So long ez de shadder ob de gret house falls acrost you, you ain’t gwine ter feel lak no free man, an’ you ain’t gwine ter feel lak no free ‘oman. You mus’ all move—you mus’ move clar away from de ole places what you knows, ter de new places what you don’t know, whey you kin raise up yore head douten no fear o’ Marse Dis ur Marse Tudder.
BLACK PREACHER, FLORIDA, 18651
Sun, you be here an’ I’ll be gone,
Sun, you be here an’ I’ll be gone,
Sun, you be here an’ I’ll be gone.
Bye, bye, don’t grieve arter me,
Won’t give you my place, not fo’ your’n,
Bye, bye, don’t grieve arter me,
’Cause you be here an’ I’ll be gone.
VIRGINIA, CIRCA 18652
TO THROW OFF A LIFETIME of restraint and dependency and to feel like free men or free women, newly liberated slaves adopted different priorities and chose various ways in which to express themselves, ranging from dramatic breaks with the past to subtle and barely perceptible changes in demeanor and behavior. But even as they secured family ties, sanctified marriage relations, proclaimed surnames, and encroached on the white man’s racial etiquette, black men and women grappled with the most critical questions affecting their lives and status. To make certain of their freedom, would they first need to separate themselves physically from those who had only recently owned them? If so, where would they go, how would they protect themselves from hostile whites, for whom and under what conditions would they work? If they remained on the old place, what relations would they now enjoy with their former owners and how could they safely manifest their freedom?
Having lived in close, sometimes intimate contact with their “white folks,” dependent on them for daily sustenance, conditioned by their demands and expectations, freedmen could not always quickly or easily resolve such questions. For many of them, however, that tension between the urge toward personal autonomy and the compulsions of the old dependency grew increasingly intolerable, and nearly every slaveholding family could affix a date to the moment when their former slaves resolved the tension. “On the 5th of August  one of our young men left for Albany,” the Reverend John Jones reported, “and on the 8th inst. (or night before) nine more took up the line of march, carrying our house boy Allen and a girl sixteen years old (Amelia, the spinner). This girl had been corrected for being out the most of Saturday night previously.” Once that “dark, dissolving, disquieting wave of emancipation” (as he called it) broke over a particular region or plantation, many a planter family watched helplessly as the only world they had known collapsed around them. “I have been marking its approach for months,” the Georgia clergyman wrote, “and watching its influence on our own people. It has been like the iceberg, withering and deadening the best sensibilities of master and servant, and fast sundering the domestic ties of years.”3
To experience the phenomenon was traumatic enough, but to seek to understand it could be a totally frustrating and impossible task. Ella Gertrude Thomas, the wife of a Georgia planter, tried her best, while viewing from day to day, and then confiding to her diary, the rupture of those affective ties which had provided her with such fond memories of a past now apparently beyond recovery. The experience of Jefferson and Gertrude Thomas reveals only the disruption of one household. But their ordeal, as they came to realize, was not unique. Like so many former slaveholders, the Thomases suffered the ingratitude of favorites, the impertinence of strangers, the exasperation of new “help,” and the fears of race war. And like many others, Gertrude Thomas reached that point when nothing surprised her any longer and she could only utter the familiar cry of postemancipation despair—“And has it come to this?” Most importantly, the legacy of distrust, bitterness, and recrimination emerging out of experiences like these helped to shape race relations in the South for the next several decades.
Except for those who had already experienced the anguish of wartime “betrayal,” few knew what to expect from their black servants and laborers in the first months of emancipation. “Excitement rules the hour,” Gertrude Thomas observed in May 1865. “No one appears to have a settled plan of action, the Negroes crowd the streets and loaf around the pumps and corners of the street.… I see no evidence of disrespect on the part of the Negroes who are here from the adjoining plantations.” During the war, nearly all the Thomas slaves, both at the Augusta house and plantation (some six miles outside of town) and on the plantation in Burke County, had “proved most faithful.” Only when Union troops entered Augusta, more than three weeks after the end of the war, did Gertrude Thomas resign herself to the inevitability of emancipation. While Yankee soldiers and blacks filled the streets, Jefferson Thomas performed the familiar rites of emancipation, advising the house staff that he would just “as soon pay them wages as any one else.” The servants received the news with little show of emotion, though they evinced “a more cheerful spirit than ever” and Sarah “was really lively while she was sewing on Franks pants.” Still, their apparent “faithfulness” pleased the Thomases, even as the future seemed dim. “Our Negroes will be put on lands confiscated and imagination cannot tell what is in store for us.”
The news of freedom precipitated no spontaneous celebration or Jubilee among the Thomas blacks. None of them suddenly rushed out to test their new status. When they severed their ties with the Thomases, they did so quietly with a conspicuous absence of fanfare. There was no insubordination, there were no bursts of insolence, and the Thomas property remained undisturbed. Nor were there any tearful farewells. Like many freed slaves elsewhere, the Thomas servants did not betray their emotions, at least not in the presence of their former owners. Within less than a month after the Union occupation, nearly all of them left in much the same manner as they had received the news that they were free.
Among the most faithful and best liked of the slaves had been Daniel, the first servant Jefferson Thomas had ever owned. “When we were married,” Gertrude Thomas recalled, “his Father gave him to us to go in the Buggy.” Daniel was the first servant to depart, and he did so at night “without saying anything to anyone.” He remained in town but the Thomases had no wish to see him again. “If he returns to the yard he shall not enter it.” The day after Daniel’s unexpected departure, Betsy went out to pick up the newspaper, “as she was in the habit of doing every day.” This time, she never returned. “I suppose that she had been met by her Father in the street and taken away but then I learned that she had taken her clothes out of the Ironing room under the pretense of washing them.” Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Thomas learned that the “disappearance” had been “a concerted plan” between Betsy and her mother, who had once been a servant in the house (“an excellent washer and ironer”) but was found to be “dishonest” and had been transferred to the plantation in Burke County. “She left the Plantation, came up and took Betsy home with her.” While disclaiming “any emotion of interest” in Betsy’s departure, this loss obviously troubled Mrs. Thomas. Nor did the thought that familial ties had superseded those of mistress and slave console her in any way. “I felt interest in Betsy, she was a bright quick child and raised in our family would have become a good servant. As it is she will be under her Mothers influence and run wild in the street.”
If the Thomases wondered who might leave them next, they did not have long to wait. But this time, at least, they had a premonition. Several days after Betsy’s disappearance, Aunt Sarah seemed more diligent and cheerful than usual. “Sarah has something on her mind,” Gertrude Thomas remarked to her husband. “She has either decided to go or the prospect of being paid if she remains has put her in a very good humor.” That night, she left. By now, the Thomases were making a conscious effort to conceal their disappointment from the remaining servants, apparently in the belief that the others derived some pleasure from their discomfort. Meanwhile, Nancy had become a problem. After the departure of Sarah, she had been instructed to take over the cooking as well as perform her usual duties. Perhaps dismayed by her doubled work load, Nancy claimed that she was not well enough to work. When the “illness” persisted and the unwashed clothes accumulated in the ironing room, the much-annoyed mistress decided to take action. “Nancy,” she asked, “do you expect I can afford to pay you wages in your situation, support your two children and then have you sick as much as you are?” Nancy stood there and made no reply. The next day, she left with her two children, claiming that she would return shortly. That was the last Mrs. Thomas saw of her, and upon entering Nancy’s room she discovered not unexpectedly that “all her things had been removed.” Less than a week later, Willy departed, thereby spurning the Thomases’ offer of clothing and a silver quarter every Saturday night. The next day, Manly left with his two children, apparently without any explanation.
“Out of all our old house servants,” Gertrude Thomas noted near the end of May 1865, “not one remains except Patsy and a little boy Frank.” Gradually and unspectacularly, nearly all of the servants had grasped their freedom by completely severing the old ties. The Thomases could only console themselves with the knowledge that many other white families were experiencing similar losses. For Gertrude Thomas, in fact, the departure of Susan from her mother’s household truly marked the end of an era. “I am under too many obligations to Susan to have hard feelings towards her. During six confinements Susan has been with me, the best of servants, rendering the most efficient help. To Ma she has always been invaluable and in cases of sickness there was no one like Susan. Her husband Anthony was one of the first to leave the Cuming Plantation and incited others to do the same. I expect he influenced Susan.” Now that Susan had left, Gertrude Thomas recalled the number of times her father had warned the family about this slave. “I have often heard Pa say that in case of a revolt among Negroes he thought that Susan would serve as ringleader. She was the first servant to leave Ma’s yard and left without one word.”
By late July 1865, Gertrude Thomas hoped that “the worst of this transition state of the Negroes” had been reached. “If not,” she sighed, “God have mercy upon us.” But her conversations with friends and relatives, as well as the news from the plantation in Burke County, were anything but reassuring; indeed, one close friend speculated that “things would go on so until Christmas” and then she expected real trouble, underscoring her warning with a gesture across the throat. As if to confirm such fears, a delegation of field hands from the plantation came to the Augusta house, entered the yard, and handed Jefferson Thomas a summons from the local Union Army commander, ordering him to appear and answer the demand of these blacks for wages. Incensed by the impertinence of the delegation, Thomas ordered them out of his yard. Before leaving, however, one of them shouted out an insult, hoping—or so the Thomases thought—to provoke him into a confrontation. “And this too we had to endure,” Mrs. Thomas wrote of the incident. “As it could not be resented it was treated with the silence of contempt. And has it come to this?” After reflecting over her experience of the past several months, Gertrude Thomas, who had once confessed her ambivalence about slavery, decided that she would just as soon never have to look at a black man or woman again. “Every thing is entirely reversed, I feel no interest in them whatever and hope I never will.”4
While every experience had its own unique qualities, the odyssey of Jefferson and Gertrude Thomas through the first months of emancipation revealed a pattern of behavior—white and black—that would be repeated on farms and plantations and in town houses throughout the South. Once emancipation had been acknowledged, what mattered was how many freed slaves would find separation indispensable to their new status. With the wartime experience still vivid in many minds, few whites now thought they knew their former slaves well enough to speculate with much confidence on this troublesome question. “Some folks think free labour will be cheap & that the freedmen will gladly hire out for food and clothing,” a South Carolinian wrote. “But I think not, they seem so eager to throw off the yoke of bondage they will suffer somewhat, before they will return to the plantations.… It seems like a dream, dear Aunt, we are living in such times.”5
THE FLAMES from a pitch-pine bonfire illuminated the woods near the Lester plantation in northern Florida. Hundreds of men, women, and children came from every direction to attend this late-night meeting, gathering around a makeshift speaker’s platform—the trunk of a fallen pine tree. Mounting that rostrum, Richard Edwards, a black preacher, looked out at the faces of these people only recently freed from bondage. With their cries of “Dat’s so” and loud “Amens” punctuating his remarks, he told them of the glories of their triumph. He welcomed the new era in which black men and women no longer cringed in the presence of the white man. He urged them to embrace their liberty. He insisted that only they—not the Yankees, not Lincoln, not the northern teachers—could make themselves free.
You ain’t, none o’ you, gwinter feel rale free till you shakes de dus’ ob de Ole Plantashun offen yore feet an’ goes ter a new place whey you kin live out o’ sight o’ de gret house. So long ez de shadder ob de gret house falls acrost you, you ain’t gwine ter feel lak no free man, an’ you ain’t gwine ter feel lak no free ‘oman. You mus’ all move—you mus’ move clar away from de ole places what you knows, ter de new places what you don’t know, whey you kin raise up yore head douten no fear o’ Marse Dis ur Marse Tudder. Take yore freedum, my brudders an’ my sisters. You-all is jis’ ez good ez ennybody, an’ you-all is jis’ ez free! Go whey you please—do what you please—furgit erbout de white folks—an’ now stan’ up on yore feet—lif’ up yore eyes—an’ shout wid me Glory, halleluyer! AMEN!6
Within the first year of freedom, thousands of blacks exercised that option in precisely that spirit. If they were truly free, they could walk off the plantation on which they had labored as slaves and never return. Whatever else they did, that remained the surest, the quickest way to demonstrate to themselves that their old masters and mistresses no longer owned or controlled them, that they were now free to make their own decisions. Although the black preacher in Florida had talked about “new places what you don’t know,” most of those who left preferred the localities they knew, where they could still retain their familial ties and friendships; they might simply move to the next plantation or to the nearest town. In separating themselves from their previous owners, not from the region itself, they had begun to feel like free men and women.
Explaining the movement of blacks in his region, a Florida planter and physician made the essential point. “The negroes don’t seem to feel free unless they leave their old homes,” he informed his cousin in North Carolina, “just to make it sure they can go when and where they choose.” Elsewhere in the South, white families and Federal officials observed the same phenomenon: many freedmen were acting on the assumption that to stay with their former masters was to remain slaves. Once a black man or woman made the critical decision to leave, not even the most handsome of offers from the former master was likely to keep them on the old place. In South Carolina, a white family proposed to pay their valuable cook nearly twice the amount she had been offered in the nearby village. But this woman, who had served the family faithfully for many years, could not be persuaded to stay. “No, Miss, I must go,” she insisted. When pressed to give some reason for spurning such a generous offer, the woman had little difficulty in making her motives absolutely clear: “If I stay here I’ll never know I am free.” Without even pretending to understand the deeply felt yearnings that prompted such behavior, some whites chose to dismiss the departures as foolish or even amusing, much as they previously had belittled the humanity of their slaves. “In almost every yard servants are leaving,” Emma Holmes observed in Camden, South Carolina, “but going to wait on other people for food merely, sometimes with the promise of clothing, passing themselves off as free, much to our amusement.”7
To leave the plantation or farm, his worldly possessions stuffed into a small bundle slung over his shoulder, came easily to some, not so easily to most. On numerous places, the entire black population decamped at the same time, as if prearranged, leaving the owners to wallow in self-pity and to utter those familiar cries of betrayal. “Every Negro has left us,” the wife of a South Carolina planter exclaimed in July 1865. “I have never in my life met with such ingratitude, every Negro deserted.”8 But the postwar “exodus” usually reflected individual and family decisions and often sharply divided the ex-slaves on the same plantation. Typically, as a former Mississippi slave recalled, “they didn’t go off right at first. They was several years getting broke up. Some went, some stayed, some actually moved back. Like bees trying to find a setting place.”9 For white families to make sense out of those who left and those who stayed proved no less frustrating after emancipation than during the Yankee invasion. Again, previous records of behavior were misleading, verbal expressions of loyalty counted for little, and familial ties could induce various responses. No archetypal “deserter” emerged: the faithful and the troublesome left, the most and the least trusted, those who had endured a harsh bondage and those who counted themselves among the relatively well treated.
The “exodus” affected every kind of master. Those who had acquired notorious reputations, however, usually sustained the earliest and the largest losses. Austin Grant, who had worked as a field hand in Mississippi and Texas, recalled that his master had been “a pretty good boss” because he had fed them well. But he had also made frequent use of the “black snake” (a bullwhip) to maintain discipline and production, and he worked them hard.
We got up early, you betcha. You would be out there by time you could see and you quit when it was dark. They tasked us. They would give us 200 or 300 pounds of cotton to bring in and you would git it, and if you didn’ git it, you better, or you would git it tomorrow, or your back would git it. Or you’d git it from someone else, maybe steal it from their sacks.
When the master informed them of their freedom, he made himself quite clear: “Now, you can jes’ work on if you want to, and I’ll treat you jes’ like I always did.” That was all they needed to hear. “I guess when he said that they knew what he meant. The’ wasn’t but one family left with ’im. They stayed about two years. But the rest was just like birds, they jes’ flew.” On an Alabama plantation, Aunt Nellie, a “nurse girl” who had alternated between tending a temperamental mistress and her equally obnoxious children, left as soon as she learned of her freedom but not before giving the children a long-overdue thrashing.10
Whatever the pathos and nostalgia conveyed by the popular minstrel ballad “I Lost My Massa When Dey Set Me Free,” newly freed slaves, as the ballad itself suggested, might have felt and acknowledged a certain affection for their “white folks” but still left them. “It ain’t that I didn’t love my Marster,” Melvin Smith recalled, “but I jest likes to be free,” and when told that he “didn’t b’long to nobody no more” he immediately left his home plantation in South Carolina and headed for Tallahassee, Florida. Reputedly humane and generous masters who had expected to retain their former slaves were thus in numerous instances doomed to a bitter disappointment. “As a general rule,” a white woman in Virginia wrote of the “defections” in her region, “they are all anxious to leave home and many that seemed perfectly contented in slavery are now dissatisfied, and many humane kind masters, who owned large numbers of servants, have been left without a single one.” Having always thought of himself as a good master, a planter in Amelia County, Virginia, tried to understand why he had lost all but six of his 115 slaves. “My people were always well treated, and never were worked hard. A number of them had been with my father, and there were a good many that I had grown up with from boyhood. I loved some of them.” Although many of his slaves seemed to share this affection, they were no less adamant in their decision to leave, even as they came to him with tears in their eyes to shake his hand and bid him farewell.11
The good reputation of a former slaveholder was not necessarily irrelevant when blacks formulated their post-emancipation plans. It simply was not always enough. The decisions made by black people were not always in reaction to the abuse, kindness, or indifference of white men; their behavior in the aftermath of freedom reflected a diversity of considerations, not the least of which were familial ties, attachment to particular locales, and the perfectly natural urge to explore the forbidden and the unknown and to grasp new and hopefully more remunerative opportunities. Again, Mary Chesnut seemed more perceptive than most whites when she observed in June 1865, “In their furious, emotional way they swore devotion to us to their dying day. All the same, the moment they see an opening to better themselves, they will move on.” Moreover, as the freed blacks perceived the situation, the previous good works and present good intentions of a former master counted for less than their confidence in his ability and willingness to compensate them properly for any future labor. If freed slaves suspected that their old master might be on the verge of bankruptcy (and the blacks usually surmised correctly), they saw little reason to stay with him. Sarah Ann Smith, for example, acknowledged that her master had been a decent man but he was simply “too busted ter hire us ter stay on, so we moved over ter Mr. Womble’s place.” Despite the “good white folkses” Anna Parkes had served, she realized that most of the master’s money “wuz gone,” he could obviously not afford to pay most of his laborers, and she and her mother therefore moved to the nearby gun factory and began to take in washing.12
Even if their former masters were able and willing to pay them, they might choose not to stay if they had any reason, based on their previous experience, to doubt his word. Significant numbers of ex-slaveholders failed to pass that test. After all, a freedman from Petersburg, Virginia, explained, so many masters had broken so many promises in the past that they had forfeited the confidence of their blacks, and those who had been victimized in this way “won’t stay with their old masters on any terms.” On a plantation in Crawford County, Georgia, the freedmen were promised a plot of land and a mule by their former owner. But they knew from experience that the mistress was “de real boss” and they suspected she would not agree to such a generous offer. And when those suspicions were confirmed, Tines Kendricks recalled, “every nigger on dat place left. Dey sure done dat; an’ old mars an’ old mis’, dey never had a hand left there on that great big place, an’ all that ground layin’ out.”13
With emancipation, many blacks redefined the mutual obligations which had been implicit in the slave-master relationship. They were now apt to demand not only the protection and care to which they had been accustomed but a compensation, respect, and autonomy that would be commensurate with their new status. If they thought their former master incapable of such concessions, or if he violated their expectations (as on the first payday), that was sufficient reason to sever the old ties. Even if the master proved agreeable, some blacks found it impossible to give full expression to their freedom in the presence of people who had only recently demanded their absolute obedience and subserviency. All too often, as the freedmen quickly discovered, their previous owners, no matter how well-intentioned, were willing to do everything for them except accord them the same dignity and respect they demanded for themselves. Trying to make some sense out of his recent losses, a South Carolina planter explained to a northern visitor how he had made such a good home for his slaves and how he had cared for them in health and sickness. With a note of pride in his voice, he declared that he had been so solicitous of his slaves that they had never been obliged to think for themselves. And yet, “these niggers all left me,” and they did so at the first opportunity.14
Rather than accept their losses as an inevitable consequence of emancipation, many planter families viewed them as betrayal of a mutual trust. Provoked by such charges, the black newspaper in New Orleans asked the white South what it might have expected from a people who had spent a lifetime in bondage. If the freed slaves had remained passive, that would only have confirmed their inferiority as a race, incapable of appreciating the value of freedom. But in choosing to exercise that freedom and the rights belonging to free Americans, they stood convicted of moral treason and ingratitude.
Four or five years ago, there was nothing but praise coming forth from the lips of the Southern people when alluding to the colored population. The negro was a good-natured being; he was a faithful and devoted servant; he would sacrifice his life, if necessary, to save his masters, … and on many a battle-field, it was recorded that some negro boy had gallantly fought in the ranks of the Confederates, by the side of his owner; and so forth.
The Northern soldier came down to the cotton and sugar plantations, and made the black man free. And, lo! for the great crime of accepting the boon of freedom, the negro can expect nothing but hatred, insults and contumeliousness at the hands of his former well-wishers. Would the Southerner esteem the black man more, if the latter had esteemed his freedom less? if he was less of a man? if he cared not for his human dignity? if he had less self-respect? if he was ready to sacrifice his rights?15
Even if the former slaveholders would have regarded these as valid questions, which is doubtful, they were in no emotional state to venture any answers.
SINCE THE END OF THE WAR, nothing had seemed quite the same to the old slaveholding families. Even if they pretended to understand the fragile nature of the old ties, that could not make the losses any more bearable. “Something dreadful has happened dear Diary,” confided a Florida woman in May 1865.
I hardly know how to tell it, my dear black mammy has left us.… I feel lost, I feel as if someone is dead in the house. Whatever will I do without my Mammy? When she was going she stopped on the doorstep and, shaking her fist at Mother [with whom she had had an altercation], she said: “I’ll miss you—the Lord knows I’ll miss you—but you’ll miss me, too—you see if you don’t.”
With equal consternation, a young Virginia woman returned home from school to find “everything strange” in the household; the cook, who had “reigned” in the kitchen for some thirty years, had gone to Richmond, as had most of the servants. “I cannot tell you how it oppressed me to miss the familiar black faces I have loved all my life, and to feel that our negroes cared so little for us, and left at the first invitation.”16
Although many families had anticipated losses, they may have underestimated how they would feel when the blacks actually confirmed their fears. Despite the wartime lessons, which should have forced some humility upon the slaveholding class, they still had enormous self-pride invested in the postwar behavior of the freed slaves, along with an image of themselves that they expected their blacks to authenticate. But the first waves of postwar departures failed to sustain that image in numerous instances, and the cries of ingratitude and betrayal were repeated with even greater vigor and frequency than during the war, compounded this time by a growing feeling of helplessness. “Just imagine,” a Virginia woman wrote of herself and her husband, “two forlorn beings as we are, neither of us able to help ourselves, left without a soul to do anything for us.” The same themes of despair and disbelief thus persisted. That those for whom they had done the most should have demonstrated the greatest degree of ingratitude still perplexed them. Even more inexplicable, many of the servants who had stood by their white families in the worst period of the war, who had given them comfort and support when it was badly needed, were now abandoning them. No sooner had the war ended than the servant of Emma LeConte who had foraged for food to nourish the child entrusted to her care became “a great nuisance” and then departed “unexpectedly.”17
It was all like a horrible dream, Grace Elmore lamented, “this breaking up of old ties, the giving up of those with whom your life has been spent, and making a new and wholly unknown start.” Even if the bulk of the work force remained with them, the departure of certain individuals gave former masters and mistresses little reason to place much confidence in the others. In the Elmore household in South Carolina, the fidelity of most of the servants seemed almost forgotten amidst the distress over the departure of “Old Mary,” the reliable nurse “of whom we expected most because of her age and the baby.”
Saturday evening she was told of her freedom & expressed quiet satisfaction, but said none could be happy without prayer (the hypocrite) and Monday by daylight she took herself off, leaving the poor baby without a nurse. I feel so provoked, of course one cannot expect total sacrifice of self, but certainly there should be some consideration of others. Old Mary is off my books for any kindness or consideration I may be able to show her in after years. I would not turn on my heel to help her, a more pampered indulged old woman one could find no where.… I think a marked difference should be shown between those who act in a thoughtful and affectionate manner, and those who show no thought or care for you.
With her servants gradually leaving, Mary Jones reached essentially the same conclusion in her Georgia home; in fact, she thought it a triumph of sorts that she had managed to overcome any “anxieties” she might have once felt for this race of people. “My life long (I mean since I had a home) I have been laboring and caring for them, and since the war have labored with all my might to supply their wants, and expended everything I had upon their support, directly or indirectly; and this is their return.”18
Whether provoked by the departures or by the behavior of the blacks who remained, white families looked on with emotions that varied from outrage to resignation to sorrow, and many ran the entire gamut of emotions. The tearful postwar separations between some of the freed slaves and their “white folks” did so much to reinforce the self-image of the slaveholding class that such scenes became a common theme in late-nineteenth-century southern romanticism. While the stories were often embellished and exaggerated, they were not without some basis in fact. But with the passage of time, the chroniclers who regaled new generations with those scenes tended to forget their exceptional quality. That is, the affections held by masters and mistresses for their former slaves were almost always reserved for certain favorites, usually a few of the “uncles” and “aunties” who had a long record of service to the family. But that said very little about the ways in which these same masters and mistresses regarded the bulk of their blacks. On a plantation in Florida, Susan Bradford, a young white woman, described the “pitiful” scene in which one of the family servants left them. The tears flowed freely, there were embraces, and everyone in the family shared in the prevailing sorrow over losing Nellie. But this same Susan Bradford, who had been deeply touched by this emotional parting, thought little about swinging a whip into a group of black children who had offended her by singing “We’ll hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree.” If anything, she seemed to relish the opportunity to vent her anger in this way. “Laying the whip about me with all the strength I could muster I soon had the whole crowd flying toward the Quarter, screaming as they went.” The family that bestowed such affection on the parting Nellie watched the proceedings and thought it amusing that nineteen-year-old Susan should be striking a black for the first time.19
If some ex-slaves still commanded the affection and appreciation of their masters and mistresses because of the quality of their previous service to the family, many others forfeited such consideration by their post-emancipation behavior. During slavery, white families had demanded obedience and passive submission from their blacks. After emancipation, it proved difficult if not impossible for these same families to accept the idea that a presidential proclamation, a military order, or even a constitutional amendment could free the blacks from obligations that they presumed immutable. What outraged them was not simply that many blacks left but that they did so despite the urgent pleas to remain and in a manner often not in keeping with the deference and humility whites expected of their black folk. The line between leaving the plantation and insolence was never altogether clear, as more than one black victim would discover.20
Disgruntled planters, or agents acting on their behalf, were not averse to using forcible means to keep the blacks on the plantations and to punish those who left. Six former slaves in the Clarendon district of South Carolina expressed their dissatisfaction with the overseer by leaving the plantation in a body; the overseer and several neighbors pursued them with dogs, captured the entire group, shot one who tried to escape and hanged the others by the roadside. That show of force was sufficient to keep the remaining hands on the plantation, at least for another month. In Gates County, North Carolina, a planter explained to his freed slaves that “he was better used to them than to others” and he urged them to remain for board, two suits of clothing, and a bonus of “one Sunday suit” upon completion of the crop. When one of the hands exercised his prerogative as a free man to decline the offer, the master’s son “flew at him and cuffed and kicked him”; the others heeded the lesson and indicated they were “perfectly willing to stay,” but the master still thought it advisable to have them closely watched. Few masters pursued such matters as relentlessly as the planter who located in a nearby city the black woman who had left him and then shot her when she refused to return with him. In reporting this incident for a northern audience, the New York Times correspondent tried very hard to maintain his detachment—and he succeeded. “Whipping, paddling, and other customs, peculiar to the palmy days of the institution, are practiced, and the negro finds, to his heart’s sorrow, that his sore-headed master is loath to give him up. There is fault on both sides and equal exaggerations in the representations of difficulties, by both master and servant.”21
If the planter could not induce his freed slaves to remain, either by persuasion or forcible means, he might then call upon local or Federal officials for assistance, and all too often they readily complied with such requests. Local police and Home Guard units (often made up of ex-Confederate soldiers) proved particularly effective in “persuading” many freedmen to return to the plantations on which they had previously worked; the more recalcitrant ones were likely to be flogged or shot. In Northampton County, Virginia, the Home Guards shot three freedmen when they refused to return to their old master after having accepted employment elsewhere. And in Edgefield, South Carolina, a guerrilla band headed by Dick Colburn made it “their business” to compel the freed slaves to remain with their former masters. Much to the bewilderment and consternation of the freedmen, Federal authorities—both Union Army and Freedmen’s Bureau officers—actively conspired with planters in numerous instances to accomplish the same objective, though they were apt to defend their actions as in the best interests of the freedmen and the experiment in free labor.22
Despite these efforts, many freedmen persisted in separating themselves from their places of bondage. The white South viewed them as taking to the road without purpose or destination, except to leave those who had previously cared for them in favor of settling in the nearest town. For the whites, this aspect of the migration created the most consternation. To see their former slaves abandon them for no better assurances or offers anywhere else did little for the master’s view of himself and simply heightened the bitterness and reinforced the sense of personal “betrayal.” After seeing a number of blacks leave his plantation, a proprietor in Georgia rode up to them and demanded to know where they were going. “I don’t know where I will get to before I stop,” one of the freedmen replied, apparently in a tone of voice that suggested anything but deference to a superior. Recounting the incident, Gertrude Thomas explained that only a white Southerner could have possibly appreciated “the feelings” such a reply provoked in the offended white man. “Buddy fired his pistol twice,” she reported, “and created much alarm among them.”23
That so many ex-slaves left their “white folks” for a difficult and unknown alternative attests to their remarkable courage and determination and to the brittle quality of the “old ties.” Unaccustomed to such displays of black independence, the old slaveholding class moved quickly to save itself—to check the movements of the freedmen and to restore stability to the shattered labor system.
TO LOOK AT the congested railroad depots, the makeshift camps along the tracks, the hastily constructed freedmen villages, and the stragglers crowding the country roads, bundles under their arms or slung over their shoulders, many of them hungry, sick, and barely clad, the impression conveyed was that of an entire people on the move. Such scenes took on, in fact, all the dimensions of the more classic postwar movements of refugees. Traveling between Jackson and Vicksburg, a Union Army officer found the roads filled with “hungry, naked, foot-sore” freedmen and their families, “aliens in their native land, homeless, and friendless,” some of them becoming “vagabonds and thieves from both necessity and inclination.” Less sympathetic was the Freedmen’s Bureau officer who thought most of the ex-sJaves left their homes under the impression “that Freedom relieved them from Labor.”24
If native whites and Federal officials perceived thousands of freedmen on the road with no purpose but to experience the sensation of freedom, they tended to exaggerate the numbers of such migrants and failed to appreciate many of the more substantial reasons for moving. For many black men and women, the post-emancipation migration represented something more than mere caprice or wanderlust. To move was to improve their economic position, to locate family members, to return to the homes from which they had been removed during the war, and to relocate themselves in places where they could more readily secure their newly won rights. “I met men plodding along Virginia and North Carolina roads,” a northern reporter wrote, “who had come from distant parts of those States, or from distant States, seeking work or looking for relatives. One man I remember who had walked from Georgia in the hope of finding at Salisbury a wife from whom he had been separated years before by sale. In Louisiana, I met men and women who since the war had made long journeys in order to see their parents or children.… These were sights that seemed to fill every white Southerner with anger.”25
During the war, thousands of slaves had been removed from the threatened regions, like the South Carolina low country, to the more remote sections of the state, where they would be out of the path of the Union Army, insulated from dangerous influences, and still available for some kind of labor. With the confirmation of their freedom, many of these “refugeed” blacks wanted to return to their old homes and friends and to the type of labor with which they were familiar. Not only did they seek employment “in labor which they understood better,” one observer noted, but “it might easily be that no place could well be worse than the region in which they found themselves when the war closed.” Near Kingsville, South Carolina, a black refugee camp was made up almost exclusively of men and women who had worked for a rice planter on the Combahee River before being removed to the Richland district, where they were put to work raising other crops. For several days, they had been waiting beside the railroad tracks for transportation to their old residences. “All we gang o’ nigger is rice nigger,” they declared, as if that were sufficient explanation. If he could not obtain a piece of land for himself upon his return, one of the freedmen declared, he preferred to go back to the old rice plantation and labor there with his fellow workers for money or shares.26
With some 125,000 slaves having been removed to Texas during the war, many of these now joined the steady stream of migrants traveling along the old San Antonio road, eager to get back to their old homes in Louisiana, Mississippi, and elsewhere—“or, at all events, to get out of Texas.” To undertake the trek required considerable fortitude, many freedmen preferred to take their chances in Texas, and the decision in some instances split families asunder, with some returning to the old places and others remaining in their new homes. “Pappy, him goes back to Louisiana to massa’s place,” Fred Brown recalled. “Dat am de las’ we hears from him. Mammy and I goes to Henderson [Texas] and I works at dis and dat and cares for my mammy ten years, till she dies. Den I gits jobs as cook in Dallas and Houston and lots of other places.” After being abandoned by their master in the regions to which he had removed them, some freedmen were more than justified in invoking the cry of “ingratitude” and did so. Near Macon, Georgia, a northern traveler encountered a group of twenty-six former slaves who had come from Mississippi and were determined to reach their old homes in South Carolina. “My young master moved to Mississippi and took us with him,” an elderly freedman explained. “He had a great many slaves. When de Lord brought freedom to us, why my young master turned us out, said we was no good, we couldn’t work any, and said go away.” Such instances may have been exceptional. If the planter did not feel responsible for his former slaves, he might be sufficiently anxious for their continued labor to arrange for their transportation to the regions from which he had removed them.27
Rather than return to the plantations from which they had recently been moved, some freedmen chose, as did Cheney Cross’s father, to “put out for de place where he fust belong”—that is, to the old plantations on which they had once labored before being sold away. Such destinations were not nearly as inexplicable as some observers thought. When Jane Sutton, a Mississippi slave who had been given to her master’s married daughter, walked “all de way back” to the old place, she had a clear purpose in mind. “I wanted to see Old Mis’ an’ my Mammy an’ my brothers an’ sisters.” For a different reason, Andy J. Anderson resolved to return to the plantation in Williamson County, Texas, from which he had been sold several years before. After his first master, Jack Haley, had left for military service, the overseer made life intolerable for the slaves; Anderson was sold to a man “what hell am too good for” and then sold again to a “good” master. Once the war ended, he traveled at night and hid by day to avoid the patrollers and headed back to the old place, where he remained in hiding until Haley returned and fired the overseer. Emerging from his father’s cabin, Andy Anderson then greeted his old master—a day he would recall many decades later as “de happies’ time in my life.”28
When Louisa Adams, a North Carolina freedwoman, returned with her parents to the same region in which they had been slaves, they did not go back to the old plantation, which had nothing but bad memories for them, but went to work for a neighboring planter. This typified the attachment which numerous ex-slaves felt not so much to the old master or mistress but to the region they knew most intimately, the familiar surroundings in which they had been raised. Attachments to “the old range,” as they called it, often took priority over attractive offers made by planters elsewhere who were reputed to be good employers. Joseph Maxwell, a Georgia planter, urged the slaves he had removed to Early County during the war to stay with him and “be well cared for.” But most of them insisted on leaving, not because they respected him any less (“We lub de massa an’ work ha’d fo’ him”), but because they wanted to return to “de place whar we libed befo’—Liberty County.” To the astonishment of a Freedmen’s Bureau officer in South Carolina, the blacks who had been removed to the up-country “were crazy to get back to their native flats of ague and country fever,” while the “Highland darkeys who had drifted down to the seashore were sending urgent requests to be ‘fotched home again.’ ”29
Even if only partially understood, the pervasive quality of local attachments provided some convenient answers to some troublesome questions about post-emancipation behavior. After examining the prevailing discontent among the blacks in a freedmen’s camp near Goodrich’s Landing, Louisiana, a northern reporter ascribed it all to “homesickness,” for few of them had been raised in this region. “Perhaps the most marked trait in the negro character,” he suggested, “is his love of home and of the localities to which he is accustomed. They all pine for their homes. They long for the old quarters they have lived in; for the old woods they have roamed in, and the old fields they have tilled.” Several of the physicians in charge of these camps came up with still another malady peculiar to the Negro psyche—“homesickness” and “nostalgia.” “They get thinking of their old homes and if they have left their families, or any part of them behind, they long to see them, and so they become depressed in spirits and yield readily to the first attack of disease, or succumb to the depression alone.” Only this strong local attachment could presumably explain why Lucy Sanders’ mother returned to her first master, though he had sold his slaves “to obtain the cash value” in the expectation that they might be emancipated. Whatever the most compelling reasons for these moves, the results proved quite acceptable to the planters who stood to gain by their labor. “This love for home,” a Freedmen’s Bureau official in Meridian, Mississippi, predicted, “will be of great service to us in reorganizing this Country under the new order of things.” In the lexicon of the Bureau, that meant getting the ex-slaves back to work.30
When the war ended, Simon Crum, a black corporal in Higginson’s regiment, vowed to leave the South altogether. “I’se made up my mind,” he declared, “dat dese yere Secesh will neber be cibilized in my time.” Although the explanation seemed plausible enough to many ex-slaves, particularly after the first year of “freedom,” few of them acted out his conclusion. Both during and after the war, several groups of freed slaves, largely women and children, were shipped to northern cities, where they were placed under the supervision of various benevolent societies. But this never became a significant movement. The few who did come North in this fashion were usually employed in domestic jobs. Before the expected arrival of a hundred Virginia blacks, a New York newspaper announced that applications were being accepted in the basement of Brooklyn’s Methodist Episcopal Church for “first-rate domestics.” Most freedmen and freedwomen, however, if they even considered the possibility, rejected migration to the North as neither feasible nor desirable. Whatever the mammoth problems of transition they now faced, the ex-slaves seemed to suggest by their actions that following the North Star no longer constituted the only way to achieve their freedom.31
If the North seemed unattractive or impractical, Africa was even more so. Although several prominent northern blacks had maintained their commitment to African emigration through the first years of the war, few of them remained active in the movement after the Emancipation Proclamation. Between 1866 and 1871, however, several thousand blacks, many of them from South Carolina, did accept the offer of the American Colonization Society for free transportation to Liberia. The explanation offered by a black colonizationist repeated the familiar argument. “We do not believe it possible, from the past history and from the present aspect of affairs, for our people to live in this country peaceably, and educate and elevate their children to that degree which they desire.” But most of the black leaders in the North who had enunciated the same position only a few years back no longer thought it applicable, at least not until disillusionment with the overthrow of Reconstruction forced a few of them—like Henry McNeal Turner—to reassess the situation. With black interest in African emigration sharply reduced, and in part because of that fact, President Lincoln’s scheme for removing the bulk of the freed slaves to Africa or Central America came to very little in the postwar years. “They say that they have lived here all their days, and there were stringent laws made to keep them here,” a Virginia freedman explained to a congressional committee, “and that if they could live here contented as slaves, they can live here when free.… If we can get lands here and can work and support ourselves, I do not see why we should go to any place that we do not want to go to.” Nearly every postwar black convention repeated that same sentiment.32
For the postwar migrants, Mecca lay neither in the North nor across the seas but southward, where Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas vied for needed laborers by promising “enormous” wages and evoked images of opportunity and even lushness. And as with so many subsequent black migrations, the participants would find upon reaching their destinations that the attractions had been exaggerated and the shortcomings minimized. “I got to Texas and try to work for white folks and try to farm,” a former Virginia slave recalled. “I couldn’t make anything at any work. I made $5.00 a month for I don’t know how many year after the war.” The image of Texas as a “land of milk and honey” that had sustained so many involuntary wartime migrants gave way after the war to Florida as the “land of plenty,” where homesteads were plentiful, wages high, and laborers scarce. But the rewards proved to be far less than the promise, the homesteads less than plentiful and difficult to clear and sustain, and many of the disappointed freedmen had to settle for labor on the plantations. At the very least, the migrants who reached states like Florida, Arkansas, and Mississippi secured terms of labor that compared favorably to what they would have received had they remained in the older states. The Georgia planters, a northern traveler reported, “haggled at paying their freedmen six or seven dollars a month, while Arkansas and Mississippi men stood ready to give twelve and fifteen dollars, and the expenses of the journey.”33
Throughout those older states, labor agents eagerly sought recruits and advertised the advantages of their respective regions. All he had to do to obtain laborers, a Mississippi planter boasted from Eufaula, Alabama, was to send his “nigger” to talk with the local freedmen. “They had nothin’ to do,” he said of the Alabama blacks, and he could easily outbid his Georgian competitors who offered only board and clothing. The planter left Eufaula the next day with sixty-five black recruits. Not all the labor recruiters were quite this successful; they were apt to encounter not only the hostility of local whites but the suspicions of blacks who had heard tales of enticing offers that eventually resulted in sale to Cuba. Nevertheless, many freedmen listened eagerly to the promises of agents of their own race, accepted their assurances, and learned something about the biracial nature of deceit and betrayal.
De white folks would pay niggers to lie to the rest of us niggers to git der farming done for nothing. He’d tell us come on and go with me, a man wants a gang of niggers to do some work and he pay you like money growing on trees. Well we ain’t had no money and ain’t use to none, so we glad to hear dat good news. We just up and bundle up and go with this lying nigger. Dey carried us by de droves to different parts of Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri. After we got to dese places, dey put us all to work allright on dem great big farms. We all light in and work like old horses, thinking now we making money and going to git some of it, but we never did git a cent. We never did git out of debt.… All over was like dat. Dem lying niggers caused all dat. Yes dey did.
Reflecting on the exaggerated claims of labor agents, white and black, John F. Van Hook, who learned about their operations from his parents in North Carolina, tended to be more philosophical about the consequences. “Some of those labor agents were powerful smart about stretching the truth,” he recalled, “but those folks that believed them and left home found out that it’s pretty much the same the world over, as far as folks and human nature is concerned.”34
Despite the alarm they generated among whites, the numbers of exslaves who moved from state to state never reached the proportions suggested by contemporary accounts. The reports that blacks were leaving Georgia “by thousands,” that at least that many South Carolina freedmen were heading southward, and that Virginia had suffered massive losses, while essentially accurate in themselves, obscured the fact that most freed slaves, if they migrated at all, confined those movements within their respective states and counties. Most significantly, perhaps, they tended to seek out the counties where their people were already heavily concentrated and to abandon the areas of white preponderance. That they settled where the demand for black labor was greatest only partially explains their preference; equally important in some regions, racial violence and white hostility prompted ex-slaves to seek security in numbers, and that in turn drove them into the Black Belt counties, as in Alabama, and increasingly into the cities and towns—where, as many blacks thought, “freedom was free-er.”35
IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN any southern town in 1865. Walking through the outskirts of Macon, Georgia, where the half-built Confederate arsenal aptly memorialized the recent past, a northern reporter came upon a small hut in which eleven freedmen resided—an elderly man, a middle-aged man, three women, and six children. Bundles of old rags provided the only bedding; several stools, one chair, and half a dozen cooking utensils comprised the furnishings, and a bag of meal and a few pounds of bacon were on hand to sustain them. That was the extent of their worldly possessions. The reporter seemed astonished that anyone would have given up the security of the old plantation for this kind of precarious existence. And being a reporter, he searched for a plausible explanation.
“Well, Uncle, what did you come up to the city for? Why didn’t you stay on the old place? Didn’t you have a kind master?”
“I’s had a berry good master, mass’r, but ye see I’s wanted to be free man.”
“But you were just as free there as you are here.”
“P’r‘aps I is, but I’s make a livin’ up yer, I dun reckon; an’ I likes ter be free man whar I’s can go an’ cum, an’ nobody says not’ing.”
“But you would have been more comfortable on the old place: you would have had plenty to eat and plenty of clothes to wear.”
“Ye see, mass’r, de good Lo’d he know what’s de best t’ing fur de brack, well as fur de w’ite; an’ He say ter we dat we should cum up yer, an’ I don’t reckon He let we starve.”
Not satisfied with the old man’s explanation, the reporter discussed with other members of the family the comparative comfort and security afforded by the old plantation and the town. No matter how he phrased the question, their responses never varied: they had come to Macon to experience freedom. Near Milledgeville, the reporter encountered still more rural blacks, living in overcrowded cabins, trying to make a new life for themselves, and he asked the same question of them. Although conceding that they lived in “hard times,” none of them regretted having left the countryside for the city. “Wa’l now ye see, sah,” a father of seven children tried to explain, “das a Scriptur’ what says if de man hab a little to eat, an’ he eat with a ’tented mind, he be better off dan de man what hab de fat ox an’ isn’t ’tented.”36
The size of the city or town to which many blacks flocked after emancipation mattered less than the freedom, the opportunities, the protection, and the camaraderie they expected to find there. “Nobody took our homes away, but right off colored folks started on the move,” Felix Haywood recalled. “They seemed to want to get closer to freedom, so they’d know what it was—like it was a place or a city.”37 Even the smallest village had a certain attractive quality about it, particularly for the ex-slaves whose previous world had been restricted to the boundaries of the plantation. But most of the migrants to the towns appear to have come from the nearby plantations; some of them had been hired out before the war as slaves to city employers, they were largely familiar with the offerings of the city, and they knew from their own observations that some free blacks had fared comparatively well there.
Regardless of where they came from, or their degree of familiarity with urban life, the compulsions that had driven them to the nearest town or village varied but slightly. When Henry Bobbitt, who had spent his bondage in Warren County, North Carolina, walked all the way to Raleigh, he recalled the need “ter find out if I wuz really free.” Jordon Smith, who had been sent from Georgia to Texas during the war, headed straight for Shreveport, Louisiana, because he knew Yankee soldiers were stationed there. Several freedmen who left Dinwiddie County, Virginia, were determined to reach Richmond, if only because it had to be better than what they had left behind them. “I thought I couldn’t be no wus off than whar I was,” one of them explained; “and I hadn’t no place to go. You see, mahster, thar a’n’t no chance fo’ people o’ my color in the country I come from.” An Alabama planter, distraught over his losses, looked on helplessly as the blacks in his region headed for Selma “to be free” and “to embrace the nigger lovers.” Equally concerned, a former Confederate officer found the roads to Vicksburg clogged with blacks anxious “to get their freedom,” and a Freedmen’s Bureau officer in Coahoma County, Mississippi, encountered four field hands on the road who had little idea of what they would do when they reached the city but assumed that “once in Memphis and they are all right.” He ordered them all to return to the plantation.38
The popular idea that “freedom was free-er” in the towns and that they could live “much easier” there helped to sustain the migrants, even as native whites, Federal officials, and northern reporters dismissed their assumptions as “absurd.” The blacks clearly had reason to think otherwise. After describing the brutal treatment accorded freed slaves in Warren County, Georgia, the black newspaper in Augusta found it hardly surprising that so many freedmen would prefer to take their chances in the city rather than on the more remote and exposed plantations and farms. With violence and confusion rampant in some regions, the mere presence of a small detachment of Federal troops in the nearest town might turn it into a freedmen’s refuge; they “seek the safe shelter of the cities,” a traveler wrote from Charleston, “solely from the blind instinct that where there is force there must be protection.” The nearest town also often housed the local Freedmen’s Bureau office, to which blacks could bring their problems, settle conflicts over wages, and obtain some measure of relief in the form of government food rations. “Beaufort was their Mecca,” an observer wrote of black refugees in the Sea Islands region, “and their shrine the office of the General Superintendent of Freedmen, who at this period worked eight days a week, besides Sundays.”39
No doubt many blacks simply wanted the comfort of numbers, the chance to live with large groups of their own race away from the constant scrutiny of the master or overseer. Outside of the largest plantations, the city afforded freedmen expanded opportunities to think and act as part of a black community; moreover, they felt free to exercise their newly won liberties in ways that would invite trouble in the countryside. To be in the city gave them readier access to the black churches and the black benevolent societies; they could partake more freely of the growing interest in political questions, and, most important of all, they were able to send their children to the newly established freedmen’s schools. In describing black life in postwar Macon, a northern reporter may have inadvertently hit upon precisely the combination of attractions that lured so many plantation freedmen to the city: four “prosperous” churches (one Methodist, one Presbyterian, and two Baptist); several benevolent societies (which contributed monthly support to the “parentless and indigent”); and five schools, four of which were taught by blacks. In addition, a Freedmen’s Bureau officer willingly listened to their grievances.40
Whether they had worked for “kind” or “mean” masters, significant numbers of freed slaves resolved to abandon plantation labor altogether. Heading for the urban centers, they hoped to secure positions that afforded more pay, personal independence, and a welcome relief from the plantation routines. Those who had labored on the plantations as blacksmiths, millers, mechanics, carpenters, and wheelwrights hoped to capitalize on the same skills in the cities, where they would join black artisans who had long dominated several of the skilled urban occupations. Former house servants, on the other hand, tended to seek similar positions in the cities or worked as waiters, hackmen, and seamstresses, while field hands might become stevedores, porters, laundresses, or menial laborers.41 In Richmond, blacks still comprised nearly half the work force of the Tredegar Iron Works, and the manager showed no inclination to reduce that proportion, despite the reluctance of newly imported white workers from Philadelphia to labor alongside blacks. “We dont want any men to come here who object to working with a colored man,” the manager insisted. “We Southern men regard Negroes as an inferior race, but we make no distinction of color in employing men and pay all the same wages as all have to live.”42
Although coming to the city hardly made any of the freedmen rich, and despite the many betrayed expectations, some nevertheless managed to achieve for themselves and their families a more meaningful and satisfying way of life than they would have enjoyed on the plantations. When Charles Crawley accompanied his family to Petersburg, two weeks after Lee’s surrender, he left behind a master and mistress who “wus good to me as well as all us slaves,” but the Crawleys were determined “to make a home fo’ ourselves.” After working “here an’ dar, wid dis here man an’ dat man,” they purchased a home and remained there for the rest of their lives. As slaves, Mary Jane Wilson’s parents were owned by different masters and hence lived separately; after the war, her father reunited the family in Portsmouth, Virginia, went to work in the Norfolk navy yard as a teamster, purchased a lot and built his own house. “He was one of the first Negro land owners in Portsmouth after emancipation,” she proudly recalled. After attending the local school, Mary Jane Wilson graduated from Hampton Institute and then returned to Portsmouth as one of the first black teachers in that town. “I opened a school in my home, and I had lots of students. After two years my class grew so fast and large that my father built a school for me in our back yard.… Those were my happiest days.”43
Frequently, success in the city consisted more of personal satisfaction than significant material gain. But the examples of blacks who achieved both goals encouraged still others to take their chances. Between 1860 and 1870, census statistics confirmed what the white South had already strongly suspected—a striking increase in the black urban population. In Mississippi, for example, the black population of Vicksburg, to which so many slaves had fled during the war, tripled while that of Natchez more than doubled; the four largest cities in Alabama—Mobile, Montgomery, Selma, and Huntsville—showed an increase of more than 57 percent in black residents; three of Virginia’s principal cities—Richmond, Norfolk, and Lynchburg—now had nearly as many blacks as whites, and Petersburg found itself with a black majority; in Charleston, too, blacks moved into a majority position, while the black population of Memphis increased with a rapidity that made it a likely candidate for a race riot.44 In the smaller towns and villages, comparable and more keenly felt increases in black residents took place. Even if the actual number of blacks moving into a town remained relatively small, it might be sufficient to change the character of the community. The Black Belt town of Demopolis, Alabama, where the slaves were observed in a “state of excitement and jubilee” after being told of their freedom, had but one black resident officially listed in 1860; within the next decade, however, nearly a thousand blacks settled in Demopolis, perhaps in part because of the decision of the Freedmen’s Bureau to locate a regional office there.45
If whites had exercised some perspective in viewing these increases, they might have been less alarmist in their reactions. Despite the number of new black urbanites, the overwhelming majority of black people remained in the rural areas. To have heard the whites talk, however, any observer might have thought that the fields were being literally emptied of laborers. “They all want to go to the cities, either Charleston or Augusta,” Henry Ravenel complained. “The fields have no attractions.” The very language employed by Freedmen’s Bureau officials and native whites to describe the black migration to the cities suggested something akin to an invasion. The freed slaves were reported to be “crowding every road” in Alabama leading to the principal towns, and Montgomery had become “crowded, crammed, packed with multitudes of lazy, worthless negroes”; they were also sighted “flocking” to Savannah, Atlanta, and Houston; “an exodus” threatened to flood Albany, Georgia; Charleston had been “overrun” by blacks of “all sorts and conditions,” while Mobile reeled under waves of immigrants. “Mobile is thronged to a fearful excess,” a Freedmen’s Bureau official reported, “their manner of living there is destructive to their morals and life. These noisome tenements are overcrowded with these miserable people.”46
Even an insignificant number of black migrants aroused cries of inundation, partly out of the expectation that many more would follow. What they were viewing seemed clear enough to the white South: a once productive labor force, released from proper supervision, filled the cities and towns as vagrants, thieves, and indigents, threatening to place an intolerable burden on taxpayers and charitable services. “Before the war,” a newspaper in Baton Rouge observed, “there were but six hundred Negroes in this place. Now there are as many thousand.… We have to support them, nurse them, and bury them.” With increasing reports of petty crimes committed by the newcomers, the outrage mounted, and the ways in which blacks allegedly comported themselves in the cities fired the indignation in places like Memphis until it reached explosive dimensions.
The streets [of Memphis] are filled with them, and at every corner are seen knots of them playing, idling, and sleeping in the sun. The shops are overflowing with them, squandering on themselves and each other what little money they have acquired in anything that strikes their fancy. On the outskirts of the city are small towns made up of rude and wretched hovels that have been collected during the war, built by the negroes themselves, in which a very considerable population live, and where disease and vice in their most loathsome and revolting characters abound.
That observation, in a leading Memphis newspaper, appeared less than two months before the violent riot that would claim forty-eight lives.47
Not only were these country invaders said to be rude and impertinent, but their penchant for ostentatious display affronted a people long accustomed to monopolizing such behavior.
You will see faces black as ebony arrayed in silks & satins, of all the colors of the rainbow, with little white chip hats streaming with ribbons of all colors perched on their heads, & their faces covered with blue & brown veils, (to prevent their black faces, I suppose, from being bleached)—in fact Ring St. is crowded with them all day, it is their great promenade.
Still worse, blacks allegedly adopted a “manner of living” in the cities that would inevitably lead to the moral degeneration of both races. “For a plantation girl to go to Beaufort and stay six months,” a northern lessee wrote in September 1865, “is almost sure ruin,” and the whites, he added, were not without blame. “If you hear a man cursing the race as a lying, thieving, licentious race, you may be almost sure that he is paying money to a black woman.” It seemed to him, in fact, that at least half of Beaufort, Yankee officers and native whites alike, were “corrupt with this infernal lust for black women.” With the infusion of country blacks, city dwellers also complained of noisy nights and entire neighborhoods kept awake by drunken frolics and “orgies.” “Truly freedom down in the low country has passed from the Southerner to the negro,” a South Carolina woman confided to her diary, “and our beloved city has become Pandemonium.”48
Whether in Chicago and New York in the next century or in southern cities in the post-Civil War years, black residents of long standing tended to give the new arrivals a mixed reception, even sharing at times with the whites a disdain for the rustic manners, crude life styles, and shabby attire of the newcomers. To a white observer in Charleston, for example, it seemed as if the older black residents found the newly freed slaves a source of embarrassment.
The really respectable class of free negroes, whom we used to employ as tailors, boot makers, mantua makers, etc. wont associate at all with the “parvenue free” … They are exceedingly respectful to the Charleston gentlemen they meet—taking their hats off and expressing their pleasure at seeing them again, but regret that it is under such circumstances, enquiring about others, etc.
Nor did the older black residents necessarily welcome the prospect of competing with the migrants for the available jobs, and some would recall with bitterness how the new arrivals had subsisted on the government’s bounty during and immediately after the war.
The slaves that was freed, and the country Negroes that had been run off, or had run away from the plantations, was staying in Augusta in Guv’ment houses, great big ole barns. They would all get free provisions from the Freedmen’s Bureau, but people like us, Augusta citizens, didn’t get free provisions, we had to work. It spoiled some of them.49
To many apprehensive whites, the city had always undermined the manners and discipline of rural black folk. The way in which a South Carolina planter described the “defection” of one of his servants after the war typified this attitude: “Bob is somewhere about the City [Charleston], going to ruin.” Since at least the 1850s, if not earlier, city officials had tried to restrict the movement and activities of urban blacks, encouraging and in some instances virtually forcing slave owners to move their city slaves back to the plantations, where they could be more easily controlled. The city, these whites had insisted, bred only discontent and independence, and that was the stuff of which insurrections were made. With equal alarm, whites responded to the postwar movement of freed slaves into the urban centers and resolved to check it. “At one time,” Elias Horry Deas of Charleston informed his daughter, “I was opposed to the expelling of all Negroes from the City but now that I know them, I am fully for doing so except those that may be personally attending on you. A negro … has not as much gratitude about him as many of the inferior animals.” With that observation, he not only caught the urgency of the problem but the spirit in which native whites and Federal officers sought to overcome it.50
ALTHOUGH SOMETIMES MOTIVATED by different considerations, Federal authorities and native whites often worked in close harmony to curb black movement into the cities and to force the freed slaves back onto the plantations. Few northern whites espoused the cause of the ex-slave more forcefully than Clinton B. Fisk, a Freedmen’s Bureau officer who commanded the respect of most blacks. And when he admonished them to remain on the plantations, few doubted that he thought this the best way for them eventually to realize their aspirations. In the congested cities, Fisk warned, “you will wear your lives away in a constant struggle to pay high rent for miserable dwellings and scanty allowances of food. Many of your children, I greatly fear, will be found wandering through the streets as vagrants—plunging into the worst of vices, and filling the workhouses and jails.”51
Invoking almost the same images, black leaders, newspapers, and conventions repeated the same advice and affirmed the agrarian mystique to which most Americans—white and black—still adhered. “He that tilleth the land shall have plenty of bread,” declared the black newspaper in Augusta, Georgia, and others played on that same theme. The freed slaves who came to the cities exposed themselves to “high rents,” “exorbitant prices,” and unemployment, whereas in the country they “can always make a living,” perhaps even save enough to purchase at some future date their own farms. “You have no trade adapted to city life,” one black editor advised the freedmen. That being the case, he warned, they would be compelled to find alternatives to legitimate occupations if they persisted in settling in urban centers.
Many who flock to these large cities are very apt to partake of all the vices prevalent, such as rum drinking, playing cards, picking pockets, and knocking men down with bludgeons for the sake of a little recreation.… What little money you may have will soon be squandered in loathsome rumshops, generally kept by those who are negro-haters, although they profess to be “frinds” while your money lasts.… If you carry on in this way, you will soon become strolling vagabonds, and honest men will shun you.
Few agrarian leaders set forth as cogently the evils that lurked in the city. In addressing the recently freed blacks of Maryland, Frederick Douglass, who had himself drifted toward the city as a fugitive slave, tried to disabuse their minds of the notion that urban living and freedom were somehow inseparable. “I believe $150 in the country is better than $400 in the city,” he insisted. Since fewer temptations existed in the country to lead them astray, they would live more economically, accumulate their savings, and become landowners. “If the colored people of Maryland flock to Baltimore, crowding the alleys and by-streets, woe betide them! Sad, indeed, will be their fate! They must stick to the country, and work.” Whoever they listened to, whites or blacks, the freedmen might have heard those words repeated in various forms.52
To make certain that the ex-slaves heeded this advice, city authorities moved to restrict, harass, and expel them, not always bothering to distinguish between the older black residents and the newcomers or even between the gainfully employed and the “vagrants.” In Richmond, the post-emancipation “jubilee” had hardly ended before black residents complained of treatment “worse than ever we suffered before,” including daily mounted patrols reminiscent of the much-dreaded patrollers and the revival of the old pass system.
We are required to get some white person to give us passes to attend to our daily occupations, without which we are marched off to the Old Rebel Hospital, now called the negro bull pen.… We saw women looking for their husbands, children for parents, but to no purpose—for they were in the bull pen.… All that is needed to restore Slavery in full is the auction-block as it used to be.
The white residents of Richmond, another black protested, still clung to and acted by the old motto: “Hickory stick growing in the ground, if you aint got one cent keep the nigger down.” Despite personal appeals to President Johnson, including a delegation of Richmond blacks, little was done to resolve their grievances; by August 1865, local blacks met again, this time to protest a series of outrages, involving not only the white citizenry and police but Union soldiers—“those individuals whom we all regarded as our friends, and hailed as our deliverers.”53
If freedmen came to the cities because of the reassuring presence of Union troops and a Freedmen’s Bureau office, and some apparently did, they might be bitterly disappointed over the quality of their reception and treatment. Not only did Federal authorities afford them minimal protection or none at all but Union commanders were most likely to greet the new arrivals by advising them to return to work for their former masters, who knew them best and would thus be more sympathetic to their problems. The slaves who had fled during the war to places like New Orleans and Natchez had already seen such advice translated into orders and vigorously enforced. Consistent with wartime policies, Federal officials were as eager as the planters themselves to return the freed slaves to plantation labor and they willingly supplied the necessary force to implement such decisions. Scarcely a day passed without complaints by urban blacks of mistreatment, arbitrary arrests, the suspension of food rations, robbery, and outright brutality at the hands of occupation troops. “It appears that all the jail birds of New York, and the inmates of Moyamensing had been left in this State to guard the freedmen’s interest,” a black correspondent wrote from South Carolina in July 1866. “No Southern white man in Charleston, has heaped as much insult upon colored females passing the streets, as those foul-throated scamps who guard this city.”54
The vigor with which Union officers acted to restrain urban blacks won some grudging admiration from local whites. When the Union commander in Galveston ordered freedmen with neither a “home” nor a “master” to be put to work on the streets, a Houston newspaper was both relieved and grateful that the blacks had been brought “to common sense in a summary manner.” Nor were Galveston’s mayor and city council displeased when the Union commander suggested that they adopt an ordinance punishing “all hired servants” who left their employers before the expiration of their contracts. But for the recently freed slaves, the actions of the Union Army deepened their disillusionment and frustrations. “It is not the Southerners we dread but the Federal soldiers,” a group of blacks in Mobile, Alabama, declared as they petitioned the Freedmen’s Bureau for help. Not long after the war had ended, Henry McNeal Turner, while still a chaplain in a black regiment, insisted that white troops were unfit to garrison the South. Not one in twenty, he thought, would treat the freedmen with any justice or respect; many soldiers, in fact, cursed, threatened, and whipped blacks “to gratify some ‘secesh belle,’ or to keep the good will of some Southerner who can keep a sumptuous table. I have been told, over and over, by colored persons, that they were never treated more cruelly, than they were by some of the white Yankees.”55
Whether undertaken by Federal authorities or by native whites, the efforts to control urban blacks and to forestall the urbanization of blacks began to assume a familiar pattern throughout the South. In Mobile, the mayor instructed the police to arrest “vagrants” and warned freedmen either to find employment, leave the city, or be forced to work on the streets. “If the white class was treated in the like manner,” a black resident observed, “I would not complain.” If black “vagrants” were not fined and sent to the workhouse (as in Nashville and New Orleans), they were put to work on the streets to pay for their room and board at the jail (as in San Antonio and Montgomery) or simply compelled to return to their previous owners (as in Lexington, Kentucky).56 Rather than enforce the vagrancy laws against freedmen, numerous communities (such as New Orleans and Savannah), often with the full support of military authorities, preferred to revive the old curfew and pass regulations, resorting at times to mass arrests of blacks found on the city streets after a certain hour without the permission of their employers. Faced with the possibility of overcrowded jails, city authorities happily complied with the offers of local residents and planters to pay the fines of the blacks in exchange for their employment as virtual indentured servants.57
If enforcement of vagrancy and curfew laws proved insufficient to deal with the problem, or if Federal officials were unwilling to approve such laws, urban whites relied on more ingenious and imaginative solutions to check the number of black residents in their midst. Imposing heavy license fees and taxes on the occupations which freedmen were most likely to enter might produce the desired results and also suggested that whites were less concerned about “vagrancy” than about ex-slaves working in non-agricultural pursuits. Without the need for any special laws, community pressure was often sufficient to deny jobs and housing to incoming blacks; any whites who defied those pressures were apt to find themselves homeless—the victims of organized arsonists. In New Orleans, insurance companies considered withdrawing coverage from all dwellings in which blacks resided, on the pretext that colored people were “inflammable matter.” In reporting this threat, the local black newspaper urged black citizens to form their own insurance companies.58
To break up the urban black settlements, like the shanty villages appearing on the edges of numerous towns, local authorities might simply order their demolition. To justify such arbitrary actions, they would cite the outbreak of disease among malnourished and ill-clad freedmen and the need to protect the health of the community. That was the only excuse officials in Meridian, Mississippi, needed before they broke up the freedmen’s camps, burned down the makeshift dwellings, and drove the inhabitants from the town. To protect the townspeople of Selma, Alabama, allegedly from a smallpox epidemic, city officials barred any freedmen who did not have the written approval of an employer. Why an employer’s consent would have made the community less susceptible to disease was not explained.59
No doubt some communities simply took their cue from the Union Army’s wartime experiment in preventive medicine in Natchez. To protect both the Union troops and the city’s residents, A. W. Kelly, an army surgeon and the chief health officer, thought it essential to remove any possible sources of “pestilential diseases,” and there was no question in his mind about where to look—in precisely the same places nearby planters were looking for needed laborers.
Large numbers of idle negroes … now throng the streets, lanes and alleys, and over-crowd every hovel. Lazy and profligate, unused to caring for themselves; thriftless for the present, and recklessly improvident of the future, the most of them loaf idly about the streets and alleys, prowling in secret places, and lounge lazily in crowded hovels, which soon become dens of noisome filth, the hot beds, fit to engender and rapidly disseminate the most loathsome and malignant diseases.
No “contraband” would be permitted to remain in Natchez unless employed by a “responsible white person in some legitimate business” and unless he or she lived with the employer. Clearly, then, household servants and virtually no one else would be exempt, even if that meant arbitrarily separating families. The first roundup, in fact, took place appropriately enough at the freedmen’s school, with the children herded off to a nearby contraband camp. Although they were subsequently returned, the potential of the order had been clearly revealed. Not only did the action alarm the black residents of Natchez but it infuriated the black soldiers stationed nearby, many of whom had wives and children in the city. “I heard colored soldiers yesterday in their madness swear desperately that they would have revenge,” a white missionary reported. “And they will. I tremble as do so many of the officers in the colored regiments, when I witness such expressions & conduct of the soldiers.” Perhaps only the threatened mutiny of these black troops prompted a modification of the order and the dismissal of both the health officer and the Union commander who had supported him. More than a year later, however, in June 1865, a black correspondent in Natchez described a deplorable state of affairs which suggested how much local authorities had learned from their Yankee conquerors.
A rebel doctor is appointed on the Health Board. The consequence is, on the pretext of generating the yellow disease among them, (which is not an epidemic with colored people,) the colored people are forcibly carried out of the town. Many are taken from their employment, and their humble, though comfortable houses, built by their own industry, are torn down before their tearful eyes, and they are huddled into a swamp or plain, some distance from town, without employment, to starve, or return to their rebel master.
And this time, no black soldiers were in the vicinity to check such activities.60
Although some of the older black residents liked to think of themselves as different from the new arrivals from the countryside, they quickly discovered that the restrictions, harassment, and violence were directed against the entire black community. Enforcement of the vagrancy laws revealed an all too familiar double standard. If a white man was out of work, as many were in 1865, that was simply unemployment, but if a black man had no job, that was vagrancy. If a planter refused to till the fields himself, that was understandable, but if a former slave declined to work for him, that was idleness if not insolence. Having perceived the rationale that guided the actions of white authorities, a black editor angrily denounced the arrest of black “vagrants” in Mobile. The laziest class in society, he charged, had to be the planters themselves. “They are lazy enough not to work themselves; but they want to live as parasites on the proceeds of other people’s labor. This time is past; inde irae. Laziness, gentlemen, is on your side. We want to work, but not for you; we want to work freely and voluntarily—for ourselves.” Nevertheless, the arrest of “vagrants” persisted, cheered on by groups of unemployed whites loitering nearby.61
Under circumstances that were difficult and often perilous, urban blacks tried to develop some community strength and response. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, black residents met to protest illegal house searches and legislation that would deny them the right to rent either land or houses within the town limits. In petitioning the Freedmen’s Bureau for help, they simply noted that “this is not the pursuit of happiness, therefore We hope you will help us out.” After enduring a series of “abuses,” including the arrest of blacks coming into town to make some purchases, Vicksburg freedmen held a public meeting in which they protested police harassment and “disgraceful proceedings” in the civil courts. In the smaller towns, often removed from any Federal “protection,” the complaints sounded far more desperate. From Tuscumbia, Alabama, Jim Leigh and forty-seven other black residents voiced their disappointment over the limited amount of freedom they were permitted to enjoy. Local stores would sell them nothing (“We get a White man to get it for us”), and although some of them paid taxes like the white residents, they were still unable to get a school for their children. Nor could they purchase liquor without an order from a white man, or establish an independent business, such as a grocery. They could not even act in their own self-defense. “If a White Man Strik you With a Rock you are not Lowed to Look mad at him.” What was left but for them to appeal to the Freedmen’s Bureau, the agency which had been established, they had heard, to look after their interests. “Send us Sum help. We want Justice. We Want Justice. Gennel you can Send us one Company if you please. We are treted here like dogs.”62
Whatever their expectations in coming to the cities, many of the migrants discovered that their new freedom counted for far less than they had imagined. Former field hands were forced to eke out an existence in the most menial jobs, at least those they could wrest from the former residents who had been practicing them. To a black woman in Atlanta, for example, a mother of six children, whose husband had died “fighting for de Yankees,” survival depended essentially on how much wash she could take in each day. “Sometimes I gits along tolerable,” she sighed; “sometimes right slim; but dat’s de way wid everybody;—times is powerful hard right now.” Even the plantation artisans and mechanics who had come to the cities with higher expectations found, along with the older residents, declining opportunities to practice those skills. With emancipation, whites began to challenge the virtual monopoly which blacks had enjoyed in various urban occupations, not only in the skilled trades but in the menial jobs once considered beneath the dignity of whites. Of course, if those jobs could be reserved for whites, that would lend them sufficient dignity. In Petersburg, Virginia, the local newspaper perceived significant changes in urban labor as early as August 1865:
Formerly a white drayman or cartman or hack-driver was a sight unknown to our streets, now they share these employments with the blacks, and eventually will monopolize them.… Formerly, most, if not all, of our bars were tended by colored men, though owned by whites; now, the cobblers and juleps are mixed, as well as the rent paid, and the stock kept up by white men in many instances. Formerly, the restaurants of Petersburgh were almost exclusively in the bands of the colored people; now, we believe, there is but one establishment of the sort in the city. Formerly, we had only colored barbers; now, the native whites seek, generally, barbers of their own color, and eventually, they will do so exclusively.63
The black families which migrated to the cities and decided to remain were apt to discover that the struggle for survival deprived them of some of the advantages that had initially attracted them there. After the war, Jennylin Dunn recalled, her parents moved into the nearest city—Raleigh, North Carolina. Although they managed fairly well in their new environment, Jennylin Dunn never realized her ambition to attend any of the schools the Yankees had established for the freed slaves. The reason she cited told the story of countless others. “Most o’ us wuz so busy scramblin’ roun’ makin’ a livin’ dat we ain’t got no time fer no schools.”64
DESPITE THE ALARM over inundation of the towns and cities, the ex-slaves who moved immediately after emancipation generally confined themselves to the countryside and traveled only a short distance.65 No matter how close they stayed to the old place, however, the farmers and planters who had lost them as laborers were as distressed as if they had moved to the nearest town. To check such interplantation movement, some former slaveholders, as in Lowndes County, Alabama, agreed among themselves not to hire any freedman within ten miles of his former home. But to implement that decision, the labor supply would have to be plentiful and the planters would have to remain unified, and such situations were uncommon, especially in the immediate aftermath of the war.66
Within several months after the end of the war, the first wave of post-emancipation migration subsided, most of the migrants having resettled in areas with which they were familiar. H. R. Brinkerhoff, a Union officer stationed near Clinton, Mississippi, initially accepted the prevailing view that freed slaves from all parts of the countryside were converging on the towns and cities. After further observation, however, he realized that he had exaggerated both the numbers of blacks involved and the extent of their movements. The migrants who came to the cities, he concluded in July 1865, comprised “a very small part of the whole,” and almost all of these had previously worked on plantations nearby. By the end of 1865, the chief of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Alabama claimed to have “no further fear of the wandering propensities of the negro”; the end of slavery, he reported, had been “naturally followed by a jubilee; but that is over now.” Actually, his optimism proved to be unjustified. Once the 1865 crops were completed and new contracts had to be negotiated, many freedmen who had stayed on the plantations after emancipation chose this moment to move elsewhere, not so much to seek their fortunes in the cities as to improve their prospects on another place. But movement in itself, as many of them discovered, only assured them of different faces directing their labor rather than significant changes in the labor itself or in the rewards they reaped from it. “It wus like dis,” a former North Carolina slave explained, “a crowd of tenants would get dissatisfied on a certain plantation, dey would move, an’ another gang of niggers move in. Dat wus all any of us could do. We wus free but we had nothin’ ’cept what de marsters give us.”67
If any “new” migrants headed for the cities in late 1865, they most likely encountered many of their people on the roads going in the other direction—back to the old places. Mounting pressure from Federal authorities to contract with an employer or be arrested as vagrants, the hostile reception they had received in the urban centers, and the declining hope for any kind of land distribution had forced many ex-slaves to reassess their lives, recognize the limitations of their freedom, and face up to the urgent need to survive. Near Mobile, Alabama, 900 freedmen held a mass meeting to voice their disappointment over the government’s failure to provide for them and voted 700 to 200 to return to their former masters. The stories of disillusioned migrants soon assumed a familiar pattern. After spending one year in a nearby town, Jacob and Lucy Utley decided they had had enough. Cramped conditions in a rat-infested dwelling and a steady diet of hardtack and pickled meat finally persuaded them to return to the old plantation. With equal dismay, John Petty, a former slave in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, was forced to reexamine the decision he had made. The one slave who chose to leave the plantation immediately after the war had returned with a glowing picture of opportunities for young blacks in the cities. “Up in Winston,” he had reported, “all the niggers make five dollars a day; how come you don’t go up there and git rich like I is.” The other blacks had laughed at his story, refusing to believe any portion of it. But young Petty—eighteen years old at the time of emancipation—waited for the crop to be completed and then informed his old master that he intended to leave for the “north” to make his fortune. He promised the others that he would return and bring them “something.” But Winston proved to be less of a Promised Land than he had expected.
It was that hard, a-cleaning and a-washing all the time. ’Cause I never knowed nothing ’bout no ’baccy and there wasn’t nothing that I could turn off real quick that would bring me no big money. It got cold and I never had no big oak logs to burn in my fireplace and I set and shivered till I lay down. Then it wasn’t no kivver like I had at Marse Jim’s. Up there they never had ’nough wood to keep no fire all night. Next thing I knowed I was down with the grippe and it took all the money dat I had and then I borrowed some to pay the doctor.
He returned to the plantation, empty-handed, thinking himself “a fool” for ever having left. “I ax where that nigger what ’ticed me off to the north and they all ’low that he done took the consumption and died soon after I done gone from home. I never had no consumption, but it took me long time to git over the grippe. I goes to old Marse and hires myself out and I never left him no more till the Lawd took him away.”68
Like John Petty, many of the migrants drifted back to the old places, their dreams and expectations of a different way of life having yielded them only frustration and a sense of betrayal. To return to the familiar surroundings often became a matter of survival rather than homesickness or attachment to “old Marse.” “The Freedmen’s Bureau helped us some,” Squire Dowd recalled, “but we finally had to go back to the plantation in order to live.” Along the wharves in Charleston, a northern visitor encountered some 1,500 freedmen waiting for transportation back to their old homes, some of them also resigned to resuming the old way of life, others hopeful they might attain something better. “We wants to git away to work on our own hook,” one of them explained. “It’s not a good time at all here. We does nothing but suffer from smoke and ketch cold. We wants to begin de planting business.” An elderly black woman, who had been waiting here for more than two weeks, poured out her feelings of frustration and concluded with a dim view of her future prospects. “De jew and de air hackles we more ’n anyting. De rain beats on we, and de sun shines we out. My chil’n so hungry dey can’t hole up. De Gov’ment, he han’t gib we nottin’.… Some libs and some dies. If dey libs dey libs, and if dey dies dey dies.”69
The sight of former slaves returning, many of them thoroughly disillusioned with “freedom” and Yankee promises, no doubt pleased and reassured planter families. That some of their former slaves should have traveled a great distance to be back on the old place impressed the daughter of a Georgia planter as “a fact that speaks louder than words as to their feeling for their old master and former treatment.” The talk in the Chesnut family was of the plight of “poor Old Myrtilia,” who had left with the Yankees and now wrote “the most pathetic letters” asking to be returned. When no one in the Chesnut family offered to help her, she managed to get back on her own. That impressed Mary Chesnut, who concluded that Myrtilia, like so many ex-slaves after the “first natural frenzy of freedom,” had simply discovered “on which side her bread was buttered” and “where her real friends were.” With similar confidence, former slaveholders looked upon the return of blacks as a step closer to a resumption of the old relationships that had characterized bondage. “My own negro boy, whom I have owned since infancy,” a Virginia physician testified, “has returned to me.… He has returned to his old status. The feeling between the negroes and their former masters seems to be perfectly kind; I see the negroes working as usual.”70
That confidence rested in some instances on the satisfaction evinced by their former slaves in returning to the old places and positions. If some still harbored feelings of bitterness and disappointment over their fate, they seemed to appreciate the greater measure of security they now enjoyed and the chance to renew old friendships among those with whom they had shared bondage. Not long after the war, Mary Anderson recalled, her former master and mistress went out in a carriage to relocate their former slaves. With apparent ease, they persuaded many of them to return, and it seemed as if little had changed, with the blacks still addressing the whites as “master” and “missus” and resuming their usual tasks and demeanor. “My father and mother, two uncles and their families moved back,” Mary Anderson remembered. “Also Lorenza Brodie, and John Brodie and their families moved back. Several of the young men and women who once belonged to him came back. Some were so glad to get back they cried, ’cause fare had been mighty bad part of the time they were rambling around and they were hungry.”71
Not every planter welcomed back the freedmen who had left him. If their departure had been interpreted as betrayal or ingratitude, the former owners might not wish to see them again; some eagerly anticipated their ex-slaves begging to return and prepared to turn them off, while still others expressed a willingness to hire them but would not entrust them with positions of responsibility. “They’ll all be idle before winter,” predicted a South Carolina “gentleman,” who had apparently lost the bulk of his slave force. “I don’t look for nothing else when cold weather comes but to have them all asking me to take them back; but I sha’n’t do it. I wouldn’t give ten cents apiece for them.” Even if dispossessed planters shared similar feelings about hiring back their former slaves, most of them could ill afford such thoughts in regions where labor was scarce. Not only did planters seek out the blacks who had left them after emancipation but a few went so far as to try to lure back some able slave who had fled before or during the war. If former slaveholders found this a disagreeable and even demeaning task, many of the freedmen they sought were no less chagrined by the thought of working on the old places again. No matter how enticing the offer or how desperate their own situation had become, they might choose to cling stubbornly to whatever degree of separation from the old way of life they had managed to attain. With emancipation, Archie Millner’s father, who had been a slave in Virginia, took his family, crossed the county line, and fixed up a shanty for them on the edge of the woods. His former master, who became “hard fixed fo’ someone to work fo’ him,” located the Millner family and pleaded with them to return to the plantation, even offering them the overseer’s house. “Pa listened to him through but shook his head. ‘Reckon I better stay here,’ said pa. Ole man Brown say, ‘All right, John, I see how you feel ’bout it. But it’s all right; I kin make out somehow, an’ if you ever need anything come on over to de place an’ git it.’ But pa never would go back.”72
Where the ties between the “white folks” and the slaves had been fairly close, some of the freedmen returned to the old places but with no intention of staying. That is, they might choose to pay a social visit, perhaps to let their former master and mistress know how they were faring in freedom or to see their old friends who had remained after emancipation. Several years after leaving her mistress, Mandy Hadnot, a former Texas slave, still thought of her often “all ’lone in de big house” and finally resolved to see her again. “I go to see her and took a peach pie, ’cause I lub her and I know dat’s what she like better’n anything.” The two women said the Lord’s Prayer together, as they had often done before, and parted knowing they would never see each other again. At times, the situation would be reversed, with former masters and mistresses calling on their former slaves. Many years after emancipation, Jim Leathers, a North Carolina planter, decided to visit his old hands, most of whom were concentrated in Dix Hill, near Raleigh. “We had a big supper in his honor,” John Coggin recalled. Few of them could have imagined how this memorable reunion would end. “Dat night he died, an’ ’fore he died his min’ sorta wanders an’ he thinks dat hit am back in de slave days an’ dat atter a long journey he am comin’ back home. Hit shore wuz pitiful an’ we shore did hate it.”73
If the return of former slaves, whether to stay or to pay a friendly visit, suggested the durability of the “old ties,” planter families found even more compelling evidence in the number of blacks who had not moved at all but continued with their usual tasks in the usual way, seemingly oblivious to their freedom and the world outside the plantation. Not all the freed slaves who chose to remain, however, would have shared that view of their decision. Whatever the degree of their commitment to the old ties, many of them perceived all too accurately what lay beyond the boundaries of the plantation and opted for the relative security of the old place, at least until they ascertained how compatible this might be with the exercise of their newly won freedom.
AFTER THE SHOUTING and singing had ended, a former Mississippi field hand recalled of emancipation, “we got to wonderin’ ’bout what good it did us. It didn’ feel no diffrunt; we all loved our marster an’ missus an’ stayed on wid ’em jes’ lak nothin’ had happened.” The same story was related on numerous farms and plantations in the post-emancipation South. Not only did many freed slaves remain on the same place but they said “marse” and “missus” to the same white folks, worked under the same overseer and driver, lived in the same quarters, performed the same tasks, and suffered the same punishments for the same offenses. After agreeing to remain with his former master for forty cents a day, James Green, a twenty-five-year-old Texas field hand who had been sold from his Virginia home some thirteen years before, perceived “no big change” on the plantation. “De same houses and some got whipped but nobody got nailed to a tree by de ears, like dey used to.” But to Levi Pollard, a former Virginia slave, who also remained on the same place, the few changes he did discern made a significant difference. “Us live in de same fine house en do the same kinda work, but us git real money fer hit, a hundred dollars a year. Den, us wuz us own boss, en could [come] en go like us any white, jus’ so’s us put in time dat us wuz paid fa. En on top er dat, us could have crops, en a garden ’round de house.”74
Whether to justify the confidence placed in them or from considerations of age, infirmity, or self-interest, some freedmen never seem to have entertained the thought of leaving the farms and plantations on which they had labored as slaves. In their minds, as in their day-to-day lives, the terms “our white folks” and “our home” had become synonymous, and they saw no reason to alter a relationship and situation they deemed favorable to their own best interests. “We was just one fam’ly an’ had all we needed,” explained John Evans, a former North Carolina slave. “We never paid no ’tention to freedom or not freedom.” The recollections of former slaves who remained on the same places after emancipation repeated the same themes. This was their home, “these were our folks,” this was the only kind of life they had known, their relatives and friends were here, and to abandon the known and the familiar for uncertainty and danger seemed both foolish and irresponsible. The day of emancipation, Ed McCree remembered, was “a happy day” on the plantation, but he remained there with his parents for more than a year and thought he understood the reason. “If us had left, it would have been jus’ lak swappin’ places from de fryin’ pan to de fire, ’cause Niggers didn’t have no money to buy no land wid for a long time atter de war.”75
For some freed slaves, however, to remain on the same plantations was neither an easy nor a popular decision. Not only might they find themselves isolated from their fellow blacks who had left but they could be subjected to criticism and harassment if the departure of the others had been designed to protest the cruelty of the master or to press him into more favorable contractual terms. Her decision to remain with the same master, Adeline Blakely recalled, placed her in “a wrong attitude” with local blacks, most of whom had not shared her “happy” days in the Big House. “I was pointed out as different. Sometimes I was threatened for not leaving.” But she endured the name-calling and harassment to stay with the white folks she thought of as “my people.” If remaining with a former owner subjected some ex-slaves to the hostility of their fellow blacks, the decision to leave, as many freedmen discovered, exposed them to the violence of hostile whites. In choosing to stay on the same place, black families expected from their former master the same protection from gangs of roving whites that he had provided them from the patrollers. Her old master had little money after emancipation, Virginia Bell recalled, and “things was mighty hard for a while,” but those who stayed with him “wasn’ as bad off as some, ’cause white folks knew we was Massa Lewis’ folks and didn’ bother us none.”76
Not all the freedmen who remained with their previous owners felt the same degree of attachment or sense of obligation. But no matter how they viewed the old ties, they were all likely to agree on the absence of realistic alternatives. After assessing their chances elsewhere, even some of the more independent-minded freed slaves might opt for certainties and survival. To dwell too long on other possibilities seemed like an exercise in futility. “Us had no education, no land, no mule, no cow, not a pig, nor a chicken, to set up house keeping,” Violet Guntharpe recalled. “De birds had nests in de air, de foxes had holes in de ground, and de fishes had beds under de great falls, but us colored folks was left widout any place to lay our heads.”77 The decision to stay on the same plantation was never an accurate measure of fidelity nor did it necessarily stem from ignorance or an innate docility. But it could serve as a reliable measurement of disillusionment with “freedom.”
De slaves, where I lived, knowed after de war dat they had abundance of dat somethin’ called freedom, what they could not eat, wear, and sleep in. Yes, sir, they soon found out dat freedom ain’t nothin’, ‘less you is got somethin’ to live on and a place to call home. Dis livin’ on liberty is lak young folks livin’ on love after they gits married. It just don’t work. No, sir, it las’ so long and not a bit longer. Don’t tell me! It sho’ don’t hold good when you has to work, or when you gits hongry.
Some years after the death of his master, this former slave finally achieved his ambition of farming on his own—and that made all the difference. “If a poor man wants to enjoy a little freedom, let him go on de farm and work for hisself. It is sho’ worth somethin’ to be boss, and on de farm you can be boss all you want to.”78
Although postwar hardships in the South affected both races, blacks were sufficiently realistic to recognize that the brunt of the suffering would be borne by those without any land or means of support. Jane Johnson, a former South Carolina slave, voiced the sentiments of thousands of freedmen and freedwomen when she recalled the “hard times” after the war as “de worse kind of slavery.”79 If nothing else, then, the old plantation still symbolized for some ex-slaves a minimal but fairly reliable source of daily sustenance, and that kind of security could easily outweigh other considerations. Regardless of the harshness or benevolence of the former master, if he appeared to be reasonably solvent and provided his blacks with their immediate needs, that might be reason enough to stay with him, at least for a time. Cecelia Chappel, a former Tennessee slave, had little reason to feel any affection for her master and mistress (they had whipped her often and she still had the scars to prove it), but she remained with them for a number of years after emancipation. Despite their uneven temperament, she would recall, “I alius had good clothes en good food en I didn’ know how I’d git dem atter I lef’.” Nor did Daniel Lucas, who had worked for a reputedly harsh master and overseer, choose to join the other slaves on the plantation who quickly scattered after emancipation. “He pays me ten dollars every month, gives me board and my sleeping place just like always, and when I gets sick there he is with the herb medicine for my ailment and I is well again.” Like many former slaves who stayed, he finally left the plantation only when he married.80
What the freedmen saw and heard of those who left immediately after emancipation tended to reinforce the decision many had made to stay where they were. The stragglers who came begging for food, the sight of wagons loaded with the coffins of cholera and smallpox victims, the reports of new murders and drownings, and the stories of migrants subsisting on cornmeal mush, salt water, and pickled horsemeat, using the marrow from discarded bones to season their greens, served as daily reminders of the perils and uncertainty that lay down the road. “What I care ’bout freedom?” asked Charlie Davenport, as he reminisced about the Mississippi plantation where he remained after the war, even though his father had run off with the Yankees. “Folks what was free was in misery firs’ one way an’ den de other.” Like many slaves on the plantation, he had responded with enthusiasm at the first news of freedom.
I was right smart bit by de freedom bug for awhile. It sounded pow’ful nice to be tol’: “You don’t have to chop cotton no more. You can th’ow dat hoe down an’ go fishin’ whensoever de notion strikes you. An’ you can roam ’roun’ at night an’ court gals jus’ as you please. Aint no marster gwine a-say to you, ‘Charlie, you’s got to be back when de clock strikes nine.’ ” I was fool ’nough to b’lieve all dat kin’ o’ stuff.
But he quickly revised his expectations about freedom, and the example of those who had gone elsewhere influenced his thinking. “Dem what lef de old plantation seemed so all fired glad to git back dat I made up my min’ to stay put. I stayed right wid my white folks as long as I could.” Besides, he recalled with pride, his master would have been helpless without him.81
The ironic twists of these years exceeded the most vivid of imaginations. The same class that took such pride in how it looked after old and decrepit slaves would now behold the spectacle of former slaves caring for and refusing to abandon old and decrepit whites who had only recently been their masters and mistresses. Even as white families wrestled with the problem of what to do about their aged blacks after emancipation, many freed slaves were torn between their desire to make a new start and the obligations they still felt toward masters and mistresses unable to look after themselves. “Marster was too old to wuk when dey sot us free,” Nicey Kinney recalled, “so for a long time us jus’ stayed dar and run his place for him.” Similarly, Charlie Davenport, upon learning of his freedom, appreciated the dependency of the “white folks” on his labor. “When I looked at my marster an’ knowed he needed me, I pleased to stay.” Where the master had been killed in the war, leaving his wife in charge of the plantation, many freed slaves thought it would be heartless and a betrayal of mutual trust to abandon her at this critical time. “Mist’ess, she jus’ cried and cried,” Elisha Doc Garey recalled of the death of his master. “She didn’t want us to leave her, so us stayed on wid her a long time.”82 Even if the necessary compassion for a widowed proprietress might be lacking, some freedmen sensed that they were in an advantageous bargaining position and decided to stay, at least until they saw how the new arrangement worked out.
Not only did many freed slaves remain to help their “white folks” through the first difficult postwar years but some apparently felt that only the death of their old master and mistress could truly break the relationship. Typical in this respect was Simon Walker, one of the more than one hundred slaves belonging to Hugh Walker, an Alabama planter. The war brought hard times to the plantation; the Yankees pillaged the place thoroughly and the master’s son returned from military service with only one leg. On the day Walker freed his slaves, he asked those willing to remain to raise their hands, and nearly all of them did so. “Mos’ all de hans stayed on de plantation ’tell de Cun’l died, and de fambly sorter broke up. Dat wuz fo’ yeahs atter de Surrender.” Ellen Betts and her mother, Charity, also remained with “old Marse” until his death. And when the end came, he insisted upon seeing Ellen’s mother. “He won’t die till ma gits there. Dey fotch ma from de cane patch and she hold Marse’s hand till he die.” Even after the death of the master and mistress, some former slaves continued to serve the family. When “young Master” took over the farm, William Curtis, a former Georgia slave recalled, that was all the more reason why he had to stay. “He couldn’t a’done nothing without us niggers. He didn’t know how to work.”83
No matter how eloquently former slaveholders praised the fidelity of those who remained, thinking the old ties had survived still another disruptive challenge, the most faithful often turned out to be the elderly, the infirm, and the very young, those who felt least compelled to uproot themselves. Although many of the older slaves embraced emancipation, for their children and grandchildren if not for themselves, some thought it too late to aspire to anything beyond the security afforded by the master and mistress. While the former master might feel obliged to retain and look after these people, he also recognized how little labor was left in them. “My crowd of darkies is rapidly decreasing,” a South Carolina lawyer and politician informed his brother. “Almost two weeks ago, my cook departed with her child. Last week, our house girl left, and this morning, another girl, lately employed in the culinary department, vacated. We still have six big and little—one old, three children, one man sick, so that you may perceive there are mouths and backs enough, but the labor is very deficient.” Anticipating future losses, Emma Holmes thought in May 1865 that every servant would leave except for Ann, “who is lame, solitary, very dull, slow, timid and friendless.” In some instances, the few remaining slaves shared the dismay of their “white folks” over the departures, but for altogether different reasons. “I was de only nigger left on de place,” recalled Esther Green, who was ten years old at the time. “I jus’ cried and cried, mostly because I was jus’ lonesome for some of my own kind to laugh and talk wid.”84
To remain might be less of a commitment to the old place and the old ties than a necessary holding action, until the confusion surrounding emancipation had been clarified. After being informed of his freedom, Robert Glenn, a young Kentucky black, agreed to remain on the same plantation. But he spent much of his time, as he recalled, considering a different kind of life for himself. “I took my freedom by degrees and remained obedient and respectful, but still wondering and thinking of what the future held for me. After I retired at night I made plan after plan and built aircastles as to what I would do.” Nearly a year later, having failed to heed the first work call, he found himself awakened one morning by the foreman’s slap across the head. Glenn went about his usual tasks that day, feeding the stock and cutting firewood. His employer then ordered him to hitch a team of horses to a wagon and proceed to a neighboring farm where he was to pick up a load of hogs. Perhaps Glenn himself could not have anticipated his response. He refused to carry out the command. “They called me into the house and asked me what I was going to do about it. I said I do not know. As I said that I stepped out of the door and left.” He never returned.85
With sufficient time, freedmen like Robert Glenn gained additional confidence in themselves, learned more about the opportunities made possible by their freedom, and determined to take their chances elsewhere. After spending the first year on the plantation or farm of their bondage, scores of blacks in every section of the South chose to leave. Even larger numbers, however, began to stake out a greater degree of autonomy for themselves without moving at all. The more perceptive white families could discern the changes in those who had remained, often quite gradual and subtle but no less threatening and disconcerting. “Henney is still with me,” a South Carolina woman informed her niece, “but not the same person that she was.”86
Postscript: Four Letters
WHETHER OR NOT the freed slave and the former owner ever met again after emancipation, each of them retained his or her own memories of the old times and places and the quality of the “old ties” that had bound them together. For generations, members of slaveholding families and their descendants would regale the reading public with period pieces and reminiscences in which their “black folk” figured conspicuously, most often appearing as the authors had always wished to perceive them. Unfortunately, few former slaves kept any written records of their thoughts during the critical juncture of their lives when they became free men and women. But the “old ties” occasionally yielded a letter written by a former slave to those who had once owned their bodies (though never wholly their minds); in some instances, the communications were barely legible or had been dictated to a friend, a teacher, or a clergyman. But if the black correspondents were at times illiterate, they seldom suffered from inarticulateness. Reflecting the experiences of the nearly four million black people who had endured bondage, the authors of these four letters revealed a wide range of emotions and perceptions about slavery, freedom, and the quality and endurance of the old relationships, and these in turn were profoundly influenced in each case by the fate of their post-emancipation expectations and aspirations.
Liberty, Va. July 10th/1865
I have the honor to appeal to you one more for assistance, Master. I am cramped hear nearly to death and no one ceares for me heare, and I want you if you pleas Sir, to Send for me. I dont care if I am free. I had rather live with you. I was as free while with you, as I wanted to be. Mas. Man you know I was as well Satisfied with you as I wanted to be. Now Affectionate Master pleas, oh, pleas come or Sind for me. John is still hired out at the Same and doing Well and well Satisfied only greaving about home, he want to go home as bad as I do, if you ever Send for me I will Send for him immediately, and take him home to his kind Master. Mas, Man. pleas to give my love to all of my friends, and especialy to my young mistress dont forget to reserve a double portion for yourself. I Will close at present, hoping to bee at your Service Soon yes before yonders Sun Shal rise and Set any more.
May I Subscribe myself your Most affectionate humble friend and Servt.
Isabella A. Soustan87
Montgomery, February 10, 1867
My Dear Old Master,—I am anxious to see you and my young masters and mistresses. I often think of you, and remember with pleasure how kind you all ever were to me. Though freedom has been given to the colored race, I often sigh for the good old days of slave-times, when we were all so happy and contented.… I am tolerably pleasantly situated. I am hired to a Mr. Sanderson, who treats me very well. I am very well, and hope I may have an opportunity of coming to see you all next Christmas. I am still single and don’t think much about beaux. I don’t think the men in these days of freedom are of much account. If I could find one whom I think a real good man, and who would take good care of me, I would get married. Please, dear old master, ask some of my young mistresses to write to me.
My kind and respectful remembrances to all.
Your former servant and friend,
February 5, 1867
I guess you will be somewhat surprised to receive a letter from me. I am well & doing just as well as I could expect under the circumstances, one blessing is I have plenty to eat & have plenty of work to do, & get tolerable fair prices for my work. I have but two children, they are good size boys, able to plough & help me out a great deal. I still work at my trade. I once thought I wanted to come back to that old country, but I believe I have given up that notion. Give my best respects to old Mas Henry & his family Miss Jane & all the family.
Tell Austin howdy for me & tell him I want him to write to me & give me all the news of that old country who has married who has died give me all the news I am anxious to hear from them all tell Austin to give them all my love to all I havent time to mention all ther names, but I wish to hear from all remember me to Coleman especialy. As I am in a great hurry I will close please send me word, direct your letter to Camden in the Case or in the name of S. B. Griffin, Camden, Washita County, Arksas.
I remains as ever Respt
Your humble Servant
Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865
To My Old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson,
Big Spring, Tennessee
Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday-School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master. Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free-papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department at Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us justly and kindly—and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages has been kept back and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, esq, Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any pay day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die if it comes to that than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood, the great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
P.S.—Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
Few individuals—white or black—have ever articulated the meaning of freedom more clearly or more precisely than Jourdon Anderson. How many such people came out of slavery remains difficult to determine. But as former slaveholders assumed the role of employers and prepared to deal with the freed slaves as workers, they sometimes found their plantations and farms overrun with men and women who evinced the same spirit and the same determination to work under conditions that would in no way compromise their newly won freedom. What happened to that spirit and to that determination would profoundly affect race relations and the nation for more than a century.