she was still alive, the news stung him, prompting both joy and remorse. “I read your letters over and over again,” he wrote her. “I keep them always in my pocket. If you are married I don’t ever want to see you again.” But in other letters, he revised that hasty warning and urged her to remarry. “I would much rather you would get married to some good man, for every time I gits a letter from you it tears me all to pieces. The reason why I have not written you before, in a long time, is because your letters disturbed me so very much.” Even as he urged her to find another man, however, he professed his undying love for her.

I would come and see you but I know you could not bear it. I want to see you and I don’t want to see you. I love you just as well as I did the last day I saw you, and it will not do for you and I to meet. I am married, and my wife have two children, and if you and I meets it would make a very dissatisfied family.

Although they did not see each other, the correspondence continued. He requested her to send him locks of the children’s hair with their names attached. He again urged her to remarry, if only for the sake of the children. But whatever she did, he insisted, their love for each other would remain undiminished.

You know it never was our wishes to be separated from each other, and it never was our fault. Oh, I can see you so plain, at any-time, I had rather anything to had happened to me most than ever have been parted from you and the children. As I am, I do not know which I love best, you or Anna. If I was to die, today or tomorrow, I do not think I would die satisfied till you tell me you will try and marry some good, smart man that will take good care of you and the children; and do it because you love me; and not because I think more of the wife I have got than I do of you. The woman is not born that feels as near to me as you do. Tell them [the children] they must remember they have a good father and one that cares for them and one that thinks about them every day.

My very heart did ache when reading your very kind and interesting letter. Laura I do not think that I have change any at all since I saw you last—I thinks of you and my children every day of my life. Laura I do love you the same. My love to you never have failed. Laura, truly, I have got another wife, and I am very sorry, that I am. You feels and seems to me as much like my dear loving wife, as you ever did Laura.25

Perhaps as tragic were the “reunions” in which marital partners accused each other of betrayal, infidelity, and desertion since their forced separation. After four years of absence, a freedman in North Carolina located his wife, only to find that she had borne two children by her master. Refusing to support the children, the husband took the case to the Freedmen’s Bureau in Raleigh, which decided that the woman in such cases could name the father and force him to assume paternal responsibility and support. “This decision is not yet generally known,” a reporter noted, “but when it is I fancy that it will create quite a flutter.” Near Woodville, Mississippi, Fanny Smart learned that her husband, Adam, whom she had presumed to be dead, was still alive. Although not displeased by this news, she had been hurt by his failure to contact her earlier and by his apparent indifference to the children he had fathered.

I received your letter yesterday. I was glad to hear from you. I heard that you was dead. I now think very strange, that you never wrote to me before. You could not think much of your children, as for me, I dont expect you to think much of as I have been confined, just got up, have a fine daughter.… I expect to stay here this year. I have made a contract to that effect. I am doing very well. My children I have all with me, they are all well, and well taken care of, the same as ever, if one get sick, they are well nursed. I now have eight children, all dependent on me for a support, only one, large enough to work for herselfe, the rest I could not hire for their victuals and clothes. I think you might have sent the children something, or some money. Joe can walk and talk. Ned is a great big boy, bad as ever. My baby I call her Cassinda. The children all send howda to you they all want to see you.

The circumstances surrounding their separation may have accounted for Adam Smart’s failure to contact his wife earlier, perhaps even for the rumor that he had died. At least, the man who had been his master suggested as much in the postscript he added to Fanny Smart’s letter.

Adam you have acted the damn rascal with me in ever way you trid to make the Yanks distroy ever thing I had I know worn you to neve put you foot on my place i think you a nary raskal after this yer you can send an git you your famley if they want to go with you.26

Far more serious complications were introduced into postwar reunions by masters who had insisted that their slaves have marital partners, regardless of compatibility or depth of affection, and who had forbidden interplantation relationships. On some plantations, “marriages” were forced upon men and women who had spouses in other places from whom they had been separated by sale. Stephen Jordon, a former Louisiana slave who had been sold away from both his mother and his wife, found himself in such a predicament.

I myself had my wife on another plantation. The woman my master gave me had a husband on another plantation. Every thing was mixed up. My other wife had two children for me, but the woman master gave me had no children. We were put in the same cabin, but both of us cried, me for my old wife and she for her old husband. As I could read and write I used to write out passes for myself, so I could go and see my old wife; and I wrote passes for the other men on the place, so they could go and see their wives that lived off the place.

Even as Jordon and his second wife shared the same cabin, he wrote out passes that enabled her to slip out and visit her husband on a nearby plantation. When conditions “got to be so tight” that he could no longer see his wife as often as he wished, Jordon resolved to escape. Upon being apprehended, however, he was sold even further away from his wife until finally both of them remarried “during the long years of our enforced and hopeless separation.”27

Where husbands and wives had lived on separate but nearby plantations, their marital relationship rested on the willingness of two masters to permit weekend visitations. Understandably, as a former South Carolina slave explained, “a man dat had a wife off de place, see little peace or happiness. He could see de wife once a week, on a pass, and jealousy kep’ him ‘stracted de balance of de week, if he love her very much.” Such relationships, recalled Millie Barber, whose parents had lived five miles apart, often produced “confusion, mix-up, and heartaches.”

My pa have to git a pass to come to see my mammy. He come sometimes widout de pass. Patrollers catch him way up de chimney hidin’ one night; they stripped him right befo’ mammy and give him thirty-nine lashes, wid her cryin’ and a hollerin’ louder than he did.

After emancipation, husbands and wives who had lived in this manner quickly seized the opportunity to spend more than weekends together and settled down, usually, on one or the other place.28

Upon learning of their freedom, a former slave recalled, the older blacks “knowed what it meant, but us young ones didn’t.” Many of them would learn soon enough, often in ways that proved to be quite memorable and traumatic. Husbands and wives not only located each other in the aftermath of emancipation but made what one Federal officer described as “superhuman efforts” to find the children who had been sold away from them; indeed, numerous ex-slaves would recall that their first realization of freedom came when a parent, a sibling, or an aunt or uncle suddenly appeared to take them away.29 Depending on the circumstances of their separation, such reunions could result in outbursts of unbounded joy or produce very mixed emotions, particularly in young blacks who had little or no recollection of their parents. Having been raised by someone else, to whom firm emotional commitments may have been made, the sudden appearance of a strange man or woman who claimed to be a father or mother was a terribly confusing and agonizing moment, even more so if faced with the prospect of separation from those they had grown to love.

Since infancy, when her mother had been sold away, Frankie Goole had been reared by her white mistress, slept in the same room with her, and she came to regard her with considerable affection. At the age of twelve, with the war over, Frankie found herself in a courtroom standing next to a woman who claimed to be her mother and facing a judge who asked her to verify it. “I dunno, she sezs she ez,” Frankie remembered having told him. Reflecting back on that moment many years later, she summed up the confusion she had felt: “W’at did I know ob a mammy dat wuz tuk fum me at six weeks ole.” When Harriet Clemens fled a plantation in Mississippi before the war (“It was on ’count o’ de Nigger overseers. Dey kep’ a-tryin’ to mess ’roun’ wid her an’ she wouldn’ have nothin’ to do wid ’em”), she left her small child in the care of an elderly woman addressed as Aunt Emmaline, who “kep’ all de orphunt chillun an’ dem who’s mammas had been sent off to de breedin’ quarters.” As soon as the war ended, she returned to claim her daughter. “At firs’ I was scared o’ her, ’cause I didn’ know who she was,” the daughter recalled. “She put me in her lap an’ she mos’ nigh cried when she seen de back o’ my head. Dey was awful sores where de lice had been an’ I had scratched ’em. She sho’ jumped Aunt Emmaline ’bout dat. Us lef dat day …”30

On some plantations, the mistress had made a practice of selecting certain young slaves and moving them into the Big House to train them to be maids. Sarah Debro, a former North Carolina slave, recalled being separated from her mother for that purpose. “De day she took me my mammy cried kaze she knew I would never be ’lowed to live at de cabin wid her no more.” While life in the Big House had both advantages and disadvantages, depending on the moods of the “white folks,” the impressions it made on a young slave could be incalculable.

My dresses an’ aprons was starched stiff. I had a clean apron every day. We had white sheets on de beds an’ we niggers had plenty to eat too, even ham. When Mis’ Polly went to ride she took me in de carriage wid her. De driver set way up high an’ me an’ Mis’ Polly set way down low.… I loved Mis’ Polly an’ loved stayin’ at de big house.

After the war, her mother immediately came to claim her. But Sarah refused to leave, crying and holding on to the dress of her mistress, who pleaded for the right to retain her. Despite the tears and pleas, Sarah’s mother remained firm and reminded the mistress that only her callousness had made this scene possible. “You took her away from me an’ didn’ pay no mind to my cryin’, so now I’se takin’ her back home. We’s free now, Mis’ Polly, we ain’t gwine be slaves no more to nobody.” With those words, she dragged her daughter out of the house. “I can see how Mis’ Polly looked now,” Sarah Debro recollected. “She didn’ say nothin’ but she looked hard at Mammy an’ her face was white.” That night, in the windowless “mud house” to which they moved, Sarah lay on her straw mattress and looked up through the cracks in the roof. “I could see de stars, an’ de sky shinin’ through de cracks looked like long blue splinters stretched ’cross de rafters. I lay dare an’ cried kaze I wanted to go back to Mis’ Polly.”31

The close relationships that sometimes developed between slave children and the white mistress could be even more psychologically damaging than separation by sale. Where a master or mistress made “pets” out of certain favorites, indulging them in ways their parents could not, a conflict of loyalties became highly possible. Jane Sutton, a former Mississippi slave, contrasted her master, who provided the blacks with “plenty t’eat an’ wear” and gave the children candy and presents when he returned from town, with her father, who belonged to a neighboring planter and visited on weekends. “He jus’ come on Satu’d’y night an’ us don’ see much of’im. Us call him ‘dat man.’ Mammy tol’ us to be more ’spectful to ’im ’cause he was us daddy, but us aint care nothin’ ’bout ’im. He aint never brung us no candy or nothin’.” Rather than live with her father after emancipation, Jane ran away and returned to the old plantation. With equally conflicting emotions, Lizzie Hill, who had been a slave in Alabama, ran away from her mother three times after the war in order to return to the plantation where she had been accorded the same food and clothes as the white children with whom she had played and slept. Nor could Lou Turner easily give up the life she had led as a young slave on a Texas plantation, where the mistress had fed her well, dressed her in nice clothes, and insisted on her sleeping in the same room. “Old missy have seven li’l nigger chillen what belong to her slaves, but dey mammies and daddys come git ’em. I didn’t own my own mammy. I own my old missy and call her ‘mama.’ Us cry and cry when us have to go with us mammy.”32

But for most young blacks and children, slavery had been something less than a playground. The examples of brutal treatment, abuse, and neglect were no mere figments of the abolitionist imagination. If some absorbed the cultural ethos of the white family from constant contact with it, the vast majority of black children formed their view of the world in the quarters and usually within their own family groupings. More often than not, the child’s teacher, school, and family were all the same, and the values and warnings with which he or she was inculcated reflected the experience of parents and grandparents who had themselves learned these lessons in the same way. In the absence of parents, the child was still more likely to obtain the love and learning he needed from other blacks than from his “white folks.”33 Not only did many black youths embrace the chance to sever the ties with their master and mistress but those who had been separated from loved ones often took the initiative to find them. After learning of her freedom in 1863, for example, Mary Armstrong, a seventeen-year-old Missouri youth, went in search of her mother, who had been sold and taken to Texas. Several years later, she tracked her down in Wharton County. “Law me, talk ’bout cryin’ and singin’ and cryin’ some more, we sure done it,” she recalled of their reunion. Whatever the wishes of parents or children, some dispossessed masters insisted on keeping the young blacks until the age of twenty-one. The various state apprenticeship laws came close to legalized kidnapping in many instances, depriving parents of children if a white judge deemed it “better for the habits and comfort” of a child to be bound out to a white guardian. Protests over arbitrary apprenticeship mounted in the postwar years, with parents frequently appealing to the local provost marshal or the Freedmen’s Bureau for custodial rights to their children.34

Few memories of bondage elicited greater pain in black parents than the humiliation they had suffered in watching their children whipped or abused by a member of the white family. After emancipation, if they decided to remain with the same master or if they hired out elsewhere, freedmen families often made their labor contingent on the abolition of such practices and a recognition of their exclusive right to manage and discipline their own children. Employers who violated that understanding were apt to find themselves with fewer laborers the next morning or when the time came to renew a contract. With equal fervor, parents committed themselves in the immediate aftermath of emancipation to provide an education for their children, not only in the numerous schools established by northern whites but in schools which employers were forced to establish on their plantations in order to retain and attract a labor force.

Deprived of any legal standing, stripped of any means to protect itself, faced always with the specter of forced breakup, the black family under slavery needed to demonstrate remarkable resiliency to withstand the often debilitating and debasing experience of white ownership. While some slaveholders recognized and encouraged strong family ties for the stabilizing influence they exerted, many others were either indifferent, thought their blacks to be emotionally incapable of sustaining the necessary affection, or resented any attempts by them to ape the social norms of their superiors. “I was once whipped,” a black servant in New Orleans remarked, “because I said to missis, ‘My mother sent me.’ We were not allowed to call our mammies ‘mother.’ It made it come too near the way of the white folks.” Whatever the prevailing attitudes of individual masters or mistresses, every black family had to find ways to counter the sense of powerlessness imparted by white ownership. Not only did they lack control over separation by sale but the people who owned them were free to inflict indignities, both physical and verbal, as their moods dictated, and they were apt to do so in the presence of the entire family. To calculate the brutalities of the “peculiar institution” by counting the number of whippings meted out by a master or overseer would be to miss the point altogether, as nearly every slave who wrote about his or her experience would testify.35

Although some slave families were disrupted, by irreparable psychic damage if not by sale, what seems so remarkable is that most of them endured the experience of bondage. On most plantations and farms, the lives of the slaves—field hands, house servants, and artisans alike—revolved around family units, the two-parent household predominated, and the black husband and father exerted in his own way the dominant influence in that household. If he could not always provide for his family as he wished, he tried to supplement their diets by hunting, fishing, and theft. If he could not always protect his family as he wished, he often managed to lay down a line of tolerated behavior beyond which masters and overseers proceeded at their own risk. Sam Watkins, a Tennessee planter, was among those who flagrantly crossed that line once too often.

He would ship their husbands (slaves) out of bed and get in with their wives. One man said he stood it as long as he could and one morning he just stood outside, and when he got with his wife he just choked him to death. He said he knew it was death, but it was death anyhow; so he just killed him. They hanged him.36

Few wives expected their husbands to sacrifice their lives in this way. Fully aware of the master’s power, most couples made the necessary accommodation. That reflected not indifference to family ties but the simple resolve to keep the family together and alive. The same consideration would impede escape until the proximity of the Union Army enabled entire families to leave the plantations.

During the Civil War, the black family had to withstand attacks from various sources. Numbers of slaves who accompanied their masters to the front lines never returned, nor did many of those impressed into Confederate labor battalions. “Father wus sent to Manassas Gap at the beginning of de war,” a former Virginia slave recalled, “and I do not ’member ever seein’ him.” When freedmen attempted to trace lost family members after emancipation, the trail often started and ended with the information that he was last seen in “a gang [that] was taken away de firs year of de war.” The wartime decisions to remove slaves to Texas or to some “safe” place in the interior resulted in still further disruptions, with the women, children, and elderly blacks often left on the old place. Nor did the coming of the Union Army necessarily secure black families; instead, some of the men enlisted or were forcibly impressed into service as military laborers and soldiers. Whatever the commitment of slaves to the Union cause, many of them feared that service in the Union Army would place their wives and children in immediate jeopardy from hostile whites and deprive them of necessary support. Such fears were not illusory. Enraged over losing any of their slaves, particularly to the Union Army, masters were known to avenge themselves on the soldiers’ wives and children, either by abusing them, refusing to support them, or expelling them from the premises. Only after strong pressure from black soldiers who threatened mutiny and desertion did the Federal government belatedly guarantee freedom to the families of black volunteers, make them eligible for rations, and try to ensure their safety. By this time, however, numerous families had already been disrupted.37

When weighed against the enormous tensions to which slave marital ties were subjected, the prospects for success under any circumstances might have seemed dim. The very words by which marriages were solemnized indicated their vulnerability. “Don’t mean nothin’ less you say, ‘What God done jined, cain’t no man pull asunder,’ ” a former Virginia slave observed. “But dey never would say dat. Jus’ say, ‘Now you married.’ ” The classic account of the slave preacher in Kentucky who united couples “until death or distance do you part” had its equivalent in the Virginia master who, as one of his former slaves recalled, devised his own marriage vows by which he united slave couples:

Dat yo’ wife

Dat yo’ husban’

Ise yo’ Marser

She yo’ Missus

You’re married.

If they achieved nothing else, the mock wedding rites, highlighted by “jumping the broomstick,” sanctioned such marriages in the eyes of the man and woman and their fellow slaves. But the white owner determined the longevity of their relationship, and the forcible breakup of slave marriages occurred with sufficient regularity to warrant the casualness of the ceremony, the fears of the couple, and some bitter recollections:

One night a couple married an’ de next mornin’ de boss sell de wife. De gal ma got in de street an’ cursed de white woman fur all she could find. She said: “dat damn white, pale-face bastard sell my daughter who jus’ married las’ night,” an other t’ings.

The police had to be summoned to restrain the grief-stricken mother and remove her to the local workhouse.38

No sooner had emancipation been acknowledged than thousands of “married” couples, with the encouragement of black preachers and northern white missionaries, hastened to secure their marital vows, both legally and spiritually. “My husband and I have lived together fifteen years,” the mother of a large family remarked, “and we wants to be married over again now.” Mildred Graves, a former Virginia house servant, remembered her courtship, the broomstick ceremony, and the cast-off dress her mistress gave her as a wedding present; nevertheless, after the war, she also recalled, “we had a real sho’ nuff weddin’ wid a preacher. Dat cost a dollar.”39 The insistence of teachers, missionaries, and Freedmen’s Bureau officers that blacks formalize their marriages stemmed from the notion that legal sanction was necessary for sexual and moral restraint and that ex-slaves had to be inculcated with “the obligations of the married state in civilized life.” But many of the couples themselves, who needed no instruction in such matters, agreed to participate in formalizations of their unions for more practical reasons—to legitimize their children, to qualify for soldiers’ pensions, to share in the rumored forthcoming division of the lands, and to exercise their newly won civil rights. Whatever the most compelling reason, mass wedding ceremonies involving as many as seventy couples at a time became a common sight in the postwar South.

One evening four couples came to the schoolhouse to meet “the parson” who was to perform the marriage ceremony for them. They came straight from the field, in their working-clothes; the women, as was their custom, walking behind the men.… When they left the schoolhouse the women all took their places by the side of the men, showing that they felt they were equal in the eyes of the law.40

Native whites looked upon these spectacles with a mixture of amusement, disdain, and indifference. Having forbidden legal marriages, condoned the breakup of families, and demeaned family relationships, some former masters and mistresses now mocked the efforts of ex-slaves to dignify with proper ceremony and affidavit marital ties of long standing. “They take the white man’s notions as they copy his manners, not for what they are but for the impression that’s made by them on the world,” a South Carolina white woman observed of the interest taken by blacks in solemnizing their marriage relationship.

Now what [is] more common than to hear “I must go with my wife,” not because they have investigated the matter and seen the right of the thing, but such is the view of the white and the view suits present circumstances, and is therefore adopted by the negro. One wife is as good as another to them …

Like most whites, she seemed incapable of explaining the actions of the freedmen except as a desire to imitate their superiors—and moral exemplars. Even the northern missionaries, who liked to think of themselves as rescuing the ex-slaves from the sins of concubinage, shared many of the prevailing assumptions about the moral depravity of blacks. Nevertheless, white Southerners and northern observers alike would hardly have disagreed with the potential benefits that flowed from stable black families. “Marital relations are invaluable as a means of promoting industry,” a northern correspondent wrote from Louisiana. “Morality encourages industry and prosperity. Immorality in the sexual relations produces idleness, intemperance, and apathy.”41

Not all slave couples hastened to legalize their marriages, at least not until they resolved the many complications stemming from multiple liaisons in a lifetime of bondage. The question facing numerous freedmen and freedwomen was not whether to formalize their slave marriage but which one should take precedence. With numerous spouses having remarried since their forced separation, that would frequently be a difficult and agonizing decision to make. Nor could they resolve the dilemma, as a South Carolina woman attempted to do, by alternating between two spouses on separate plantations. Newly enacted state laws usually validated unions between persons of color who were living together at the time of emancipation and required ex-slaves with multiple spouses to make an immediate decision about which “marriage” they wished to legitimate; Federal authorities, who tended to take these matters more seriously, recognized the right of a husband or wife to leave a childless marriage to return to a previous partner by whom they had had children. “Whenever a negro appears before me with two or three wives who have equal claim upon him,” a Freedmen’s Bureau officer in North Carolina reported, “I marry him to the woman who has the greatest number of helpless children who otherwise would become a charge on the Bureau.”42

Although black preachers, white missionaries, and Bureau officials helped some couples to resolve these difficulties, the final decision was generally made by the partners themselves, who would have to reconcile conflicting emotions compounded by the manner in which they had initially been separated and the presence of children. In the District of Columbia, for example, a man who had been separated from his first wife for twenty-two years resolved to annul his present marriage “and live with the first by whom he has several grown children.” On the Sea Islands, Jane Ferguson, after hearing that her first husband had returned, had no hesitation in making a decision. “Martin Barnwell is my husband, ma’am,” she told a missionary teacher. “I am got no husband but he. W’en de secesh sell him off we nebber ’spect to see each odder more. He said, ‘Jane take good care of our boy, an’ w’en we git to hebben us will lib togedder to nebber part no more.’ ” When she subsequently married Ferguson, they had agreed that Martin’s return would annul their ties. “I told him I never ’spects Martin could come back, but if he did he would be my husband above all others.” But what if Ferguson refused to give her up? the teacher asked her. “Martin is my husband, ma’am, an’ the father of my child,” the woman replied; “and Ferguson is a man.” But the matter was not so easily resolved, as Ferguson, a Union soldier, pleaded with his wife not to abandon him: “Martin has not seen you for a long time. He cannot think of you as I do. O Jane! do not go to Charleston. Come to Jacksonville. I will get a house and we will live here. Never mind what the people say. Come to me, Jane.” But Jane dictated a response that terminated both the correspondence and their marriage: “Tell him, I say I’m sorry he finds it so hard to do his duty. But as he does, I shall do mine, an’ I shall always pray de Lord to bless him.… I shall never write to him no more. But tell him I wish him well.”43

Emancipation functioned in some cases as an instant and convenient divorce, enabling a couple to dissolve their marriage by mutually agreeing not to formalize it. Some freedmen and freedwomen seized the chance to annul an incompatible and loveless marriage, which in several instances had been forced upon them by their owner. In a “divorce” case argued before a Union officer in Louisiana, the husband claimed he had done everything in his power for the comfort of his wife and wished to retain her, but the woman declared she could now take care of herself and refused to stay with a man whom she did not love.44 Among families that had survived bondage intact, the difficult post-emancipation decision about whether to stay with their last master also produced conflicts which were sometimes resolved by divorce. More often than not, however, those who lived together at the end of the war did not avail themselves of the opportunity to dissolve those ties, suggesting the extent to which their marriages had been based on considerations other than the convenience of the master.

During slavery, interracial sexual liaisons—usually between slave women and white men, sometimes between slave men and white women—had occasionally developed into affectionate and lasting relationships. Obviously, such ties could neither be solemnized nor legalized, and few even cared to admit that they were based on genuine feelings of love, particularly those involving white women. Emancipation permitted interracial couples to formalize those relationships, at least to the extent state laws and public opinion would tolerate them. When the daughter of a former slave owner in Mississippi announced her intention to marry one of their former slaves, with whom she had already established a relationship, a local judge refused to believe her avowal of love for the man and ordered the arraignment and trial of the couple. With different results, a quadroon mistress of a planter in Mississippi refused to continue a relationship with her master after the war unless he agreed to marriage; they finally prevailed upon a reluctant army chaplain to perform the necessary rites after the master claimed he had “married her in the sight of God five years ago.” The difficulties that confronted a white woman and a black man made any permanent relationship almost impossible in the postwar South. Although the courts always dealt harshly with attacks on whites, whatever the evidence, a court in Fredericksburg, Virginia, acquitted a black woman accused of assaulting a white woman who had “stolen the affections” of her black husband, prompting him to leave her for the white woman. That came about as close to justifiable assault in the eyes of the white community as any black person could commit.45

Neither the legalization nor the sanctification of black marriages necessarily moved the ex-slaves to adopt in full the sexual code of upper-class whites. “The negroes had their own ideas of morality, and held to them very strictly,” the proprietress of a Georgia plantation observed; “they did not consider it wrong for a girl to have a child before she married, but afterwards were extremely severe upon anything like infidelity on her part. Indeed, the good old law of female submission to the husband’s will on all points held good.” While both races frowned upon certain sexual practices (such as adultery), the differences which persisted in defining moral behavior (such as the condoning of prenuptial sex among blacks) and the post-emancipation complications surrounding polygamy help to explain the intensity with which white missionaries and black preachers dwelled on black “moral vices” and admonished the ex-slaves to conform in every respect to the Victorian moral code. When Clinton B. Fisk, a sympathetic Freedmen’s Bureau officer, counseled freedmen and freedwomen that God would no longer close his eyes to “adultery and fornication” among them, he was saying little that black preachers had not already said on numerous occasions. “Look at de white folks,” one such preacher told his congregation. “D’ye eber see a white man want to marry a woman when he had a lawful wife a libing? Neber! I neber heared ob sech a thing in all my life. A white man is ’structed; he knows dat’s agin de law and de gospil.”46

Although reports of rampant “polygamy, adultery, and indiscriminate sexual intercourse” among the ex-slaves would reinforce white notions of black moral laxity, some Freedmen’s Bureau officers readily conceded that a disproportionate number of such cases came to their attention. “If I exaggerate in this matter,” a Bureau officer in South Carolina wrote, “it is because, like most officers of justice, I saw chiefly the evil side of my public—all the deserted ones coming to me for the redress of their grievances or for help in their poverty.” Actually, the seriousness with which most blacks assumed and sustained their marital vows, like the intense interest they had shown in locating family members, surprised and elated many Bureau officers and northern missionaries, who had come to the South prepared for the worst. If Horace Greeley, the New York editor, thought “enslaved, degraded, hopeless races or classes are always lewd,” that was far from the conclusion reached by a white teacher in postwar Virginia. “The colored people easily assume the responsibilities, proprieties, and graces of civilized life. As a class, their tastes are comely, though they are acquainted with filth. I fancy they see the moral significance of things quite as readily as white people.” And if white masters and mistresses claimed credit for the “civilizing influences” they had exerted on their slaves, the freedmen and freedwomen took some pride in the moral values they had managed to sustain in the quarters, often in the face of the grossest forms of white savagery.47

The eagerness of blacks to assume the “graces of civilized life” manifested itself in ways that native whites found most disturbing. “The black women do not like to work,” an Alabama planter reported, “it is not ladylike.” The phenomenon he described was real enough, though whites tended to exaggerate its prevalence. With the acknowledgment of emancipation, many black women did withdraw their labor from the fields and the white man’s kitchen in order to spend more time tending to their own husbands and children. If the women themselves did not initiate such moves, the men often insisted upon it, and husbands and wives together effected arrangements that would be more compatible with freedom. Mary Jones, the Georgia proprietress, tersely summed up the changes affecting her own household: “Gilbert will stay on his old terms, but withdraws Fanny and puts Harry and Little Abram in her place and puts his son Gilbert out to a trade. Cook Kate wants to be relieved of the heavy burden of cooking for two and wait on her husband.” No less distraught, an Alabama planter claimed he had lost one fourth of his labor because the men regarded it as “a matter of pride” to exact from their employers a new division of labor that would exempt their women from field work. Where women continued to work, the men often insisted during contract negotiations that wives and mothers be given time off during the regular workweek to tend to their housekeeping chores.48

That the withdrawal of women from the labor force was frequently made at the insistence of the men reflected a determination by many husbands and fathers to reinforce their position as the head of the family in accordance with the accepted norms of the dominant society. The place for the woman was in the home, attending to the business of the home. “When I married my wife,” a Tennessee freedman told his employer, in rejecting his request for her services, “I married her to wait on me and she has got all she can do right here for me and the children.” Like many outside observers, Laura Towne, a northern white teacher in the Sea Islands, explained such developments as a natural reaction to the dominant place she had assumed black women had occupied in the slave household. In wishing to “rule their wives,” the men could thus hardly be blamed for exercising “an inestimable privilege” of freedom. “In slavery the woman was far more important, and was in every way held higher than the man. It was the woman’s house, the children were entirely hers, etc., etc.” Since emancipation, however, Laura Towne had observed the frequency with which black leaders urged black men “to get the women into their proper place—never to tell them anything of their concerns, etc., etc.; and the notion of being bigger than women generally, is just now inflating the conceit of the males to an amazing degree.”49

If the spectacle of black marriages amused former masters and mistresses, the inclination of black women “to play the lady” did not, particularly when it made it more difficult for white women to do so. On a Mississippi plantation, where the black women suddenly refused to work, the employer (who had been their former master) ordered them to resume their positions in the field or leave the premises. They left. What whites contemptuously called “playing the lady” occasionally took the form of black women cavorting about town in the cast-off finery of their last mistress. Despite these much-publicized examples, however, most black women charged with “playing the lady” had simply opted to spend more time in their own households and made labor arrangements that would permit them to do so. A Georgia planter, for example, managed to hire four “good hands,” only to discover that their wives had no intention of cooking for him, at least not until they had discussed the matter with him. Aware of his inability to hire a cook, the women took advantage of their bargaining position and exacted promises to pay them “their own price” and, equally important, to permit them to divide the housework and cooking among themselves. Presumably, this arrangement would have given each of them ample time to meet her own domestic responsibilities. Such experiences, not at all uncommon, revealed that many black women, rather than withdraw from work altogether, used the threat quite successfully to obtain better terms from an employer.50

Few black leaders, clergymen, or editors would have disputed the “plain counsels” offered by a Freedmen’s Bureau officer to the emancipated black woman about her proper role in the home. Before marriage, she should learn to knit, sew, mend clothes, bake bread, keep a clean house, cultivate a garden, and read and write, while at the same time remaining “a true woman”—that is, protecting her chastity. After marriage, she would be expected to take proper care of her person, to appear always clean, neat, and tidy, and to look “as pretty as possible.” That was simply another way of saying that black women should aspire to be like their white counterparts and abide by the conventional wisdom and experience of mid-nineteenth-century American society. Not all black women, however, willingly assented to such a narrow definition of their roles, few of them had the means to become “ladies” of leisure, and some did not look upon white women as the most desirable models to imitate; indeed, their previous experiences with white “ladies” had not necessarily filled them with awe, admiration, or even respect. Whatever black men might have preferred, most black women could not afford to withdraw from outside labor after emancipation; many continued to work in the fields alongside their men, while others moved into the towns in the hope of obtaining more remunerative employment.51

Out of economic necessity and the experience of slavery, black women fashioned a place for themselves in the post-emancipation family and community. Invariably, it would be a more important position than that occupied by their white counterparts. If fewer black women labored in the fields, they often cared for the family garden plot, worked as washerwomen or wet nurses, and performed other jobs that were necessary to supplement the family income. If they deferred to the men and absented themselves from the political discussions, they might still guard the rifles stacked outside the meeting places. And in the waning years of Reconstruction, when whites threatened to regain power, black women in Charleston were sighted “carrying axes or hatchets in their hands hanging down at their sides, their aprons or dresses half-concealing the weapons.” Exhorting a large audience to defend the work of Reconstruction, a black clergyman would warn of “80,000 black men in the State who can use Winchesters and 200,000 black women who can light a torch and use a knife.”52

No matter how they manifested their freedom, black men and women found themselves in a better position to defend their marital fidelity, to maintain their family ties, and to control their own children. That in itself ensured an enhanced dignity and pride as a family that slavery had so often compromised. But nothing could erase the still vivid memories of the fear and experience of forced separation from loved ones and the innumerable tragedies and complications which such separations, as well as the day-to-day indignities of slave life, had inflicted upon their families. More than the memories of those years remained to haunt them. Near Norfolk, Virginia, a long-separated couple found each other near the end of the war. “Twas like a stroke of death to me,” the woman said afterwards. “We threw ourselves into each others arms and cried. His wife looked on and was jealous, but she needn’t have been. My husband is so kind, I shouldn’t leave him if he hadn’t had another wife, and of course I shouldn’t now. Yes, my husband’s very kind, but I ain’t happy.” The momentary reunion had been painful for both of them. Reflecting back upon her first marriage, the days a mule. “He told me never to go by any name except Banner. That was all the mule they ever give me.” Midway through the war, Federal officials expressed some consternation over the number of contrabands who gave them false names. “Perhaps, after all, no false motive influences them,” a white missionary teacher tried to explain, “as they may bear many names in a lifetime.” Still, she found herself repeatedly frustrated in trying to ascertain the full names of the freedmen and freedwomen she encountered. “They are Judith or John, and nothing more.” Not at all hesitant about adopting or revealing surnames were scores of ex-slaves who considered this step necessary to demonstrate and ensure their newly won freedom. “No man thought he was perfectly free,” the overseer on a Louisiana plantation observed, “unless he had changed his name and taken a family name. Precious few of ’em ever took that of their old masters.” If any doubts remained about the validity of emancipation, some freed slaves came up with the ingenious idea that a new name might be a useful device to retain their freedom and avoid re-enslavement. “When us black folks got set free,” Alice Wilkins recalled, “us’n change our names, so effen the white folks get together and change their minds and don’t let us be free any more, then they have a hard time finding us.”58

The notion that blacks marked their emancipation by repudiating their slave names distorts the significance those names had assumed for large numbers of slaves, particularly the ways in which they often reflected a deeply felt familial consciousness. Although some freedmen quickly dropped the whimsical names their masters had bestowed on them, nearly everyone else retained his or her previous given name. This had been their sole identity during bondage, often the only remaining link to parents from whom they had been separated and who had initially named them. No matter how harsh a bondage they had endured, few freed slaves revealed any desire to obliterate their entire past or family heritage, and those whose given names or surnames reflected kinship ties tended to guard them zealously. Many freedmen, on the other hand, adopted surnames for the first time, often choosing a name that would set them off as a discrete family, some began to use openly the surnames they had assumed as slaves, and still others slightly altered their names to symbolize their right to do so. Once they knew of their freedom, Lee Guidon recollected, “a heap of people say they was going to name their selves over. They named their selves big names.… Some of the names was Abraham an’ some called their selves Lincum. Any big name ’ceptin’ their master’s name. It was the fashion.” If that was “the fashion,” Lee Guidon’s father decided to be the exception—he kept the name of his master, because “fine folks raise us an’ we goiner hold to our own names.”59

If freedmen retained or adopted their master’s surname, this did not necessarily reflect any deep affection for him or the conditions of bondage on that plantation. In many instances, the name of the ex-slave’s parents or grandparents was the same as that of the master, and that alone was sufficient reason to hold on to it. Martin Jackson, who had been a slave on the Fitzpatrick plantation in Texas, thought many years later that taking the master’s name after emancipation had reflected expediency more than anything else. “This was done more because it was the logical thing to do and the easiest way to be identified than it was through affection for the master. Also, the government seemed to be in a almighty hurry to have us get names. We had to register as someone, so we could be citizens.” When forced to choose his own surname, however, Jackson thought about all the slaves who would assume the name Fitzpatrick. “I made up my mind I’d find me a different one. One of my grandfathers in Africa was called Jeaceo, and so I decided to be Jackson.”60

The freedman who took the name of an earlier owner, perhaps the first owner he could recall, often made that choice out of a sense of historical identity, continuity, and family pride—the reputation of the particular master notwithstanding. The idea was not to honor a previous master but to sustain some identification with the freedman’s family of origin.

I don’t know whether my father used his master’s name or his father’s name. His father’s name was Jerry Greene, and his master’s name was Henry Bibb. I don’t know which name he went by, but I call myself Greene because his father’s name was Jerry Greene.

After emancipation, Aleck Gillison adopted the surname of a previous master who had sold him; so did Jim Henry’s father, who had once belonged to the Patrick Henry family of Virginia; Isaac Thomas, the slave of I. D. Thomas, a Texas planter, returned to his old home in Florida, where he “find out he people and git he real name, and dat am Beckett.” Similarly, Anson Harp had belonged to Tom Harp, a Mississippi planter, before being separated from his parents and sold to James Henry Hammond, a prominent South Carolina planter. After the war, he refused to take the name of Hammond, “ ’cause too many of his slaves do,” and decided to keep the name of his old master. That was “the one my daddy and mammy had,” he explained, though he never saw them again after their forced separation.61

In adopting surnames, as in other manifestations of their new freedom, the ex-slaves defied any easy categorization. If, for a variety of reasons, some took the names of old or recent masters, many openly repudiated such names. “That’s my ole rebel master’s title,” a young South Carolina black protested after he used the name of Middleton in a freedmen’s school. “Him’s nothing to me now. I don’t belong to he no longer, an’ I don’t see no use in being called for him.” While enrolling a freedman in the Union Army, a recruiting officer in Tennessee demanded that he take a surname and suggested that of his previous master. The proposal struck the young black man with obvious dismay. “No, suh,” he replied emphatically. “I’se had nuff o’ ole massa.” In some instances, Federal officials expedited the naming process by furnishing the names themselves, and invariably the name would be the same as that of the freedman’s most recent master. But they had spent together, and the forced separation, she could only say, “White folk’s got a heap to answer for the way they’ve done to colored folks! So much they wont never pray it away!”53


COMPARED TO THE MANY acute problems facing the freedman, the question of his name might have seemed the least consequential. But the newly freed slaves thought otherwise, sharing a concern with names and naming voiced nearly a century later by Ralph Ellison.

For it is through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own.… They must become our masks and our shields and the containers of all those values and traditions which we learn and/or imagine as being the meaning of our familial past.

And when we are reminded so constantly that we bear, as Negroes, names originally possessed by those who owned our enslaved grandparents, we are apt … to be more than ordinarily concerned with the veiled and mysterious events, the fusions of blood, the furtive couplings, the business transactions, the violations of faith and loyalty, the assaults; yes, and the unrecognized and unrecognizable loves through which our names were handed down unto us.54

Rather than reveal a sordid past, the names assumed or revealed after emancipation reflected a new beginning—an essential step toward achieving the self-respect, the personal dignity, and the independence which slavery had compromised. “We hardly knowed our names,” recalled Sallie Crane, a former Arkansas slave. “We was cussed for so many bitches and sons of bitches and bloody bitches, and blood of bitches. We never heard our names scarcely at all.” Describing “the most cruel acts” inflicted upon him as a slave, William Wells Brown singled out the order that he drop the name his mother had given him. (The master had wished to placate his nephew, also named William, who had recently taken up residence on the plantation.) “I received several very severe whippings for telling people that my name was William, after orders were given to change it. Though young, I was old enough to place a high appreciation upon my name.” Until his escape, he went by the name of Sandford, but the moment he reached a safe haven he adopted his old name “and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it. Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me.”55

During slavery, many blacks only had a given name. Although most slaves appear to have named their own children, the master might arbitrarily assign a name, borrowing heavily from classical, biblical, and simplified Anglo-Saxon appellations; the naming process also afforded him a chance to indulge in some humorous whims, and some did so at the expense of the slave’s dignity. Masters might permit certain favorites and slaves who exercised authority over other slaves to adopt their own surnames; the less privileged were apt to have the same surname as the master—a convenient way to identify the plantation to which they belonged. To allow the slave to use his own surname, Jacob Stroyer recalled, “would be sharing an honor which was due only to his master, and that would be too much for a negro, said they, who was nothing more than a servant. So it was held as a crime for a slave to be caught using his own name, a crime which would expose him to severe punishment.” Numerous ex-slaves, then, like Wash Ingram of Texas, recalled only that “we always went by the name of whoever we belonged to.” In South Carolina, a teacher in a freedmen’s school tried without success to induce one of the pupils to state her surname. “Only Phyllis, ma’am,” she would reply. Finally, an older student interceded, exclaiming, “Pshaw, gal! What’s you’m title?” The pupil then understood what was demanded, and she gave the name of her former master.56

More often than many masters realized, slaves adopted their own surnames. “When the white folks speak of them they say ‘John, that belongs to Mr. So and So,’ ” Robert Smalls testified during the war. “But among themselves they use their titles.… Before their masters they do not speak of their titles at all.” Plantation records rarely listed slaves by surnames, and the vast rice plantations owned by the Heyward family in South Carolina were no exception. Some of the more prominent blacks, however, like “old blacksmith Caesar,” were known by both their given names and their surnames. And “among themselves,” Duncan Clinch Heyward conceded, “the slaves all had surnames, and immediately after they were freed these names came to light. The surnames were selected by the Negroes themselves. Scarcely ever did a Negro choose the name of his or her owner, but often took that of some other slaveholding family, of which he knew.” Occasionally, surnames other than that of the master would surface beyond the confines of the slave quarters, much to the surprise of the white family. “Mammy, what makes you call Henry Mr. Ferguson,” Susan Dabney Smedes remembered asking her “usually indulgent” mammy, who had taken her to a slave wedding. “Do you think ’cause we are black that we cyarn’t have no names?” she replied indignantly. Usually, however, such names were not publicly revealed until after emancipation.57

Although family pride was reason enough, certain practical considerations also encouraged the selection of names after emancipation. Whether to enlist in the Union Army, live in the contraband camps, apply for relief at the Freedmen’s Bureau office, or, some years later, vote in an election, blacks needed to register both a given name and a surname with Federal authorities. Henry Banner took his surname under the erroneous impression that it would qualify him for a government bounty of forty acres and these appear to have been exceptional cases; the ex-slaves themselves usually took the initiative—like the Virginia mother who changed the name of her son from Jeff Davis, which was how the master had known him, to Thomas Grant, which seemed to suggest the freedom she was now exercising. Whatever names the freed slaves adopted, whether that of a previous master, a national leader, an occupational skill, a place of residence, or a color, they were most often making that decision themselves. That was what mattered.62

That freedmen should have assumed the surnames of prominent white families might have flattered the patriarchal ego and self-image of the planter class, but it also left some whites in utter dismay and few of them had any notion of the considerations that entered into such decisions. “I used to be proud of my name,” Caroline Ravenel wrote a close friend. “I have ceased to be so. I fear it will no longer [be] spotless, as the two meanest negroes on the place have appropriated it.” Eliza Frances Andrews, the daughter of a prominent Georgian, expressed some amusement over the names taken by the family’s former slaves but she also proved to be far more perceptive than most whites. In the Andrews household, the family servant, Charity, announced on her wedding day that she had two names, like her “white folks”; she would henceforth be addressed as Mrs. Tatom, while her husband, Hamp, a field hand, would now be known as Mr. Sam Ampey Tatom. Trying to keep a straight face, Eliza Andrews asked her how they had come by the name of Tatom. “His grandfather used to belong to a Mr. Tatom,” she replied, “so he took his name for his entitles.” The blacks “seldom or never” adopted the names of their most recent owners, Miss Andrews observed; almost always, they would take the name of some former master, “and they go as far back as possible.” After all, she surmised, “it was the name of the actual owner that distinguished them in slavery, and I suppose they wish to throw off that badge of servitude. Then, too, they have their notions of family pride.” But even as these changes both amused and impressed her, Eliza Andrews had to confess to herself that they were not altogether pleasing.

All these changes are very sad to me, in spite of their comic side. There will soon be no more old mammies and daddies, no more old uncles and aunties. Instead of “maum Judy” and “uncle Jacob,” we shall have our “Mrs. Ampey Tatoms,” and our “Mr. Lewis Williamses.” The sweet ties that bound our old family servants to us will be broken and replaced with envy and ill-will.63


BEING FREE was often a day-to-day struggle, if only to understand the new possibilities and dangers. The achievement of an individual dignity and self-respect commensurate with their legal status demanded of black people much more than the adoption or revelation of family names. Now that they were free, some thought the old pretenses and demeanor could be dropped. The need to cringe in the presence of whites or to respond obsequiously to their whims and petty humiliations seemed less compelling. Freedom, as a former Georgia slave defined it, meant taking “no more foolishment off of white folks.” Early in 1865, two white men were walking along a street in Helena, Arkansas, when they encountered a freedman. “How do ye do, Mr. Powell,” the black man greeted one of them. “Howdy, uncle,” Powell replied. Several months earlier, that familiar exchange of greetings would have terminated the conversation, but not in this first year of emancipation. Much to Powell’s astonishment, the black man cursed him, denied that he was his uncle, and made it clear that he did not permit such people to claim kinship with him. When Powell protested that he was only trying to be “civil,” the freedman angrily retorted, “Call me Mister.” And with that parting salvo, the men went their respective ways. The much-perturbed Powell turned to his companion and exclaimed, “Oh my God; how long before my ass will be kicked by every negro that meets me?”64

Comparable incidents and confrontations were bound to arise while former slaves explored the content of their freedom. This was the appropriate time, some of them thought, to give substance to their new status, even to challenge and revamp the traditional and seemingly inviolate code of racial etiquette. Of what use was a family name if white people seldom used it in addressing blacks, if they persisted in referring to adult black men and women as “boy,” “girl,” or “nigger,” while reserving the honorific titles of “auntie” and “uncle” for the venerable few. After emancipation, Emma Watson recalled, she perceived few changes in her status, except that the mistress both acknowledged and demeaned her freedom at the same time, as in the command: “Come here, you li’l old free nigger.” Even without the benefit of organized or coordinated action, freedmen and freedwomen made known their objections to these linguistic relics of bondage, some of them insisting that they be addressed by their surnames (preceded by the appropriate mister, missus, or miss), that they no longer be identified by the plantation or the master for whom they worked (as in Colonel Pinckney’s Ned), that they be treated, in other words, as mature men and women rather than as children or pets. For whites to address adult black men as “boys,” a black clergyman declared, was to evince a “spirit of malice” he deemed incompatible with the rights of free “colored men.” The use of such terms, he charged, assumed that a black man was little more than “a six-year-old stripling or a two-year colt,” and it reminded him of the Irishman who testified that “in the ‘ould counthry,’ when they whistled for him to come to dinner, he never knew whether it was himself or the hogs they wanted.” With unjustified optimism, the clergyman warned that “white or colored Christians” would no longer tolerate such terms of address.65

The problem defied any early resolution. Not only did whites persist in using the familiar terms of address but the blacks themselves found it difficult to discard the titles by which they had customarily known their former owners. As slaves, they had addressed them as “master” and “mistress,” or even more familiarly as “marster” or “mars” and as “mistis,” “miss,” or “missy,” usually followed only by the Christian name, as in “Miss Ann” or “Mars Bill.” Customarily, they had used titles like “boss,” “cap’n,” “major,” and “colonel” in addressing white men of high rank with whom they were less acquainted. (The term “boss” might be reserved for whites who were neither slaveholders nor “poor buckra.”) After learning of his freedom, a Georgia black wanted to know, “You got to say master?” to which a fellow freedman responded in the negative. “But they said it all the same,” Sarah Jane Paterson recalled. “They said it for a long time.” In Virginia, a Union officer in charge of freedmen affairs reproached some ex-slaves for referring to him as “massa,” explaining that they were no longer slaves. “No, massa,” one of them replied, “but I’m so used to it.” Searching for alternatives to the traditional “marsa” and “missus,” but not wishing to incur the charge of insolence, some freedmen, especially the younger ones, resolved the dilemma by addressing their former masters as “boss” or “cap’n” and their former mistresses as “ma’am.” Since those titles had often been used in the past when speaking with strangers, they suggested less intimacy and seemed more appropriate to the new relationships.66

With some exceptions, the men and women who had once owned slaves evinced no urgent desire to alter the traditional forms of deference and recognition. If nothing else, whites clung to social usages which reminded them of happier and more orderly times. The language and demeanor of the blacks had always defined their place in society and their relationship with whites, and in the chaotic postwar years, many whites preferred to think that a semblance of sanity and good manners might have survived emancipation. Louis Manigault, the Georgia planter, thus confessed his pleasure at being called “Maussa” and at seeing his former slaves “still showing respect by taking off their caps.” Some planters even went so far as to stipulate in the labor contracts they drew up with the freedmen that they be addressed as “master.” Seeking to accommodate himself to emancipation, Thomas Dabney, the prosperous Mississippi planter, advised his ex-slaves they no longer had to call him “master,” but he seemed reassured by the chorus of “Yes, marster” that greeted his admonition. “They seem to bring in ‘master’ and say it oftener than they ever did,” he observed, and Dabney preferred to accept it in good faith as a sign of affection; indeed, as his daughter noted, the term “seemed to grow into a term of endearment,” and former slaves Dabney had never known became tenants on the plantation and also called him “master.” With equal pride, a Mississippi white woman displayed her “little Confederate nigger,” as she called her, to a northern visitor. “She is the only one I have been able to keep, and I only have her because her parents haven’t yet been able to coax her away.” The young black girl still called her “Missey,” and the mistress proclaimed this fact with unconcealed delight, as if it were a singular achievement in the post-emancipation South. Perhaps it was. “All the niggers have been trying to break her of that, but they can’t. They tell her to call me Miss Lizzie, but she says ‘she may be your Miss Lizzie, but she’s my Missey.’ ” One day in church, her servant left the other blacks, declaring loudly for everyone to hear that she preferred to sit with her “Missey.” That created quite a stir, the mistress conceded. “You should have seen everybody’s head turning to see who it was, in these sorrowful times, that was still fortunate enough to be called Missey!”67

Dismayed by the post-emancipation behavior of her fellow servants, particularly their truckling manner and continued use of terms like “master” and “mistress,” a Mississippi black woman admonished them in the very presence of the white family to change their ways. They had “no master or mistress on earth,” she informed them, and “they were fools” to act as though they did. But the old habits proved difficult to break, even as the old fears of the power wielded by their former masters proved difficult to surmount. “My master would kill any-body who called any-bodybut a white person Missis,” a Virginia freedwoman declared. How blacks addressed each other often prompted equal dismay among black clergymen and northern white emissaries. Seeking to check the frequent use of the term “nigger,” Colonel Higginson, the well-intentioned commander of a black regiment, instructed his white officers to address the black soldiers by their full names. But he found that the blacks themselves used derogatory terms like “nigger” with little hesitation, and he was at a loss to know how to combat such behavior. “They have meekly accepted it,” he sighed. To a postwar English visitor, the derogatory terms used by blacks reflected the value they placed on color. “White was the tint of nobility; black the symbol of degradation. If one coloured man wanted to insult another, he called him a nigger. To call him ‘a charcoal nigger’ was the blackest insult of all, making him the furthest remove from the nobility of whiteness.” Based upon his experiences in postwar South Carolina, Sidney Andrews, a northern correspondent, offered a more positive view of black terminology. He discovered that the terms “cousin” and “brother” were commonly used and “seem to be expressive of equality.” Although “the older and more trusted blacks” on the plantation seldom referred to a field hand as “cousin,” the field hands themselves frequently addressed each other as “Bro’ Bob, Bro’ John, Co’n Sally, Co’ Pete, &c.” What Andrews described, however, was less a phenomenon of emancipation than the continuation of traditional practices.68

The term “nigger,” as used by blacks, had varying inflections, implications, and definitions, ranging from a description of slavish personalities to an expression of endearment. To a South Carolina freedman, the term had class connotations and suggested dependency on the white man. “Dey be niggers still, and dey will be for great many year, and dey no lib togeder widout de white man to look arter ’em. You take ten colored folks an tree of ’em may stop being nigger, but de rest allers be nigger and dere chil’n be nigger.” Whatever blacks meant by the term, they almost all detested its use by whites, but the very fact of emancipation appears to have increased its popularity in white circles. Early in 1865, Mary Chesnut claimed to have heard the word used for the first time “by people comme il faut. Now it is in everybody’s mouth, but I have never become accustomed to it.” No doubt the term became more popular as whites searched for ways to address those who had been slaves. Ethelred Philips, a Florida physician and farmer, stubbornly refused to call them “freedmen” or even “colored people,” a term which they preferred to “negroes.” “I never will call them ‘colored people,’ ” Philips vowed. “It sounds too much like a Yankee, besides, they are but negroes and never can be anything else.”69

Responding to a sympathetic Quaker missionary from Massachusetts who had rebuked her for referring to the freedmen as “niggers,” an elderly black woman in Savannah defended her use of the term as appropriate to the condition of her people. No matter what they might be called, she suggested, and regardless of what emancipation might bring, deeply entrenched views would not be easily given up. “We are niggers,” she insisted. “We always was niggers, and we always shall be; nigger here, and nigger there, nigger do this, and nigger do that. We’ve got no souls, we are animals. We are black and so is the evil one.” The missionary interrupted her at this point to explain that nothing in the Bible indicated that the devil might be black. “Well, white folks say so,” the freedwoman replied, “and we’se bound to believe ’em, cause we’se nothing but animals and niggers. Yes, we’se niggers! niggers! niggers!” Whether this Quaker missionary understood what the black woman was trying to tell her is not clear. Fortunately for the well-meaning emissary from New England, she could turn to some of the more attractive features of Savannah, like the “excellent music in a fine colored church,” to take her mind off this unpleasant encounter with “an old cotton-picking ‘auntie.’ ”70


WHILE PROBING the limits of their freedom, black people quickly discovered that the line between impudence and the traditional subservience expected of them was perilously narrow, that matters of racial etiquette could seldom be compromised, and that whites were more sensitive than usual to any behavior which suggested social equality or manifested an unbecoming assertiveness, familiarity, or lack of respect. To have lost the war and suffered the humiliation of Yankee occupation had been penance enough. “It is hard to have to lay our loved ones in the grave, to have them fall by thousands on the battle-field, to be stripped of everything,” a Savannah white woman declared, “but the hardest of all is nigger equality, and I won’t submit to it.”71

That did not mean, as a farmer in North Carolina assured two northern visitors, whites in the South wished to return the blacks to slavery, only that they had no desire to mix with them socially. He expected any white man in the country could readily appreciate that principle without ascribing evil intent or inhumanity to those who merely wished to implement it in day-to-day life,

I haven’t any prejudices against ’em because they’re free, but you see I can’t consider that they’re on an equality with a white man. I may like him, but I can’t let him come to my table and sit down like either of you gentlemen. I feel better than he is. The niggers has a kind of a scent about him that’s enough for me. You Northern men needn’t think that we hate ’em; I rather like ’em myself, and I believe we treat ’em better than you would.

As if to underscore his decent instincts, the farmer reminded his guests that during slavery blacks had usually been tried by a jury of slaveholders. “That don’t look much as if we were inclined to be too hard on ’em, does it?” If blacks or Yankees tried to force equal rights upon the South, the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates warned, they would only poison the good feelings that now prevailed between the races. “There is no unkind feeling towards the negro in a position where he is not asserting an equality; but the best friend a negro ever had in the world, the kindest friend he ever had, a young boy or girl raised by a negro mammy, and devotedly attached to her, would become ferociously indignant if the old mammy were to claim equality for a moment.”72

To free the slaves did not make them equal. That was a maxim to which all classes of whites could subscribe, and any actions by freed blacks to the contrary broke the limits of toleration and invited not only condemnation but vigilant action. Recognizing the universality of that sentiment, many freedmen who were eager to test their freedom hesitated to provoke post-emancipation white sensitivities. Since the slightest deviation from “normal” behavior might be deemed impudent or presumptuous, they often found themselves forced to act with even greater caution than usual. But black tolerance, too, had its limits. Without necessarily flaunting their freedom, blacks demanded, at the very least, a respect that would be commensurate with their new status. In a hotel dining room in Knoxville, Tennessee, for example, a white guest requested service by calling out to the black waiter (who was about thirty years old), “Here, boy!” That familiar greeting had no doubt been uttered thousands of times in this setting, but the “boy’s” response had few if any precedents. “My name is Dick,” he announced. Whether irritated at being corrected or at the tone of the black man’s voice, the hotel guest quickly turned into an irate defender of his race. “You’ll answer to the name I call you,” he roared, “or I’ll blow a hole through you!” When the waiter ignored him and went about his business, the much-disgusted white man addressed the other dining-room patrons on the proper treatment of impudent freedmen:

“Last week, in Chattanooga, I said to a nigger I found at the railroad, ‘Here, Buck! show me the baggage-room.’ He said, ‘My name a’n’t Buck.’ I just put my six-shooter to his head, and by ——! he didn’t stop to think what his name was, but showed me what I wanted.”

Upon hearing his story, the other hotel guests “warmly applauded” his sentiments, except for one unenlightened white man who failed to perceive the impudence in the freedman’s response.73

Even if the ex-slave made no overt move to exercise his freedom, even if his demeanor remained virtually unchanged, that in itself might be greeted with suspicion, as though he were masking his real feelings behind the old “darky” façade. All too often, in fact, the freedman did not have to say anything in order to displease or raise suspicions in the whites; he only had to look a certain way or fail to exhibit the expected lowered head and shuffling feet. “They perceive insolence in a tone, a glance, a gesture, or failure to yield enough by two or three inches in meeting on the sidewalk,” a visitor to Wilmington, North Carolina, observed. Some of his fellow whites, a Virginian remarked, “can’t see a nigger go along the street now-a-days that they don’t damn him for putting on airs.” To defy the expectations of whites had always been a highly dangerous undertaking, even when no “offense” had been intended, but to do so in the wake of the recent military disaster and emancipation was to invite an even more volatile response.74

The behavior of white men and women underscored the tacit assumption most of them embraced with a kind of religious zeal—that neither the Civil War nor emancipation had in any way altered the time-honored etiquette of racial relations. “With us, the death of slavery is recognized,” affirmed a South Carolina Unionist and former slaveholder, “but we don’t believe that because the nigger is free he ought to be saucy; and we don’t mean to have any such nonsense as letting him vote. He’s helpless and ignorant, and dependent, and the old masters will still control him.” If anything, in fact—and innumerable whites testified to this effect—the need to maintain the traditional code regulating the relations between the races was now more urgent than ever before, perhaps even a matter of self-preservation. After all, a North Carolina farmer warned, seemingly unaware of the implications of what he was saying, “If we let a nigger git equal with us, the next thing we know he’ll be ahead of us. He’s so impudent and presumin’.”75

During slavery, custom and habit had largely defined the behavior expected of blacks, and the rules had been sufficiently understood to make special laws unnecessary. The slave addressed his owners in respectful terms; he never sat down or kept his hat on in the presence of whites; he never initiated a conversation with them unless first addressed; if he accompanied his master or mistress to town or to church, he walked several steps behind them; if he encountered any whites on the sidewalk, he made ample room for them to pass, stepping down into the street if necessary; and he never suggested by any words, looks, or mannerisms anything less than the respect, humility, and cheerful obedience expected of him at all times. From his own experience, Frederick Douglass had described the circumscribed world of the slave:

A mere look, word, or motion,—a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,—one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself …76

And it was out of this world that the slave stepped into freedom and tried to define its dimensions.

Whether emancipation warranted deviations from the traditional code of racial etiquette prompted sharp differences among whites and blacks and invited immediate misunderstandings and confrontations. The way most whites chose to view these matters, any breaches of expected behavior or decorum in their former slaves, no matter how trivial they seemed, threatened to disrupt the entire fabric of a society based on racial subordination. What was permissible behavior for a white person, in other words, was not necessarily permissible behavior for a black man or woman. When freedmen declined to remove or touch their hats upon meeting a white person, or if they failed to stand while they spoke with whites, they were “growing too saucy for human endurance.” When freedmen took to promenading about the streets or public places, refusing to give up the sidewalks to every white who approached, that was “impudence” of the rankest sort. (“It is the first time in my life that I have ever had to give up the sidewalk to a man, much less to negroes!” Eliza Andrews wrote. “I was so indignant that I did not carry a devotional spirit to church.”) When black women attired themselves in fancy garments, carried parasols, and insisted upon being addressed as “ladies” (or “my lady” rather than “my ole woman”), that was “putting on airs”; and when black men dressed themselves conspicuously, that was sufficient provocation to cut the clothes from their backs. When white “gentlemen” engaged in hunting encountered freedmen “enjoying themselves in the same way” (with shotguns and a pack of dogs), that was called still another instance of “insubordination and insolence.” When freedmen staged parades, dances, and barbecues, like those scheduled to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation, whites invariably characterized them as “orgies” or “outrageous spectacles.” When freedmen roamed about at night, disregarding the old curfew and refusing orders to return to their quarters, that was “a terrible state of insubordination” bordering on insurrection. And when freedmen attended meetings in which they openly talked about “perfect equality with the whites,” acquiring land, and even voting, that was an incitement to race war. “Such incendiary and revolutionary language,” a white Louisianan wrote of one such meeting in New Orleans, “was enough to freeze the blood. I fear they will have trouble there soon.”77

What the white South characterized as “insolence,” “sauciness,” and “putting on airs” were more often than not simply the ways many ex-slaves chose to demonstrate their freedom. To refuse to touch their hats to whites, to ignore their former masters or mistresses in the streets, to remain seated while speaking with whites, or to neglect to yield the sidewalks to them were not so much discourtesies or intended provocations as positive assertions of their new status as free men and women. But each of these actions violated the white man’s double standard. That is, although few whites would have thought of extending any of these social courtesies to black men or women, they insisted that the freedmen comply, as before, with the traditional and one-sided code of etiquette. The failure of blacks to do so, or still worse their open refusal, constituted further evidence of how emancipation had “ruined” them and filled their heads with mistaken notions about their place in society. “Their freedom’s made ’em so sassy there’s no livin’ with ’em,” an exasperated North Carolinian declared. Even the usually mild-mannered, gentlemanly Henry W. Ravenel, who had often expressed his pleasure at the “good” conduct of the ex-slaves, could scarcely believe what he saw during a visit to Charleston several months after the end of the war.

It is impossible to describe the condition of the city—It is so unlike anything we could imagine—Negroes shoving white persons off the walk—Negro women drest in the most outré style, all with veils and parasols for which they have an especial fancy—riding on horseback with negro soldiers and in carriages. The negro regiments have just been paid off which gives them money to indulge their elegant tastes …

As if this were not bad enough, his own personal servant became “excessively insolent” after being exposed to city life. “So much for the fidelity of indulged servants,” Ravenel sighed. “I bought him at his own request and he had always fared as I had. I am utterly disgusted with the race, and trust that I may some day be in a land that is purged of them.”78

Rather than confess their sense of betrayal, many whites preferred another explanation, one that had served them well during the war. The “insolent” freedmen were exhibiting the natural effects of contamination from Yankee soldiers (white and black) and northern missionaries and teachers. After being shoved off the sidewalk by blacks, Eliza Andrews recalled “a time when such conduct would have been rewarded with a thrashing—or rather, when such conduct was unheard of, for the negroes generally had good manners till the Yankees corrupted them.” Although southern whites had frequently blamed “outside influences” for their troubles, the evidence now seemed more compelling than ever before, particularly with all the wild talk about granting privileges and rights to the newly freed slaves. As a New Orleans newspaper quickly noted, only “wicked demagogues” could induce otherwise innocent and well-behaved blacks to entertain ideas about “rights.”

Negroes care nothing for “rights.” They know intuitively that their place is in the field; their proper instruments of self-preservation, the shovel and the hoe; their Ultima Thule of happiness, plenty to eat, a fiddle, and a breakdown.

Sambo feels in his heart that he has no right to sit at white man’s table; no right to testify against his betters. Unseduced by wicked demagogues, he would never dream of these impossible things.

Let us trust that our Legislature will make short work of Ethiopia. Every real white man is sick of the negro, and the “rights” of the negro. Teach the negro that if he goes to work, keeps his place, and behaves himself, he will be protected by our white laws; if not, this Southern road will be “a hard one to travel,” for the whites must and shall rule to the end of time, even if the fate of Ethiopia be annihilation.79

With some justification, white Southerners accused the North of hypocrisy in seeking to impose upon them a racial equality which most Northerners would have abhorred. Everyone knew, a South Carolina magistrate averred, that in northern schools, street railways, steamers, and hotels, racial distinctions were maintained “which we have been accustomed to observe at the South.… This is all we ask—no more, no less, than our northern brethren claim for themselves.” Whatever use whites made of this charge, some came to question its veracity, particularly after watching certain Yankee officers, missionaries, and teachers overindulge the freedmen, mix with them socially, and encourage their “impudence.” The Reverend Samuel A. Agnew of Mississippi found incredible the reports that Federal authorities had fined a “gentleman” for merely “slapping a negroe off the pavement” and that Yankees had “cruelly beaten” a white clergyman “because his wife whipped a little negroe.” Apparently, Agnew concluded, “the negroe is a sacred animal. The Yankees are about negroes like the Egyptians were about cats. Negrophilism is the passion with them. When they come to their senses they will find that the negroe must be governed in the same way.” But the chances of Yankees coming to their senses seemed rather dim to Ethelred Philips, the Florida farmer and physician, after observing in his wife’s “Lady’s book” that “the most fashionable head dress” in the North had become “the African,” because the “very short curls” were meant to imitate the “beauty of the negro’s kinks of wool!” The next “rage,” he assumed, would be “to marry no other color.”80

If the North seriously intended to recast the South in its own image, that could conjure up all kinds of “mongrel” images in the minds of whites already made uneasy by the actions of the freedmen. Even as some southern newspapers and orators chided the North for oppressing its own blacks, white visitors to that region wrote home alarming reports of the veritable Negro haven they had uncovered in Yankeedom.

Here you can see the negroe all [on an] equal footing with white man. White man walking the streets with negro wenches. White man and negroe riding together. White man and negroe sit in the same seat in church or in a word the negroe enjoys the same privileges as the white man. They address each other as Mr and Miss.… I long for the day to come when I will leave this abominable place.81

With nearly 4,000,000 newly freed blacks in the South, as contrasted with less than 400,000 blacks in the North, this surely was for southern whites a most frightening vision of the future.


THE SPECTER of Africanization lurked behind every assertive move made by blacks in the aftermath of emancipation. When they chose to test their freedom by entering public places from which they had previously been barred or by sitting indiscriminately in public conveyances where their presence had previously been restricted, the worst fears of the white South were realized and the utmost vigilance demanded. Under slavery, the body servants or maids who accompanied their masters or mistresses into these places or conveyances had seldom aroused any comment or controversy. But once blacks ceased to be slaves, traveling in the company of their owners, their presence suddenly became an intrusion and a source of contamination, symbolizing an equality most whites found threatening. With emancipation, then, exclusion and segregation became even more firmly embedded in the lives of black people, barring some of them from privileges they might have exercised as slaves. That is, the context in which blacks traveled and used public facilities became all-important, with the intermixing of races permitted only in those situations where the superiority of whites was clearly understood. The Mississippi law of 1865 that barred blacks from railroad cars “set apart, or used by, and for white persons” thus exempted “Negroes or mulattoes, travelling with their mistresses, in the capacity of nurses,” and a Savannah ordinance prohibiting blacks from entering the public park exempted those who accompanied a white child.82

With large numbers of freedmen on the move after emancipation, the controversy over their use of public conveyances and their behavior on the principal urban promenades came almost immediately to a head.

I have seen in a Southern street-car all blacks sitting and all whites standing; have seen a big black woman enter a car and flounce herself down almost into the lap of a white man; have seen white ladies pushed off sidewalks by black men. The new manners of the blacks were painful, revolting, absurd. The freedman’s misbehaviour was to be condoned only by pity that accepted his inferiority as excuse. Southerners had taken great pains and pride in teaching their negroes good manners.… It was with keen regret that their old preceptors saw them throw all their fine schooling in etiquette to the winds.83

The indignity of it all was more than most whites could bear and they quickly moved to lay down a color line that would maintain the old racial distinctions and impress upon the newly freed slaves their place as a separate and inferior people. In most instances, the “color line” simply perpetuated distinctions that had been made during slavery. On the city streetcars, blacks were forced to ride on the open platforms or in separate and specially marked cars. (In New Orleans, for example, blacks rode only on cars marked with a black star.) On the railroads, blacks were excluded from first-class accommodations (the “ladies’ car”) and relegated to the smoking compartments or to freight boxcars in which seats or benches had been placed. On the steamboats plying the waterways and coasts, blacks were expected to sleep on the open deck and to eat with the servants, although they paid the same fares as white passengers.84 Seldom written into law (only Florida, Mississippi, and Texas thought it necessary to enact “Jim Crow” laws in 1865 and 1866), the practices and customs governing racial contact in public places and accommodations acquired the force of statutes, backed as they were by a nearly unanimous white public opinion and local police power. If any black passengers protested these inferior accommodations, they faced the likelihood of expulsion, violence, or verbal harassment. “You’re free, aint you?” a railroad conductor mocked one such passenger. “Good as white folks, aint ye! Then pay the same fare, and keep your mouth shut.” With equal clarity, a Richmond newspaper advised black passengers not to trouble themselves “about first class seats until they are fully recognized as a first class people.”85

The restrictions imposed on the freedmen never approximated the thoroughness with which southern legislatures and communities segregated the races in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The racial distinctions that characterized the immediate post-emancipation years were almost always understood rather than stated. But to the blacks themselves, the differences might have seemed minimal and the risks incurred in flaunting deeply rooted social customs were no less pronounced than those which would later inhibit a successful challenge to Jim Crow laws. What whites aspired to in both instances was a separation of the races, and the post-emancipation restrictions were by no means limited to public transportation. If admitted at all to public places, such as theaters and churches, blacks sat in separate and inferior sections, usually the rear seats or the balcony. Few if any public inns or restaurants accommodated them, except for those which catered exclusively to blacks. (The Union Hotel in Augusta, Georgia, for example, advertised itself as a first-class hotel “for the special accommodation of the Citizen and Travelling Public of Color.”)86 Not knowing what to expect, some hotels and public inns had considered reclassifying themselves as private houses in order to exclude black patrons. Knowing what to expect, most blacks avoided such places rather than be insulted and ejected. The ludicrous extent to which legislatures segregated the races later in the century was clearly anticipated in the instructions given black people in Natchez in 1866 that henceforth the promenades along the river and the bluff to the right of Main Street would be reserved “for the use of the whites, for ladies and children and nurses—the central Bluff between Main Street and State for bachelors and the colored population, and the lower promenade for the whites.” Not far behind, Georgia decreed that black and white patients in the “Lunatic Asylum” be kept separate—a decision justified as “in the wisest sanitary policy”—and in Richmond, Virginia, blacks and whites applied for “destitute rations” at separate places.87

The determination of whites to maintain a color line in public places and conveyances conflicted with the desire of many ex-slaves to utilize facilities from which they had been barred and to achieve a public equality that seemed justified by their new status. To press their demands for equal access, blacks questioned the logic that underlay segregationist and exclusionist practices. Why, for example, did black men and women traveling by themselves in public conveyances pose a danger, whereas black maids, nurses, and servants accompanying a white mistress or white children did not? “If the idea is so dreadful,” a black newspaper in Georgia asked, “why should poor little children be forced to draw sustenance from black breasts, be kissed by black lips, and hugged by black arms?” Apparently, another black editor suggested, colored people in the act of nursing white children were noncontagious. Some decades would elapse before the wet nurse herself became suspect. “We gave our infants to the black wenches to suckle,” an elderly South Carolinian reflected in 1885, “and thus poisoned the blood of our children, and made them cowards … it will take 500 years, if not longer, by the infusion of new blood to eradicate the hereditary vices imbibed with the blood (milk is blood) of black wet nurses.”88

By choosing to make an issue of racial separation in public places, black men and women in the aftermath of Union occupation provoked a prolonged and often heated controversy that sometimes spilled out into the streets of southern communities. By 1867, on the eve of Radical Reconstruction, blacks in such cities as Mobile, New Orleans, Savannah, Richmond, Charleston, Nashville, and Baltimore had already challenged the ordinances, company rules, and customs barring them from or segregating them in the horse-drawn streetcars. “For as long as distinctions will be kept on in public manners,” the black newspaper in New Orleans announced, “these discriminations will react on the decisions of juries and courts, and make impartial justice a lie.”89

If unable to obtain court injunctions against the operation of exclusive city railway lines, blacks boarded the streetcars, ignored the conductor’s order to leave, waited to be forcibly removed, and then sued the company for assault and battery. Hoping to avoid such confrontations, the newly launched City Railway Company in Charleston initially proposed to establish separate and equal cars or to partition the same cars between blacks and whites. But blacks rejected these proposals as demeaning and in violation of their newly acquired civil rights and demanded nothing less than fully integrated facilities. In April 1867, the attempt of police to eject two blacks who had refused to leave a streetcar precipitated a riot in which crowds of blacks tried to force their way into the police station to release their brethren who had been arrested. The police finally restored order, the blacks decided to press their case in the courts, and the City Railway Company announced a month after the “riot” that it had decided to eliminate all racial distinctions on its cars.90

Despite the force of custom and white opinion, blacks managed to win a sufficient number of court decisions and favorable rulings from local Union Army commanders to compel the transportation companies to reconsider their racial policies. Seeking to retain a semblance of distinction between blacks and whites, the streetcar company in Richmond provided two classes of cars, one of which would be confined to white women and white men accompanying them while the other would be open to all persons. In a variation of that system, Richmond also established alternate cars for white and black passengers, with the cars for the latter distinguishable by a black ball perched on the roof.91 That resembled the “black star” cars in New Orleans, which had come under steady attack from blacks since the early days of Union occupation. The New Orleans Tribune, the voice of the influential colored community, not only denounced the “black star” cars in its editorials but permitted its columns to be used to advocate direct action: “Let every colored citizen of New Orleans, on and after the fifteenth of August [1865], enter into any car of the C.R.R.C., and if ordered out—take a seat, and if afterwards ejected, sue the company.” Nearly two years later, after considerable litigation and numerous confrontations, the superintendent of a local railway company informed the mayor that blacks had threatened to force their way onto the cars reserved for whites “and that should the driver resist or refuse their passage, they would compel him to leave the car and take forcible possession themselves.” Fearing a riot, he requested the mayor to take all measures necessary to preserve the peace. Several days later, the chief of police issued an order forbidding any interference with blacks riding on the streetcars. After hailing this triumph of equal justice, the black newspaper turned its editorial fire on racial distinctions in the public schools.92

To the blacks, freedmen and freeborn alike, the challenges to segregated seating in public conveyances were inseparable from the issues over which they claimed the war had been fought. But to many whites, this flagrant disregard for racial etiquette gave rise to even more fearful apprehensions about the results of emancipation and the extent to which they would be able to exert power over the former slaves. Few whites needed to be reminded of what was ultimately at stake. Behind every discussion and skirmish involving racial separation lurked the specter of unrestrained black lust and sexuality, with that most feared of consequences—racial amalgamation or, as it was now popularly called, miscegenation. Now that enslavement no longer marked a distinction between blacks and whites, the implications of physical contact were sufficiently obvious to whites. Equal access to public vehicles, theaters, restaurants, hotels, schools, parks, and churches would eventually open the door to the home, the parlor, and the bedroom. The absence of distinctions in public life thus prepared the way for no distinctions at all. “If we have social equality,” one native white warned, “we shall have intermarriage, and if we have intermarriage we shall degenerate; we shall become a race of mulattoes; we shall be another Mexico; we shall be ruled out from the family of white nations. Sir, it is a matter of life and death with the Southern people to keep their blood pure.”93

Much of the furor over racial separation in public vehicles grew out of fears that white women and black men might otherwise find themselves seated next to each other. In the absence of restrictions, blacks would gain access to the “ladies’ car” (hitherto reserved for nonsmoking men and for women) on the railroads and to the sleeping compartments on the steamboats. The issue in both cases was eminently clear. On a Mississippi River steam packet running between Memphis and Vicksburg, the white passengers applauded the action of the captain in refusing to grant a stateroom to a black couple. Expressing his relief at the decision, one of the passengers posed the central question to a skeptical northern visitor, “How would you feel to know that your wife was sleeping in the next room to a nigger and his wife?” After reflecting over that question, the visitor realized soon enough that his fellow passengers expected no response. “The argument was unanswerable: it was an awful thought!” As for the unwelcome couple, they were cast ashore to wait for still another boat but their chances seemed dim. “They won’t find a boat that’ll take ’em,” the captain declared. “Anyhow, they can’t force their damned nigger equality on to me!”94

In playing upon postwar fears of miscegenation, whites seemed almost oblivious to the hypocrisy of their sudden concern for the survival of the Anglo-Saxon race. Among others, Mary Chesnut knew better than to press this argument too far. “Like the patriarchs of old,” she had confided to her diary in March 1861, “our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds.”95 Actually, whites made no attempt to deny the presence of a substantial mulatto population; those transgressions, however, had violated black women, not the prevailing racial code, and they had taken place in a rigidly controlled setting, with white men exercising a power which the prevailing relationships in their society permitted them. But in this same context, with men setting the sexual code and regulating their own behavior, black male sexuality assumed even more menacing proportions, precisely because it was deemed to be uncontrollable.

With so much evidence to the contrary around them, blacks found it hard to take seriously the white man’s sudden preoccupation with racial purity. But if whites were serious in their protestations, they were advised to direct that concern to the principal source of the problem—themselves. “The white man says he don’t want to be placed on equality with the negro,” Abraham H. Galloway, a mulatto, told a convention of freedmen in North Carolina in 1865. “Why, Sir, if you could only see him slipping around at night, trying to get into negro women’s houses, you would be astonished.” The other delegates indicated their agreement, one of them shouting out, “That’s the truth, Galloway.” The New Orleans Tribune thought it highly ironic that some of the most “devoted apostles of miscegenation” now proclaimed themselves as the principal defenders of the white race.

When you speak of separation, it is your illegitimate children and their unfortunate mothers that you propose to banish from among you. The talk is idle and senseless. The attraction between both races has proved too strong for their ever being severed.… You are ashamed of it! Why? Because the great mass of the blacks—or more exactly of the browns—had no liberty, no education and no social status. But now they will enjoy, as any white man or woman, these advantages, and become your equals. Let us tell you the truth, gentlemen: you will never let them go.

Looking to the future, a Virginia freedman testified that he apprehended no greater danger of racial amalgamation now than during slavery. “It was nothing but the stringent laws of the south that kept many a white man from marrying a black woman.” He thought the strongest inclination to interracial sexual relations still rested with whites, though he would not deny the possibility that some blacks might wish to indulge themselves in what whites had already made fashionable. “I will state to you as a white lady stated to a gentleman down in Hampton, that if she felt disposed to fall in love with or marry a black man, it was nobody’s business but hers; and so I suppose that if the colored race get all their rights, and particularly their equal rights before the law, it would not hurt the nation or trouble the nation.”96

Despite white apprehensions, few blacks rushed into sexual liaisons or marital relationships with white partners. If anything, the abolition of slavery tended to diminish such contacts by freeing black women from the whims and lusts of their masters; moreover, as a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in South Carolina reported, “young gentlemen did not want mulatto children sworn to them at a cost of three hundred dollars apiece.” When it came to domestic relationships at least, blacks welcomed the implementation of racial separation. To the charge that they coveted the daughters and sisters of white men, Henry M. Turner replied that black men wished only to live with and love their own women without having to fear white intervention. “What do we want with their daughters and sisters? We have as much beauty as they. Look at our ladies, do you want more beauty than they? The difficulty heretofore has been, our ladies were not always at our own disposal. All we ask of the white men is to let our ladies alone, and they need not fear us.”97

No matter how carefully or eloquently blacks tried to clarify the differences between “social equality” and “public equality,” insisting that they had already suffered “social equality with a vengeance,” whites would continue to raise the bugaboo of miscegenation and to press for legislation to outlaw it. It was as though they could not trust themselves to heed their own warnings. “By his loud out-cry against the dreadful thing,” the black newspaper in Augusta, Georgia, said of the white man, “he seems to be afraid that some of his daughters may do what a good many of his sons and himself has done time and again, and therefore he wants laws made to prevent them doing so.”98 Actually, the white man’s rhetorical concern for racial purity served him well by helping to mask his own complicity in its compromise. At the same time, the obsession with miscegenation and racial supremacy proved to be effective banners around which whites could be mobilized to resist any encroachments on the traditional practices and social usages governing race relations. During the next decade, whites would be repeatedly rallied to those banners to combat the more threatening manifestations of black freedom, but in the immediate aftermath of the war they singled out for special attention the black soldier, whose continued presence most graphically symbolized their defeat and humiliation and whose behavior set the most dangerous example for their former slaves.


WHEN ASKED TO EXPLAIN the origins of the rapist, Myrta Lockett Avary immediately thought of the black soldier. “The rapist is a product of the reconstruction period. His chrysalis was a uniform; as a soldier he could force his way into private homes, bullying and insulting white women; he was often commissioned to tasks involving these things. He came into life in the abnormal atmosphere of a time rife with discussions of social equality theories, contentions for coeducation and intermarriage.” Asked to comment on the rampant violence that prevailed in the postwar South, Governor Benjamin Humphreys of Mississippi thought the presence of black troops sufficient explanation. “Everyone is afraid of the negro soldiers—they crowd everybody off the sidewalks, and shoot and kill us, and protect the freedmen in their indolence and acts of crime.” Despairing over the breakdown of the plantation labor system, Edmund Rhett of South Carolina placed the blame directly on the influence of the black troops. “If your desire is to restore quiet, and orderly labor to the land,” he advised the Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner in Charleston, “nothing in my judgment is more pernicious in its effect than the example, and presence of colored troops, amongst a class of colored agricultural laborers.”99

If Avary, Humphreys, and Rhett were oblivious to the tradition of the white rapist and vigilante in the South and the deeper roots of violence, sexual exploitation, and labor troubles, they nevertheless voiced the prevailing outrage and despair over the continued presence of more than 80,000 black occupation troops. Nothing seemed more contrived to humiliate white manhood, insult white womanhood, and demoralize the ex-slave than the “vindictive and revengeful” act of Federal authorities in stationing black troops in their midst. Nothing could evoke more terror in a southern community than the rumor that black troops might be sent there. “Think of a lot of negroes being brought here to play master over us!” young Eliza Andrews exclaimed, and few whites needed to be reminded of the terrible implications of what she had said. Nor were they oblivious to the fact that many of the soldiers were northern blacks who had been raised outside the plantation tradition and discipline. “Few of them perhaps have had opportunities of spiritual instruction,” Henry Ravenel observed, “or of forming attachments to their masters, or of being benefitted by that domestic relation which the presence of the master on the plantation always creates.”100

Regardless of how they conducted themselves, black soldiers by their very presence violated tradition and provoked a vehement response in a people who had always viewed armed blacks as insurrectionists. After all, a New Orleans newspaper explained, white men and women in the South had customarily encountered blacks “only as respectful servants,” and now they were understandably “mortified, pained, and shocked” to find some of those same blacks in the towns and villages and on the public roads “wearing Federal uniforms, and bearing bright muskets and gleaming bayonets. They often recognized among them those who had once been their own servants.” Few Confederate Army veterans were able to maintain their composure when they returned to their homes to find armed, uniformed black men patrolling the streets, jostling their women from the sidewalks, and claiming authority over their families. “Boy, le’ me see your gun,” a recently paroled Confederate soldier declared with disdain as he moved to examine the rifle of a black soldier. Not knowing what the white man’s intentions might be, the soldier stepped back and readied his gun for possible use. Hastily departing, the ex-Confederate murmured, “How the war has demoralized the cussed brutes!”101

The catalogue of “atrocities” and “daily outrages” for which black soldiers were held responsible seemed limitless, with nearly every white man and woman prepared to relate some still more horrible tale. While sometimes exaggerated or invented, the stories usually contained an element of truth; their authenticity, however, was less important than how whites chose to define an “outrage.” The black soldier mixed indiscriminately with whites, occasionally at “miscegenation” dinners and dances; he did not always wait to be addressed before he deigned to speak to whites; he might reprimand and harass whites in the city streets, perhaps even arrest them for a trivial offense; and in several communities, he conspired to release black prisoners from the jails, charging that they could not obtain impartial justice, and he clashed openly with the authority of local police.102 No white man who witnessed the incident was likely to forget that day in Wilmington, North Carolina, when a black sergeant arrested the chief of police for carrying a weapon illegally and then escorted him as a prisoner through a throng of cheering freedmen. Nor were black soldiers immune to meting out extralegal justice if they thought local courts and officials would fail to punish whites for offenses against black persons. In Victoria, Texas, they entered the jail, dragged out a white man accused of murdering a freedman, and lynched him. With equal dispatch, black soldiers in South Carolina disposed of an ex-Confederate soldier who had fatally stabbed a black sergeant after he had refused to leave a railway car in which several white women sat; the soldiers tried him by “drumhead courtmartial” and then shot and buried him.103

That black soldiers exercised a subversive influence on the recently freed slaves seemed obvious to most whites. During the war, slave owners had often blamed the massive desertions from the plantations on outside influences, preferring to think that black soldiers “intimidated” faithful slaves who had otherwise wished to remain in their service. And now, in this critical period of transition, the conduct of the black troops allegedly encouraged impressionable freedmen to defy white authority. By insulting whites in the presence of the ex-slaves, the soldiers created erroneous illusions of power and even superiority. By making black laborers dissatisfied with their working conditions and telling them they would soon obtain the lands of their masters, the soldiers encouraged false expectations and the withdrawal of steady labor. By boarding the trains and streetcars and sitting indiscriminately in public places, they encouraged the violation of time-honored southern customs. By their behavior, Henry Ravenel believed, these “diabolical savages” had turned “a quiet, contented, & happy people” into “dissatisfied, unruly, madmen intoxicated with the fumes of licentiousness, & ready for any acts of outrage.” Eliza Andrews readily agreed, after observing events in the Georgia community where her family resided. What appalled her was not simply that black soldiers cursed and threatened whites on the public streets but that they did so “while hundreds of idle negroes stood around, laughing and applauding it.” Nor did the Reverend John H. Cornish of Mississippi think it altogether coincidental that the day after black troops created a disturbance by violating seating arrangements in the local Baptist church, one of his own servants suddenly turned on him.104

Not all whites shared an excessive concern for the demoralizing impact of black troops. On the contrary, some even hoped that such troops, if properly disciplined, might restrain the ex-slaves by their example and instruct them in the ways of responsible behavior. Even without black troops, a South Carolina planter thought, the freedmen were bound to test their newly won rights, and his fellow whites deceived themselves to think otherwise.

There is considerable difference of opinion here as to the good or evil influences of black troops upon the negroes. I see only this, that the presence of the troops brings out openly what I believe was hidden in them before. The spirit of liberty was in them and if not brought out in this way probably would have burst out in a general insurrection …

That was putting the best possible face on black occupation, but most whites, if judged by their often hysterical letters and appeals to be relieved of black troops, were unable to share the South Carolinian’s insight and equanimity. The problem, as many whites viewed it, lay precisely in the ability of the black troops to command the loyalty of the freedmen for whatever purposes they deemed appropriate. In urging the removal of those troops, the planters on Edisto and Wadmalaw islands, off the coast of South Carolina, complained of how their presence and influence undermined “the little control we had over the labor.” Endorsing their petition, a Freedmen’s Bureau officer agreed that white troops would more effectually secure “good order” and prove less troublesome to the planter class.105

That some black soldiers, particularly the ex-slaves, derived considerable satisfaction from the power they exerted over the white population was doubtless true. Conscious of the explosive potential in such a situation, and not averse to placating native whites, Union Army commanders placed restrictions on the black troops, forbade them in some areas from fraternizing with the local blacks, and severely punished any offenses they committed against the white populace. The tensions between black and white soldiers frequently erupted into violent clashes, and native whites readily exploited those antagonisms to their own advantage. “Never have I witnessed such lack of confidence as is beginning to dawn here with us,” a black soldier wrote from Louisiana in August 1865, “and if there ever was a time that we felt like exterminating our old oppressors from the face of the earth, it is at this present time. The overthrow of the rebellion is consigning us to perpetual misery and distraction.” Despite their proven service to the Union, another soldier protested, they were “still compelled to feel that they are black, and the smooth oily tongue of the white planter is enough to condemn any number of them …”106

Not only did black soldiers complain about the insults to which white citizens daily subjected them but their own officers rendered them virtually defenseless in responding to such provocations. It simply made no sense. Traitors to the country, whom they had been asked to exterminate only a few months before, suddenly became their principal accusers and, even more disturbingly, commanded greater respect and credibility in the eyes of the white Yankees than the black men who had fought to save the Union. “A report from any white citizen against one of our men, whether it be credible or not, is sufficient to punish the accused,” a black soldier charged, and the punishments inflicted upon them were as severe as anything they had experienced or witnessed during slavery. “Men have been bucked and gagged in their company streets, exposed to the scorching rays of the sun and the derision of the majority of the officers, who seem to take delight in witnessing their misery.” By the eve of Radical Reconstruction, a white newspaper in Wilmington, North Carolina, was able to exult, “The true soldiers, whether they wore the gray or the blue, are now united in their opposition … to negro government and negro equality. Blood is thicker than water.”107

The pride black soldiers once derived from military service quickly dissipated. Since the end of the war, William P. Green wrote, “our task has become more laborious, our treatment more severe,” and he saw little reason to expect any improvement. Neither did Christian A. Fleetwood, a sergeant major and one of the recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor for valiant conduct in battle. “No matter how well and faithfully they may perform their duties,” he wrote of his fellow soldiers, “they will shortly be considered as ‘lazy nigger sojers’—as drones in the great hive.” Rather than “remain in a state of marked and acknowledged subserviency,” he decided that he might better serve his race outside the Army. Like Fleetwood, many blacks asked to be discharged rather than serve as second-class soldiers under the command of white men who no longer made any attempt to mask their racial antipathies.108

If disillusionment drove many blacks out of the Army, the mounting aggression and hostility of white citizens made life intolerable for those who remained. Even before the war had ended, the white South placed no higher premium on any demand than the removal of the black troops from their midst. “Why are these savages still kept here to outrage & insult our people?” Henry Ravenel asked. The matter assumed greater urgency with every new report of an “outrage” and every new rumor of an impending black insurrection. “They were taught during the war that it was their duty to kill the whites & they cant learn now that the war is over,” Ravenel confided to his journal. “Their shooting propensities still continue strong, showing a tendency toward reversion to the savage state.” Finding that reports of “outrages” secured results, whites besieged Federal authorities with their protests and petitions, often with the backing of local Union Army commanders and Freedmen’s Bureau agents. And with President Johnson adopting an avowedly conciliatory policy, the demobilization of black troops proceeded rapidly. By 1866, most of them had been mustered out of service or transferred to posts outside the South. The nightmare had ended, Governor Humphreys of Mississippi seemed to suggest in his report to the legislature; the removal of black troops had freed the white race from “insults, irritations and spoliation,” while the ex-slaves were now free to pursue “habits of honest industry” and to enjoy the “friendship and confidence” of their former masters.109

Now that they were being discharged, the black soldiers lined up to receive the appropriate papers and their final pay. Around many of the camps, guards had been posted with orders to exclude peddlers, who were said to be lying in wait. “Beware of these unprincipled knaves!” a black newspaper warned of the “modern Shylocks” who sought to swindle the soldiers out of their discharge pay. But the black veteran had far more to fear than peddlers as he left his camp and entered civilian life. If he remained in the South, he entered a society in which the dominant population only grudgingly recognized his freedom, refused to admit him as an equal, and remembered all too vividly his service in the Union Army. To many whites, at least, he was a traitor and more than likely a potential troublemaker. As a soldier, he had been feared; as a civilian, he seemed no less dangerous. A prominent South Carolinian had predicted a race war if the troops were not removed; now that they had been mustered out, another South Carolinian feared the discharged black soldier would contribute his services to the agitation for land.110

Although the black soldier had fought to preserve the Union, he found himself with less voice in the government, in the courts of law, and in the work place than those he had only recently vanquished. “The great question with us is: Shall traitors to our country hold the balance of power again?” a black minister in North Carolina asked. “I give you the unequivocating answer, No! They shall die so dead, so dead, so dead.” Not nearly as confident, a black veteran in Beaufort, South Carolina, addressed an appeal to President Johnson, reiterating his devotion to the Union and requesting some clarification of black freedom. “We Want to Know Some thing A Bought our Rites.” But as the President’s policy for the South unfolded, J. H. Payne, a black sergeant stationed in North Carolina, found himself placing what faith he had left in God rather than in Andrew Johnson.

I remember reading an old history one time, where there was a certain king who had signed an unalterable decree for the destruction of a certain race of people; and yet, through the instrumentality and prayers of a certain woman, the great curse was removed. So let there be days of fasting and prayer proclaimed … among the colored race, and let them call upon the name of Elijah’s God, until the fulness of their rights is maintained.… O! that God would awaken in us a spirit of independence to ask of the white man no favors but ask all from God …

Whether blacks appealed to Johnson or to God, the results were less than reassuring. Not only did the veteran find himself restricted in his access to public facilities, the ballot, and the jury box but his military service made him an obvious target for the frustrations of whites. “When they commenced mustering out the colored troops,” one veteran recalled, “they told us to go back as close to the old masters as we could get. I didn’t like that much. Then the next hard times that come up was the mobbing and lynching of Negroes.”111

To former slaves who had served in the Union Army, the question of what they should do with themselves after leaving military service defied any easy resolution. “I didn’t want to be under the white folks again,” a former Tennessee slave and soldier remembered as his most vivid thought at that time. Three soldiers on active duty in South Carolina typified the dilemma of others as they prepared in 1866 to return to civilian life. None of them relished the idea of returning to the old plantations where they had worked as slaves, particularly if any of them had fled to join the Army. Having seen too many hired men “turned off without being paid,” Melton R. Lenton wanted to avoid contract labor. “They try to pull us down faster than we can climb up.” He thought his military service entitled him to a plot of land, as did his previous labor for white men. “They have no reason to say that we will not work, for we raised them, and sent them to school, and bought their land, and now it is as little as they can do to give us some of their land—be it little or much.” H. D. Dudley, who had risen to the rank of sergeant, recalled that, in the battles he had fought, racial distinctions had no place. “That was so in battle, but it is not so now. If any man believes that there is no distinction in regard to color now, let him approach the cars, or enter a hotel or a steamboat, and he will be set right upon that matter.” Like Sergeant Dudley, W. W. Sanders wondered if he had reaped any rewards for his years of service. He doubted it. “It seems that all our fighting has done us but little good. Our politicians and leading men seem to be doing but little for us. Our trust is in God and our own good conduct. Let us convince the world that we are worthy to enjoy the rights we ask for.” Whether he would be in any position to prove anything remained a troublesome question.112

If many whites thought the former soldier a potentially dangerous citizen, they were in less agreement about his desirability as a laborer. Despite the proscriptions visited upon allegedly exploitative peddlers at the army camps, no such restrictions were placed on planters and speculators, many of whom inundated the military installations around discharge time with contracts in hand, eager for the services of the blacks. “The negro was king,” a northern traveler wrote after witnessing the ways in which Mississippi and Louisiana planters had descended upon a black regiment being mustered out near Natchez.

Men fawned upon him; took him to the sutler’s shop and treated him; carried pockets full of tobacco to bestow upon him; carefully explained to him the varied delights of their respective plantations. Women came too—with coach and coachmen—drove into the camp, went out among the negroes, and with sweet smiles and honeyed words sought to persuade them that such and such plantations would be the very home they were looking for.

Ironically, some planters thought them more desirable laborers because they had been soldiers and might be able to exert restraint and discipline on the other workers. For that reason, the higher the rank, the better offer a black veteran might expect. “I told a nigger officer that I’d give him thirty dollars a month just to stay on my plantation and wear his uniform,” remarked a substantial planter from Jackson, Mississippi. “The fellow did it, and I’m havin’ no trouble with my niggers. They’re afraid of the shoulder-straps.”113

If black soldiers had known what awaited them in civilian life, they might have kept more than their uniforms upon being mustered out of the Army. The rewards of plantation labor would prove disappointing; whites retained economic power and returned political and police power to those who had wielded it before the war; and as black dissatisfaction mounted, so did the white man’s recourse to physical violence, legal repression, and vigilante justice. For many freedmen, self-preservation took precedence over self-employment. “As one of the disfranchised race,” a Louisiana black advised, “I would say to every colored soldier, ‘Bring your gun home.’ ”114


SEVERAL MONTHS after the end of the war, two white men overtook an elderly black woman who had insisted on leaving her former master’s plantation near Washington, Georgia. While one of the men shot her, the other broke her ribs and beat her on the head with a stone until she died; they left her body unburied in a secluded spot. Ten days later, the body was discovered and military authorities arrested the two assailants. Whether the brutal murder or the subsequent arrests excited more public indignation and concern is not entirely clear. “She certainly was an old fool,” Eliza Andrews said of the victim, “but I have never yet heard that folly was a capital offense.” Judge Garnett Andrews, Eliza’s father and a former state legislator who had opposed secession, agreed to defend the two men charged with the crime, not because he approved of their deed but because he felt they deserved a fair trial. He said very little about the case, his daughter observed, “because conversation on such subjects nearly always brings on a political row in the family.”

Although Eliza Andrews thought the murder had been “a very ugly affair,” her sympathies almost instinctively went out to the accused. After all, “there is only negro evidence for all these horrors, and nobody can tell how much of it is false.” As for the two defendants, one of them was a family man whose “poor wife is … almost starving herself to death from grief” and whose children were reportedly frightened into convulsions when the soldiers arrested their father, while the other was a twenty-year-old youth whose “poor old father hangs around the courtroom, putting his head in every time the door is opened, trying to catch something of what is going on.” Judge Andrews thought it unfortunate that the trial should take place at this time, for the Yankees would no doubt “believe everything the negroes say and put the very worst construction on it.” His daughter agreed. “Brutal crimes happen in all countries now and then,” she confided to her journal, “especially in times of disorder and upheaval such as the South is undergoing, but the North, fed on Mrs. Stowe’s lurid pictures, likes to believe that such things are habitual among us, and this horrible occurrence will confirm them in their opinion.”

Eliza Andrews made no mention of the verdict handed down in the murder case, except to note that her father believed one of the defendants would surely hang and entertained little hope of saving the other. But she did record still another “unfortunate affair” that occurred at the same time in adjoining Lincoln County. Having learned that freedmen were holding a secret meeting, “which was suspected of boding no good to the whites,” a group of local youths resolved to break up the gathering; one of them, in his attempt to frighten the blacks, “accidentally” shot and killed a woman. “He didn’t mean to hurt anybody,” Miss Andrews had heard, “but the Yankees vow they will hang the whole batch if they can find them. Fortunately he has made his escape, and they don’t know the names of the others.”

Corrie Calhoun says that where she lives, about thirty miles from here, over in Carolina, the men have a recipe for putting troublesome negroes out of the way that the Yankees can’t get the key to. No two go out together, no one lets another know what he is going to do, and so, when mischievous negroes are found dead in the woods, nobody knows who killed them.115

Many freedmen quickly discovered in the aftermath of emancipation how much more vulnerable and expendable their lives had suddenly become. “Nigger life’s cheap now,” a white Tennessean observed. “Nobody likes ’em enough to have any affair of the sort [murder] investigated; and when a white man feels aggrieved at anything a nigger’s done, he just shoots him and puts an end to it.”116 Whether previously expressed in martial displays, bellicose oratory, battlefield valor, family feuds, personal vengeance, or in the whipping of slaves, violence lay close to the surface of southern life and culture. Neither whites nor blacks had been exempt from its influence, whether as perpetrators or victims, and the prevalence of frontier conditions, the remoteness of many regions from local government and military occupation, the memories of the Lost Cause, and the felt need to control and discipline freed blacks militated against any decline of violence in the postwar years.

The question of how a highly volatile white population might respond to emancipation had been an immediate concern of nearly every freedman and freedwoman. During slavery, they had been exposed to violence on the plantations and farms where they worked and from the dreaded patrollers if they ventured off those plantations. But the financial investment each of them represented had operated to some degree as a protective shield. Before the war, a Tennessee farmer explained, the slave “was so much property. It was as if you should kill or maim my horse. But now the nigger has no protection.” With black men and women no longer commanding a market price, the value placed on black life declined precipitately, and the slaves freed by the war found themselves living among a people who had suffered the worst possible ignominy—military defeat and “alien” occupation. Many whites, moreover, thought the abolition of slavery had doomed the African race in the South to extinction, and all too many of them seemed eager to expedite that prophecy. “If I could get up tomorrow morning and hear that every nigger in the country was dead, I’d just jump up and down,” the wife of a South Carolina planter exclaimed after hearing that Yankee soldiers had recently shot several blacks who were “getting very impudent.”117

The apparent indifference with which some whites regarded the fate of the ex-slave dismayed many visitors to the postwar South. “He is actually to many of them nothing but a troublesome animal,” Sidney Andrews wrote from South Carolina; “not a human being, with hopes and longings and feelings … ‘I would shoot one just as soon as I would a dog,’ said a man to me yesterday on the cars. And I saw one shot at in Columbia as if he had been only a dog,—shot at from the door of a store, and at midday!” Nor did visitors find this behavior confined, as they had expected, to the lower classes of whites; in many instances, it reached into the highest circles of southern society. In Alabama, for example, a planter found himself embroiled in a controversy with one of his former slaves over ownership of a horse left behind by the Yankees; the evidence clearly favored the freedman’s claim, the local Freedmen’s Bureau agent agreed and awarded him the horse, but the former master thought otherwise and for him the issue obviously went beyond rightful ownership of the animal. “A nigger has no use for a horse like that,” he explained. “I just put my Spencer to Sip’s head, and told him if he pestered me any more about that horse, I’d kill him. He knew I was a man of my word, and he never pestered me any more.” The planter enjoyed a reputation in the community as a just, upright, and honorable man, and that fact disturbed the visitor more than anything else. “No doubt if I had had dealings with him I should have found him so. He meant to give the freedmen their rights, but he was only beginning dimly to perceive that they had any rights; and when it came to treating a black man with absolute justice, he did not know the meaning of the word.” If a “just and upright” man could have so little regard for the rights of the freedmen, their fate in the hands of less paternalistic whites suggested a difficult and violent period ahead.118

How many black men and women were beaten, flogged, mutilated, and murdered in the first years of emancipation will never be known. Nor could any accurate body count or statistical breakdown reveal the barbaric savagery and depravity that so frequently characterized the assaults made on freedmen in the name of restraining their savagery and depravity—the severed ears and entrails, the mutilated sex organs, the burnings at the stake, the forced drownings, the open display of skulls and severed limbs as trophies. “The negro was murdered, beheaded, skinned, and his skin nailed to the barn,” a Freedmen’s Bureau officer wrote of a case in Mississippi, as he supplied the names of the murderers and asked for an investigation. Reporting on “outrages” committed in Kentucky, a Bureau officer confined himself to several counties and only to those cases in which he had sworn testimony, the names of the injured, the names of the alleged offenders, and the dates and localities.

I have classified these outrages as follows: Twenty-three cases of severe and inhuman beating and whipping of men; four of beating and shooting; two of robbing and shooting; three of robbing; five men shot and killed; two shot and wounded; four beaten to death; one beaten and roasted; three women assaulted and ravished; four women beaten; two women tied up and whipped until insensible; two men and their families beaten and driven from their homes, and their property destroyed; two instances of burning of dwellings, and one of the inmates shot.

Because of the difficulty in obtaining evidence and testimony, the officer stressed that his report included only a portion of the crimes against freedmen. “White men, however friendly to the freedmen, dislike to make depositions in these cases, for fear of personal violence. The same reason influences the black—he is fearful, timid, and trembling. He knows that since he has been a freedman he has not, up to this time, had the protection of either the federal or State authorities; that there is no way to enforce his rights or redress his wrongs.”119

Neither a freedman’s industriousness nor his deference necessarily protected him from whites if they suspected he harbored dangerous tendencies or if they looked upon him as a “smart-assed nigger” who needed chastisement. “The fact is,” a Freedmen’s Bureau officer in North Carolina reported, “it’s the first notion with a great many of these people, if a Negro says anything or does anything that they don’t like, to take a gun and put a bullet into him, or a charge of shot.” In those instances where the reasons for an assault on blacks could be determined, the provocations ranged from disagreements over wages, working conditions, and the quality of work performed to the presence of black troops, black political and religious meetings, resistance to punishment, and suspicion of theft, murder, and rape. What proved even more alarming were the numerous instances of violence in which no reason could be easily ascertained, except perhaps the frustration of military defeat and emotional and recreational deprivation. The ferocity of the attacks on freedmen and the ecstasy with which the mobs meted out their punishment reached a point where it dismayed as many native whites as northern visitors and Freedmen’s Bureau officers. “The American Indian,” wrote a white public official in Georgia, “is not more delighted at the writhings and shrieks of his victim at the stake, than many Georgians are at the agonizing cries of the African negro at the whipping post.”120

The violence inflicted upon freedmen seldom bore any relationship to the gravity of the alleged provocation. Of the countless cases of postwar violence, in fact, the largest proportion related in some way to that broad and vaguely defined charge of conduct unbecoming black people—that is, “putting on airs,” “sassiness,” “impudence,” “insolence,” “disrespect,” “insubordination,” contradicting whites, and violating racial customs. Behavior which many blacks and outside observers deemed relatively inoffensive might be regarded by certain native whites as deserving of a violent censure. “The truth is,” a Tennessee farmer explained, “a white man can’t take impudence from ’em. It may be a long ways removed from what you or I would think impudence, but these passionate men call it that, and pitch in.” Near Corinth, Tennessee, for example, “an old nigger” working in a sawmill “got his head split open with an axe” for having “sassed” a white man. Near Fredericksburg, Virginia, a white man shot and wounded a former black soldier after overhearing him “boast” of his service in the Union Army. In South Carolina, a former slave was shot for requesting that a Federal officer examine the contract he had negotiated with his employer, and still other blacks were beaten for no greater offense than refusing to sign a contract. “You must expect such things to happen when the niggers are impudent,” a South Carolinian said of reports of violence in his state, but a white farmer who overheard the remark thought otherwise. “The niggers a’n’t to blame,” he explained. “They’re never impudent, unless they’re trifled with or imposed on. Only two days ago a nigger was walking along this road, as peaceably as any man you ever saw. He met a white man right here, who asked him who he belonged to. ‘I don’t belong to anybody now,’ he says; ‘I’m a free man.’ ‘Sass me? you black devil!’ says the white fellow; and he pitched into him, and cut him in four or five places with his knife. I heard and saw the whole of it, and I say the nigger was respectful, and that the white fellow was the only one to blame.”121

Much of the violence inflicted on the freedmen had been well organized, with bands of white men meting out extralegal “justice” and anticipating the Klan-type groups that would operate so effectively during Radical Reconstruction. The names by which these paramilitary self-styled vigilantes were known varied from place to place—“reformers,” “regulators,” “moderators,” “rangers”—but the tactics of random terrorism and assassination they employed barely differed and they tended to attract men of all social classes. The “justice” they enforced resembled that of the hastily formed mobs who lynched blacks suspected of more serious offenses like rape, murder, and arson. With increasing regularity, however, white terrorists focused their violence on blacks in leadership positions who symbolized to them the excesses of the present and the dangers of the future—teachers, clergymen, soldiers, and political activists. In Opelika, Alabama, four local whites repeatedly beat and stabbed Robert Alexander, a twenty-six-year-old black minister, leaving him close to death. No black schools would be allowed in the community, they warned him, nor would they tolerate the presence of a black preacher who stirred up the people. When Henry M. Turner, an organizer for the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia, met him several days later, the Reverend Alexander resembled “a lump of curdled blood,” and the local Freedmen’s Bureau agent had refused to intervene in the case. “The picture is too sad for me to draw,” Turner wrote. “O God! where is our civilization? Is this Christendom, or is it hell? Pray for us.” If black teachers and clergymen were not themselves mobbed or threatened, their schoolhouses and churches were often burned to the ground, and black pupils were apt to be assaulted or intimidated even when attending separate schools. Some years after the New Orleans race riot of 1866, Douglass Wilson, a former black soldier, could still vividly recall the anxiety with which parents had sent their children to school, not knowing what they might encounter.

We had no idea that we should see them return home alive in the evening. Big white boys and half-grown men used to pelt them with stones and run them down with open knives, both to and from school. Sometimes they came home bruised, stabbed, beaten half to death, and sometimes quite dead. My own son himself was often thus beaten. He has on his forehead to-day a scar over his right eye which sadly tells the story of his trying experience in those days in his efforts to get an education. I was wounded in the war, trying to get my freedom, and he over the eye, trying to get an education.122

Charging that northern propagandists distorted or even fabricated stories of “outrages” in the South, some whites chose not to believe any of them, while others ascribed them to lower-class whites or defended them as a proper response to black impudence and lawlessness. “Don’t you believe your ‘eye-witnesses and ear-witnesses’ of our cruelty,” a prominent North Carolina woman advised her friend in Connecticut. “Exceptional cases there are no doubt, as in everything, but believe me, nine hundred and ninety in every thousand of our people are kindly disposed to them, and if they behave themselves will befriend them.” It was grossly unfair to the South, an irate planter observed, for newspaper reporters to view “solitary instances” of brutality as typical of “the condition of the niggers and the disposition of the whites.” After all, he added, if “some impudent darkey, who deserves it, gets a knock on the head,” that did not mean “that every nigger in the South is in danger of being killed.” With absolute confidence, a magistrate in South Carolina insisted that blacks faced no danger to their lives unless they themselves provoked it.123

Even allowing for some exaggeration in the news accounts of white “atrocities,” the number of assaults and murders never reported, whether because of fear of retaliation or the disappearance of the victims, approximated or exceeded those later found to be unfounded or distorted. Without intending to do so, a Georgia farmer suggested the difficulty in accurately measuring the full extent of white violence.

A heap of’em [freedmen] out in my country get into the swamps and get lost. I don’t know as it’s true, but I’ve heard that there’s men out there that haven’t got anything else to do, and if you mention any nigger to ’em, and give ’em twelve dollars, the nigger’s sure to be lost in a very few days.

I know four right here in Barnwell that have been drowned some way within the last two months. Niggers never were so careless before. They go into the swamps and nobody can find out anything about ’em till by-and-bye they’re seen floating down the river. Going to the coast, I reckon; that’s where they’re fond of going.

After reporting the brutal rape of a black woman, in which the attackers had vowed vengeance on the families of men who had served in the “God damned Yankee army,” the black newspaper in Savannah declared that all too often such reports were suppressed, lest they incriminate the entire white population and “make capital” for the Radicals. “This is a miserable plea,” the editor wrote, “for shielding criminals and thwarting the demands of justice.” Nor could whites explain away the violence by placing the onus on the so-called dregs of the white population. To do so would have slighted some of the best families and demeaned their contribution to the maintenance of racial solidarity. Although “gentlemen” and “ladies” tended to deplore the excesses, many of them assumed an indifference that came close to approval or sympathy. No matter how hard some whites claimed to have tried, it remained difficult for them to view the murder of a black person as comparable to the murder of a white. The wave of postwar violence in Wilkes County, Georgia, for example, prompted considerable outrage among “the more respectable class” of whites and resulted in a protest meeting. “This class is ashamed of such outrages,” a Freedmen’s Bureau officer observed, “but it does not prevent them, and it does not take them to heart; and I could name a dozen cases of murder committed on the colored people by young men of these first families.”124

When violence reached the dimensions of race war, few could remain indifferent. Emancipation introduced into the South a phenomenon already well known to Northerners—the race riot. Appropriately, the first such outbreaks—in Charleston and Norfolk in 1865—pitted white Union soldiers against black soldiers and freedmen. By 1867, however, native whites had fought freedmen in the streets of several southern cities and towns, among them Charleston, Norfolk, Richmond, Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans. Whatever the precipitating incident, nearly every riot reflected that growing conflict between how ex-slaves and whites chose to define emancipation and the determination of whites to retain the essentials of the old discipline and etiquette.125

The most far-reaching disturbances broke out in Memphis in early May 1866 and in New Orleans several months later. In Memphis, trouble began when freedmen and recently discharged black soldiers clashed with local police over the arrest of a black man; the forcible release of the prisoner triggered pent-up emotions and frustrations, aggravated by large numbers of black refugees, economic distress, and the enforcement of vagrancy laws. The riot took the lives of forty-six blacks (including two children and three women) and two white men (a policeman and a fireman), with many of the casualties incurred when white mobs invaded the black section of the city and burned homes, churches, and schoolhouses while terrorizing the residents. The Union Army commander, who had demobilized many of the black soldiers stationed near Memphis, initially refused to intervene to halt the violence, explaining to the local Freedmen’s Bureau agent that “he had a large amount of public property to guard; that a considerable part of the troops he had were not reliable; that they hated Negroes too.” While applauding his actions (“He knows the wants of the country, and sees the negro can do the country more good in the cotton fields than in the camp”), the local newspaper also expressed satisfaction with the overwhelming lesson taught by the riot. “The late riots in our city have satisfied all of one thing: that the southern men will not be ruled by the negro.… The negroes now know, to their sorrow, that it is best not to arouse the fury of the white man.”126

The pattern of race rioting seldom varied in these years. When relations between the freedmen and the whites reached a breaking point, the slightest incident might be seized as a pretext for an organized assault upon the entire black community. In New Orleans, tension had mounted over warring political factions, the convening of a constitutional convention in 1866, and the aggressive demands of the colored community. When black laborers paraded to press their demands for equal suffrage on the convention, that was sufficient provocation. Confronted by a mob of hostile whites, the paraders dispersed, street fighting broke out, and numerous delegates and black spectators trying to flee the convention hall were shot and killed. By the end of the affray, 48 men had been killed and 166 wounded, and Federal authorities had distinguished themselves largely by their indecision and belated intervention. What began as a “riot,” a congressional inquiry later concluded, ended as a “massacre.”127

If the postwar riots and violence were intended to teach the freedman “not to arouse the fury of the white man,” they taught him that and considerably more. Law enforcement agencies and officers, if not co-conspirators in violating the civil rights of ex-slaves, might be expected to protect or ignore the violators. Neither the Union Army nor the Freedmen’s Bureau could be trusted to afford them adequate protection; instead, Union troops in some localities alternated with native whites as the principal aggressors. To seek a redress of grievances in the courts of law, as many freedmen also quickly discovered, resulted invariably in futility if not personal danger.


NOTHING SEEMED BETTER DESIGNED to drive blacks into total exasperation and ultimately into lawlessness than the law itself. In the experience of many freedmen at least, the differences between the law and lawlessness often became so blurred as to be indistinct. Not surprisingly, the legal system and its enforcement agents reflected, as they always had, the domination and the will of the white man. Few voiced that conviction more eloquently than an illiterate rural delegate to a freedmen’s convention in Raleigh, North Carolina. Although confessing his “ignorance” and lack of skill in oratory, he insisted upon sharing his observations with the other delegates.

Yes, yes, we are ignorant. We know it. I am ignorant for one, and they say all niggers is. They say we don’t know what the word constitution means. But if we don’t know enough to know what the Constitution is, we know enough to know what justice is. I can see for myself down at my own court-house. If they makes a white man pay five dollars for doing something today, and makes a nigger pay ten dollars for doing that thing tomorrow, don’t I know that ain’t justice? They’ve got a figure of a woman with a sword hung up thar, sir; Mr. President, I don’t know what you call it—[“Justice,” “Justice,” several delegates shouted]—well, she’s got a handkercher over her eyes, and the sword is in one hand and a pair o’ scales in the other. When a white man and a nigger gets into the scales, don’t I know the nigger is always mighty light? Don’t we all see it? Ain’t it so at your court-house, Mr. President?128

Upon examining the quality of postwar justice, some blacks compared it unfavorably to what they had known as slaves. The comparison revealed far more about the bleakness of the present than the brightness of the past. Although the slave codes had imposed penalties on slave owners who failed to treat their slaves humanely or who killed them maliciously, the protection such provisions afforded black men and women had been minimal, largely because they could neither file a formal complaint nor testify against a white person; moreover, the need to maintain racial unity and control made white witnesses reluctant to testify and white juries even more reluctant to convict.129

While blacks had been slaves, the self-interest, if not the paternal instincts, of the master had often prompted his intervention to protect his property. “Our former masters,” a group of Richmond blacks declared after the war, “did once protect us from the tyrant that now rules in the Mayor’s Court, and those who sit in the Hustings Court and those in the jury box. because we were their property.” This same point was made repeatedly by former slaveholders, as if to warn their now emancipated slaves of the fragile nature of their freedom and to impress upon them their state of dependency. Before emancipation, an Alabama judge observed in 1865, “the wrong done by a third party to a negro, was a wrong done to the owner or master, and the negro was merged in the Master, the black man in the white man—and the controversy was really between the two, although a third person was involved. The white man, recognized as master, felt a pride in the very dependence of the slave—the slave must appear thro’ the master in court, in all contracts. He could not speak, act, or be spoken to or acted with, except by the consent, express or implied, of the owner.” A Georgia newspaper editor made the point even more precisely: “when detected in his frequent delinquencies, Sambo will now have no ‘maussa’ to step in between him and danger.”130

But in some crucial respects emancipation made little difference. Whether dealing with slaves or freedmen, southern courts and jurists seldom wavered from the urgent need to solidify white supremacy, ensure proper discipline in blacks, and punish severely those who violated the racial code. In his charge to a postwar jury, a South Carolina judge managed to combine these imperatives with the old paternalism.

We belong to the master race of mankind—that race which, ruling all the waters of the world, its seas and oceans, without dispute, dominates equally upon the land, and plants its yoke at will upon the neck of all the other tribes and kindreds and races of men. We make, we administer the law. We judge; we have all the responsibility of superior power—of power. How appealingly, then, does every sentiment of magnanimity persuade us to exercise that power justly, forbearingly, mercifully, kindly and charitably, whether on the Bench or in the Jury box, or in the common affairs of life.

Whatever the magnanimous spirit in which the judge made his charge, the judicial system rarely reflected it. Even the most conscientious jurists, who were able to reconcile their belief in white supremacy with a commitment to equal justice and protection for blacks, often had to confess their helplessness. Julius J. Fleming, for example, a magistrate and lawyer in Sumter, South Carolina, conceded that despite his best efforts, wrongs were inflicted upon freedmen “with absolute impunity,” few of them had the funds to meet litigation costs, and many of them were swindled out of legal claims to wages because they could not post the necessary bond as plaintiffs. “It is a stupendous wrong to emancipate & then desert them,” Fleming concluded. “The master’s interest was once their protection—but that is now gone. My interest in their behalf has not added to my business or popularity—but I care not.”131

Until the civil courts were thought to be ready to protect the legal rights of the freedmen, the provost courts (operating under military authority) and the Freedmen’s Bureau dispensed justice in the postwar South. While in many ways fairer toward the freedmen, the quality of that justice varied according to the competence and commitment of the particular officers and depended on their success in securing the cooperation of the Union Army to enforce their decisions. Like many such officials, John De Forest, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in South Carolina, thought his primary obligation was to teach the whites to accord equal protection under the law to the freed slaves. “I so interpreted my orders as to believe that my first and great duty lay in raising the blacks and restoring the whites of my district to a confidence in civil law.” When Cato Allums, a freedman, shot and killed a white man in self-defense, De Forest permitted civil authorities to handle the case. But he followed their actions carefully, warned them that they were on trial as much as the freedman, and attempted in every way to protect Allums’ rights when he was indicted for murder. The refusal of several white witnesses to testify ultimately resulted in the dismissal of the indictment. De Forest hailed the outcome as “a triumph of justice, public conscience, and public sense” and a vindication of his decision to allow local whites to resume judicial power. Although grateful for his release, Allums resented his lengthy confinement and the expenses he incurred in his defense. Unlike De Forest, he deemed the outcome less than a triumph of white justice. “I never was treated like most niggers was,” he told De Forest. “Mighty few white men has tried to ride over Cato.” By 1866, in most sections of the South, civil courts had resumed their jurisdiction, although the Freedmen’s Bureau reserved the right to intervene if it thought blacks had been denied impartial justice. That it seldom did so revealed more about the predilections of Bureau officers than the impartiality of civil justice.132

After their initial experiences with the judicial system, many freedmen found little reason to place any confidence in it. The laws discriminated against them, the courts upheld a double standard of justice, and the police acted as the enforcers. Arrested often for the most trivial offenses (for which whites would rarely be apprehended), blacks found themselves in jail for months without a trial, denied the right to competent counsel (lawyers feared losing their white clients), charged exorbitant legal fees, and sentenced as much for their race as for the nature of their crime.133 Upon entering the town of Selma, Alabama, a northern journalist came across a gang of black prisoners at work in the street, each of them linked to the other by a long chain. Anxious to learn what they had done to deserve such “ignominious” punishment, he obtained a list of their crimes, the most serious of which was “using abusive language towards a white man”; the other offenses included disorderly conduct, vagrancy, petty theft, and selling farm produce within the town limits (the offender had been unable to pay his fine of twenty dollars). “But it was a singular fact,” the visitor learned, “that no white men were ever sentenced to the chaingang,—being, I suppose, all virtuous.” The all-black chain gang, like the two Bibles required in some courtrooms, one for white witnesses and the other for black witnesses, symbolized all too graphically the kind of justice many freedmen had come to expect.134

If only because they feared Federal intervention, some courts made scrupulous attempts to guard the rights of accused blacks. But the infrequency with which whites were apprehended, tried, and convicted of crimes against freedmen made a mockery of equal justice and encouraged still more white violence. At nearly every step in the judicial process, the victims of such violence found themselves frustrated, even in swearing out a complaint against a white man.

It is difficult to get an officer to arrest a white man when he has assaulted and beaten a colored man; the magistrates will not give warrants for the arrest of white men without long interrogation. We are bound to know a stranger’s name—if not, no warrant, when he is white; but if he be colored, they will quickly give warrants that the colored man may be put in jail. Oh, how quickly the officers will catch him!

To lodge a complaint against a white person was also to invite harassment and sometimes violence. “The idea of a nigger having the power of bringing a white man before a tribunal!” a Georgian exclaimed. “The Southern people a’n’t going to stand that.” Moreover, as a Freedmen’s Bureau officer in Alabama observed, anyone making a complaint had to provide bail to appear as a witness or be kept in jail until the trial. “As no white man will give bail for a negro to appear as a witness against a white man, and as they don’t fancy lying perhaps weeks in jail in order to be heard, they prefer to suffer wrong rather than seek redress.”135

Even when the names of the offenders were known, whites could be expected to abide by a “gentlemen’s agreement” not to cooperate with the authorities in apprehending them, and the police were often less than eager to pursue the matter and in some instances conspired to effect the escape of a white prisoner accused of a serious crime. When murders were committed, neighbors and friends would invariably hide the offenders, and few men possessed the necessary courage to expose the guilty parties lest they share the same fate. Without military protection for himself and the witnesses, no freedman could be expected to help prosecute a white man for assault, murder, or any other crime. That was the conclusion reached by a Freedmen’s Bureau officer in Grenada, Mississippi. “As against freedmen the majority of whites are a unit and even honorable men, otherwise, will vouch for persons of, to say the least, doubtful character as ‘high social Gentlemen.’ ”136

If a white man should be apprehended and tried for offenses committed against freedmen, the chances of convicting him were slight so long as whites dominated the juries. And if convicted, the penalties assessed against him were likely to be far less than the gravity of the crime warranted or that would have been imposed upon a black person. The double standard of white justice was nowhere clearer, in fact, than in the disparate punishments meted out to whites and blacks convicted of similar crimes. In Marion County, Florida, for example, James J. Denton, after being convicted of the slaying of a black man, had to pay a fine of $250 and serve one minute in prison; most blacks found guilty of petty theft could expect a more severe sentence. (In nearby Lake City, two blacks convicted of stealing several boxes of goods from a railroad company were fined $500; unable to pay the fine, their services were sold to the highest bidder.) No doubt many whites still needed to learn that killing a black person amounted to murder. But a Freedmen’s Bureau officer in Georgia despaired of any early or mass conversion to that principle. “The best men in the State admit that no jury would convict a white man for killing a freedman, or fail to hang a negro who had killed a white man in self-defence.” The need to demonstrate to the satisfaction of a white jury that the defendant had been “animated by the intention to kill” complicated the conviction and punishment of any white person for murder, as did the underlying principle of slave law that a master’s severe chastisement of his blacks did not justify resistance. As the Georgia Supreme Court had once ruled, even if the owner should “exceed the bounds of reason … in his chastisement, the slave must submit … unless the attack … be calculated to produce death.”137

Rather than press for a diminution or increase in the penalties assessed by the courts, blacks simply insisted that the punishment fit the crime and be applied equally to both races. In New Orleans, the local criminal court sentenced a white person convicted of theft (a pair of shoes valued at $13) to one day in prison; the same court on the same day committed a black person found guilty of theft (shirts and petticoats valued at $18) to three months in prison—or, as the local black newspaper noted, “three days for the stealing, and eighty-seven days for being colored.” The disparity in punishments, however, was not confined to the regular courts; in many regions, the provost marshals adopted the same double standard. In Salisbury, North Carolina, a white woman killed a black mother who had tried to rescue her child from a severe beating; a military court found her guilty of manslaughter and fined her $1,000, and within several days the white community had collected and paid the fine. In Natchez, a white man who brutally assaulted an elderly black woman was fined $15 ($5 for the provost marshal who sentenced him and $10 for the injured woman); the victim contributed her award to the Lincoln Monument Fund, exclaiming, “I don’t want money, but justice.”138

When blacks drew up their postwar demands, equal justice almost invariably superseded all others. Even those who argued the primacy of the suffrage or economic grievances conceded that without equal protection under the law, neither the property they accumulated, the wages they were promised, nor the vote they might someday cast would be safe. “To be sure, sah, we wants to vote,” a black barber observed, “but, sah, de great matter is to git into de witness-box.” The price exacted of the white South in exchange for the reinstatement of civil courts was the admissibility of black testimony. Like emancipation and later the suffrage, whites viewed it as a consequence of military defeat and occupation. But that hardly made it a popular concept. “Nothing would make me cut a nigger’s throat from ear to ear so quick,” said a white shoemaker in Liberty, Virginia, “as having him set up his impudent face to tell that a thing wasn’t so when I said it was so.”139

With the right of testimony, blacks had hoped to secure the equal protection which the Constitution ensured all citizens. The credibility accorded such testimony by white judges and juries, however, made this substantially less than the triumph freedmen had imagined. “Why, no nigger can be believed whether he is under oath or not,” a Virginian observed. “No one that knows a nigger will ever think of believing him if it’s for his interest to lie.” Making essentially the same point, a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, perhaps said more than he intended when he argued that white people were simply not ready to admit black testimony against other whites. “What would be the good of putting niggers in the witness-box?” he asked. “You must have niggers in the jury-box, too, or nigger evidence will not be believed. I don’t think you could find twelve men in the whole State who would attach any weight to the testimony of ninety-nine niggers in a hundred.”140

Few blacks might have disagreed with that assessment of the minimal impact of their testimony. Unless they were admitted to the juries, too, they realized, equal justice would remain a mockery. “It is the right of every man accused of any offence, to be tried by a jury of his peers,” the Reverend J. W. Hood told a black convention in North Carolina. “I claim that the black man is my peer, and so I am not tried by my peers unless there be one or more black men in the jury box.” By the eve of Radical Reconstruction, blacks were already sitting on some juries, though not without vehement white objections, and still more would be added after the Radical governments took power. In some states, as in South Carolina, Federal authorities stipulated that every person registered as a taxpayer or voter also qualified as a juror. Like the admission of black testimony, the appearance of blacks in the jury box signaled still another encroachment on the white man’s domain. To a Louisiana planter and judge, it all seemed like a steady descent into total anarchy and depravity, and he could trace every step along the way. “The fortune of war has materially changed my circumstances. My niggers used to do as I told them, but that time is passed. Your Northern people have made soldiers of our servants, and will, I presume, make voters of them. In five years, if I continue the practice of law, I suppose I shall be addressing a dozen negroes as gentlemen of the jury.”141

If black jurors and testimony could soften the abuses of the courts, many blacks also contended that only biracial police forces could ensure a semblance of equality in law enforcement. Until that objective had been realized, at least, freedmen would remain vulnerable to harassment, violence, and discriminatory arrests by police officers who acted as the instrumerits of white control and repression. “The police of this place make the law to suit themselves,” a black teacher in Wetumpka, Alabama, protested, citing arrests of freedmen for minor offenses which were ignored when committed by whites. “From what I can see and hear among the Col[ore]d people of this place,” he added, “something serious will grow out of this if we do not get the proper protection.” In some communities, blacks complained that policemen regularly invaded their homes, ostensibly in search of weapons and to quiet the insurrectionary fears of white citizens. The black newspaper in New Orleans charged the police with “a provoking series of petty persecutions” as well as participation in the riot of 1866 and expressed particular outrage over the disarming of blacks while whites openly displayed their weapons without fear of arrest. The black protests, from wherever they emanated, agreed that law and order could not be established in their communities without some restraints being placed on the police. A resident of Charleston commended the military commander there for having found one constructive solution to the problem of police violence—he ordered the arrest of any policeman found in possession of a revolver or club.142

Despite black testimony and some black jurors, the quality of justice on the eve of Radical Reconstruction largely reflected white power and the determination to preserve it. If anyone thought the freedmen were enjoying equal protection under the law, a black resident of Macon, Georgia, invited him to visit the local courtroom and observe the proceedings. “A white man may assault a colored gentleman at high noon, pelt him with stones, or maul him with a club, without any provocation at all; and if it has to be decided by rebel justice, the colored man is fined or imprisoned, and the white man is justified in what he and his friends call a ‘narrow escape.’ ” To many blacks, that remained the crux of their problem—the black plaintiff appeared to have less of a chance for legal redress than the defendant. If he hesitated to file a complaint against a white person or to involve himself in any way with the legal process, that was because he feared ending up in jail rather than the offender. When the victims of white violence demanded that action be taken against white assailants, some of them were dismissed with the advice to avoid contact with individuals who were apt to harm them.143 That was surely one way to avoid trouble, though difficult to achieve without becoming a recluse; some blacks suggested another alternative, far more in keeping with the values and tradition of white America—they could shoot the assailant in self-defense.


AFTER STILL ANOTHER violent clash in Norfolk, in which Yankee troops had vowed to “clear out all the niggers,” a black resident of that city voiced his despair at such betrayal and at the same time warned all whites—Yankees and natives alike—not to push the freedmen too far. “We are a nation that loves the white people,” he declared, “and we would never attack them, but if we are driven to exasperation we know our duty.” Although emancipation and the gradual reduction of Union troops made blacks more vulnerable to attack, most of them had enjoyed freedom, however briefly, and refused to surrender their newly acquired rights without a struggle. It seemed like an appropriate time, then, to invoke such time-honored concepts and virtues as self-defense.

A kind of general serfdom and humiliation of the colored race is about to take the place of slavery—if we do not check the tendency toward that course.… If there is no protection for us at the hands of the municipal police or the military guard, if there is no redress for our people before the Criminal Courts in cases of murder and rape, then let us form at once societies for self-protection and have recourse to personal defense.

That sentiment, voiced by the black newspaper in New Orleans, accorded with advice to discharged black soldiers to retain their guns and its call for Home Guard units which would mobilize whenever circumstances demanded their presence. After all, why should not those who had defended their nation on the battlefields likewise defend their families and friends at home. “In times of peace prepare for war,” a black resident of New Orleans suggested. “They have burned our churches, murdered our friends in their own yards, in the presence of their own family, and yet our civil government is still running, and the murderers are still allowed to roam our streets undisturbed.”144

Not surprisingly, blacks vented much of their anger and “lawlessness” on the law itself. Since they could not expect impartial justice in the courtroom, groups of blacks in some communities invaded the jails and courtrooms to release their accused brethren. At the same time, they evinced a determination to mete out extralegal justice if the white police and courts failed to do their duty. In Selma, Alabama, blacks threatened to burn down the town unless a known white murderer was turned over to them or brought to justice; Federal troops intervened and the suspected murderer escaped. After a white mob in Jeffersonton, Georgia, removed a black youth from the jail and hanged him, allegedly for having killed a farm animal, more than a hundred blacks, all of them armed with guns and pistols, appeared to demand the prosecution of those responsible for the lynching. Although Federal authorities persuaded the blacks to disperse, a still larger crowd gathered the next day, and this time the local Freedmen’s Bureau agent requested Federal troops. Only the presence of such troops prevented a riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, after blacks tried to halt the public whipping of five men found guilty in a trial where black testimony had been excluded; in three Virginia counties, the Freedmen’s Bureau quickly resumed judicial power because the blacks had threatened to retaliate for the injustices committed by the civil courts; and in several communities, blacks armed themselves to resist attacks on their schools and churches.145

The threats of black retaliatory violence obviously concerned native whites and military authorities and gave rise in the postwar years to new rumors and reports of insurrectionary activity. But little was done to attack the sources of black discontent. In Columbia, South Carolina, blacks reacted with outrage when in May 1866 the chief of police shot and killed a young freedman while arresting him for a misdemeanor. Both the coroner’s jury and local military authorities acquitted the police chief, setting off a new wave of anger in the black community. On the morning of May 30, a Union officer was “startled” to find that a notice had been posted during the night in the local post office.

We the Coloured Men of Columbia, were Advised to whate [wait] and see what would be said or done a bout that act of Murder committed by Green. We have Seen and heard! We know it to be a mock trial and we will trie him next. He has committed Cold and Willful Murder and if not removed, we can and will have revenge.… By one thousand true and reddy We will have his Blood, Green the Murderer.

Two companies of Federal troops were brought into the city, the police chief secluded himself, and the black threats of violence failed to materialize. But “the worst feature in the case,” a black woman wrote the Freedmen’s Bureau, was that nothing had been done to satisfy the grievances of the black residents, thereby encouraging the whites to think themselves immune to prosecution or control.

We have very dark days here; the colored people are almost in despair.… The rebels here boast that the negroes shall not have as much liberty now, as they enjoyed during slavery. We can not have a party or gathering of any kind, unless we ask leave of the Mayor, & the men that the United States send here to keep things straight, wink at, & allow these things to go on thus.

God knows how we will do. We are not allowed to have arms; if a white man strikes us, & we attempt to defend ourselves, we are carried to Provost Court, & fined ten or twenty dollars. It is hard I tell you. Our friends in Congress are wasting time & breath, & all the bills they may pass, will do us no good, unless men are sent here, that will see those laws enforced.

Col. Greene [the Union commander] cares not a fig for a colored person. It is very seldom you can get a word with him. He spends all his time in the Billiard Saloon.…

I will tell you, if things go on thus, our doom is sealed. God knows it is worse than slavery. The negro code is in full force here with both Yankees and rebels.146

This graphic description of conditions in the capital of South Carolina in mid-1866 might have been duplicated in countless communities and regions. Neither her assessment nor her despair were unique. Although the talk of armed retaliation might evoke images of black “minutemen” and “regulators,” the freedmen possessed neither the weapons nor the power to offset the better organized whites. Nor could they successfully contend with the threat of Federal intervention to suppress them if they took the law into their own hands. Despite the rhetoric of violence, the great mass of blacks recognized where the power still resided.

If confronted with an intolerable situation on the plantation or in the neighborhood, alternatives other than armed resistance were presumably available to black people. Freedom permitted them to take their labor elsewhere. For many freed slaves, in fact, this right constituted the very essence of their new status, and they proposed to use such a weapon to carve out a greater degree of independence for themselves and their families. Not all freedmen exercised this prerogative in the same way, or at the same time, and some did not exercise it at all. Neither the former slave nor his former master, however, could easily predict the precise moment when confrontation and separation would become unavoidable.

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