Modern history

Emancipations and Reconstructions



Jefferson Franklin Long spent his life improving himself and his race. Born a slave in Alabama in 1836, Long showed great resourcefulness in taking advantage of the limited opportunities available to him under slavery. His master, a tailor who moved his family to Georgia, taught him the trade, but Long taught himself to read and write. When the Civil War ended, he opened a tailor shop in Macon, Georgia. The measure of financial security he earned allowed him to turn his attention to politics and participate in the Republican Party. Elected as Georgia's first black congressman in 1870, Long was committed to fighting for the political rights of freed slaves. In his first appearance on the House floor, he spoke out against a bill that would allow former Confederate officials to return to Congress. He questioned their loyalty to the Union from which they had recently rebelled and noted that many belonged to secret societies, such as the Ku Klux Klan, that intimidated black citizens. Despite his pleas, the measure passed, and Long decided not to run for reelection.

By the mid-1880s, Long had become disillusioned with the ability of black Georgians to achieve their objectives within the electoral system. Instead, he counseled African Americans to turn to institution building as the best hope for social and economic advancement. Advocating "Christianity, morality, education, and industry," Long helped found the Union Brotherhood Lodge, a black mutual aid society, with branches throughout central Georgia, that provided social and economic services for its members. He died in 1901, during a time of political disfranchisement and racial segregation that swept through Georgia and the rest of the South. In fact, after Long, Georgia would not elect another black congressman for a hundred years.

Jefferson Long and Andrew Johnson shared many characteristics, but their views on race led them to support decidedly different programs following the Civil War. Whereas Long fought for the right of self-determination for African Americans, Johnson believed that whites alone could decide what was best for freedmen. Born in 1808 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Andrew Johnson grew up in poverty. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, Johnson became a tailor's apprentice, but he ran away before completing his contract. Johnson settled in Tennessee in 1826 and, like Long, opened a tailor shop. The following year, he married Eliza McCardle, who taught him how to write. He began to prosper, purchasing his own home, farm, and a small number of slaves.

As he made his mark in Greenville, Tennessee, Johnson moved into politics, following fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson into the Democratic Party. Success followed success as he advanced to higher political positions, and by the time the Civil War broke out, he was a U.S. senator. During his early political career, Johnson, a social and political outsider, championed the rights of workers and small farmers against the power of the southern aristocracy.

At the onset of the Civil War, Johnson remained loyal to the Union even when Tennessee seceded in 1861. As a reward for his loyalty, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Johnson as military governor of Tennessee. In 1864 the Republican Lincoln chose the Democrat Johnson to run with him as vice president, thereby constructing a successful unity ticket. Less than six weeks after their inauguration in March 1865, Johnson became president upon Lincoln's assassination.

Fate placed Reconstruction in the hands of Andrew Johnson. After four years, the brutal Civil War between the rebellious southern states that seceded from the Union and the northern states that fought to preserve the nation had come to a close. Yet the hard work of reunion remained. Toward this end, President Johnson oversaw the reestablishment of state legislatures in the former Confederate states. These reconstituted governments agreed to the abolition of slavery, but they passed measures that restricted black civil and political rights. Johnson accepted these results and considered the southern states as having fulfilled their obligations for rejoining the Union. Most Northerners reached a different conclusion. Having won the bloody war, they suspected that they were now losing the peace to Johnson and the defeated South.

THE AMERICAN HiSTORiES of Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Long intersected in Reconstruction, the hard-fought battle to determine the fate of the postwar South and the meaning of freedom for newly emancipated African Americans. Would the end of slavery be little more than a legal technicality, as Johnson and many other white Southerners hoped, or would Long’s vision of a deeper economic and racial transformation prevail? From 1865 to 1877, the period of Reconstruction, Americans of all races and from all regions participated in the resolution of this question.

Prelude to Reconstruction

Even before Andrew Johnson became president in 1865 and emancipation freed Jefferson Long, Reconstruction had begun on a small scale. During the Civil War, blacks remaining in Union-occupied areas, such as the Sea Islands, located off the coast of South Carolina, had some experience with freedom. When Union troops arrived and most southern whites fled, the slaves chose to stay on the land. Some farmed for themselves, but most were employed by northern whites who moved south to demonstrate the profitability of newly freed black labor. The return of former plantation owners after the war generated conflicts. Rather than work for whites, freedpeople preferred to establish their own farms; but if forced to work for whites, they insisted on negotiating their wages instead of simply accepting what whites offered. Wives and mothers often refused to labor for whites at all in favor of caring for their own families. These conflicts reflected the priorities that would shape the actions of freedpeople across the South in the immediate aftermath of the war. For freedom to be meaningful, it had to include economic independence, the power to make family decisions, and the right to have some control over community issues.

African Americans Embrace Emancipation

When U.S. troops arrived in Richmond, Virginia, in April 1865, it signaled to the city’s enslaved African American population that the war was over and that freedom was, finally, theirs. African American men, women, and children took to the streets and crowded into churches to celebrate. They gathered to dance, sing, pray, and shout. Four days after Union troops arrived, 1,500 African Americans, including a large number of soldiers, packed First African Baptist, the largest of the city’s black churches. During the singing of the hymn “Jesus My All to Heaven Is Gone,” they raised their voices at the line “This is the way I long have sought.” Elsewhere in Virginia, black schoolchildren sang “Glory Hallelujah,” and house slaves snuck out of the dinner service to shout for joy in the slave quarters. As the news of the Confederacy’s defeat spread, newly freed African Americans across the South experienced similar emotions. However, the news did not reach some isolated plantations in Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas for months. David Harris, a South Carolina planter, claimed that he did not hear about the emancipation edict until June 1865. He did not mention it to the slaves on his plantation until August, when Union troops stationed nearby made it impossible for him to keep it from his workers any longer. Whenever they discovered their freedom, blacks recalled the moment vividly. Many years later, Houston H. Holloway, a Georgia slave who had been sold three times before he was twenty years old, recalled the day of emancipation. “I felt like a bird out a cage,” he reported. “Amen. Amen, Amen. I could hardly ask to feel any better than I did that day.”

Jack and Abby Landlord, freed slaves from Savannah, Georgia, 1875. Culver Pictures/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

For southern whites, however, the end of the war brought fear, humiliation, and uncertainty. From their point of view, the jubilation of their former slaves was salt in their wounds. In many areas, blacks celebrated their release from bondage under the protection of Union soldiers. When the army moved out, freedwomen and freedmen suffered deeply for their enthusiasm. When troops departed the area surrounding Columbia, South Carolina, for example, a plantation owner and his wife vented their anger and frustration on a former slave. The girl had assisted Union soldiers in finding silverware, money, and jewelry hidden by her master and mistress. Her former owners hanged the newly emancipated slave. Other whites beat, whipped, raped, slashed, and shot blacks who they felt had been too joyous in their freedom or too helpful to the Yankee invaders. As one North Carolina freedman testified, the Yankees “tol’ us we were free,” but once the army left, the planters “would get cruel to the slaves if they acted like they were free.”

Newly freed slaves also faced less visible dangers. During the 1860s, disease swept through the South and through the contraband camps that housed many former slaves; widespread malnutrition and poor housing heightened the problem. A smallpox epidemic that spread south from Washington, D.C., killed more than sixty thousand freedpeople.

Despite the danger of acting free, southern blacks eagerly pursued emancipation. They moved; they married; they attended school; they demanded wages; they refused to work for whites; they gathered up their families; they created black churches and civic associations; they held political meetings. Sometimes, black women and men acted on their own, pooling their resources to advance their freedom. At other times, they called on government agencies for assistance and support. The most important of these agencies was the newly formed Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen's Bureau. Created by Congress in 1865 and signed into law by President Lincoln, the bureau provided ex-slaves with economic and legal resources. Private organizations—particularly northern missionary and educational associations, most staffed by former abolitionists, free blacks, and evangelical Christians— also aided African Americans in their efforts to give meaning to freedom.

Reuniting Families Torn Apart by Slavery

The first priority for many newly freed blacks was to reunite families torn apart by slavery. Men and women traveled across the South to find spouses, children, parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles. Well into the 1870s and 1880s, parents ran advertisements in newly established black newspapers, providing what information they knew about their children’s whereabouts and asking for assistance in finding them. They sought help in their quests from government officials, ministers, and other African Americans. Milly Johnson wrote to the Freedmen’s Bureau in March 1867, after failing to locate the five children she had lost under slavery. In the end, she was able to locate three of her children, but any chance of discovering the whereabouts of the other two was lost when the records of the slave trader who purchased them burned during the war. Although such difficulties were common, thousands of slave children were reunited with their parents in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Husbands and wives, or those who considered themselves as such despite the absence of legal marriage under slavery, also searched for each other. Those who lived on nearby plantations could now live together for the first time. Those whose husband or wife had been sold to distant plantation owners had a more difficult time. They wrote (or had letters written on their behalf) to relatives and friends who had been sold with their mate; sought assistance from government officials, churches, and even their former masters; and traveled to areas where they thought their spouse might reside.

Many such searches were complicated by long years of separation and the lack of any legal standing for slave marriages. In 1866 Philip Grey, a Virginia freedman, located his wife, Willie Ann, and their daughter Maria, who had been sold away to Kentucky years before. Willie Ann was eager to reunite with her husband, but in the years since being sold, she had remarried and borne three children. Her second husband had joined the Union army and was killed in battle. When Willie Ann wrote to Philip in April 1866, explaining her new circumstances, she concluded: “If you love me you will love my children and you will have to promise me that you will provide for them all as well as if they were your own. . . . I know that I have lived with you and loved you then and love you still.” Other spouses finally located their partner, only to discover that the husband or wife was happily married to someone else and refused to acknowledge the earlier relationship.

Despite these complications, most former slaves who found their spouse sought to legalize their relationship. Ministers, army chaplains, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, and teachers were flooded with requests to perform marriage ceremonies. In one case, a Superintendent for Marriages for the Freedmen’s Bureau in northern Virginia reported that he gave out seventy-nine marriage certificates on a single day in May 1866. In another, four couples went right from the fields to a local schoolhouse, still dressed in their work clothes, where the parson married them.

Of course, some former slaves hoped that freedom would allow them to leave an unhappy relationship. Having never been married under the law, couples could simply separate and move on. Complications arose, however, if they had children. In Lake City, Florida, in 1866, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent asked for advice from his superiors on how to deal with Madison Day and Maria Richards. They refused to legalize the relationship forced on them under slavery, but both sought custody of their three children, the oldest only six years old. As with white couples in the mid-nineteenth century, the father eventually was granted custody on the assumption that he had the best chance of providing for the family financially.

Free to Learn

Reuniting families was only one of the many ways that southern blacks proclaimed their freedom. Learning to read and write was another. The desire to learn was all but universal. Writing of freedpeople during Reconstruction, Booker T. Washington, an educator and a former slave, noted, “It was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young,

and none too old, to make the attempt to learn.” A newly liberated father in Mississippi proclaimed, “If I nebber does nothing more while I live, I shall give my children a chance to go to school, for I considers education [the] next best ting to liberty.”

A variety of organizations opened schools for former slaves during the 1860s and 1870s. By 1870 nearly a quarter million blacks were attending one of the 4,300 schools established by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Black and white churches and missionary societies also launched schools. Even before the war ended, the American Missionary Association called on its northern members to take the freedpeople “by the hand, to guide, counsel and instruct them in their new life.” This and similar organizations sent hundreds of teachers, black and white, women and men, into the South to open schools in former plantation areas. Their attitudes were often paternalistic and the schools were segregated, but the institutions they established offered important educational resources for African Americans.

The demand for education was so great that almost any kind of building was pressed into service as a schoolhouse. A mule stable in Helena, Arkansas; a billiard room on the Sea Islands; a courthouse in Lawrence, Kansas; and a former cotton shed on a St. Simon Island plantation all attracted eager students. In New Orleans, local blacks converted a former slave pen into a school and named it after the famous activist, orator, and ex-slave Frederick Douglass.

Parents worked hard to keep their children in school during the day. Children, as they gained the rudiments of education, passed on their knowledge to mothers, fathers, and older siblings whose work responsibilities prevented them from attending school. Still, many freedpeople, having worked all day in fields, homes, or shops, then walked long distances in order to get a bit of education for themselves. In New Bern, North Carolina, where many blacks labored until eight o’clock at night, a teacher reported that they still insisted on spending at least an hour “in earnest application to study.”

Freedmen and freedwomen sought education for a variety of reasons. Some, like the Mississippi father noted above, viewed it as a sign of liberation. Others knew that they must be able to read the labor contracts they signed if they were ever to be free of exploitation by whites. Some men and women were eager to correspond with relatives far away, others to read the Bible. Growing numbers hoped to participate in politics, particularly the public meetings organized by freedpeople in cities across the South following the end of the war. These gatherings met to set an agenda for the future, and nearly everyone demanded that state legislatures immediately establish public schools for African Americans. Most black delegates agreed with A. H. Ransier of South Carolina, who proclaimed that “in proportion to the education of the people so is their progress in civilization.”

Despite the enthusiasm of blacks and the efforts of the federal government and private agencies, schooling remained severely limited throughout the South. A shortage of teachers and of funding kept enrollments low among blacks and whites alike. The isolation of black farm families and the difficulties in eking out a living limited the resources available for education. Only about a quarter of African Americans were literate by 1880.

Black Churches Take a Leadership Role

One of the constant concerns freedpeople expressed as they sought education was the desire to read the Bible and other religious material. Forced under slavery to listen to white preachers who claimed that God had placed Africans and their descendants in bondage, blacks sought to interpret the Bible for themselves. Like many other churches, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, based in Philadelphia, sent missionaries and educators into the South. These church leaders were eager to open seminaries, such as Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, to train southern black men for the ministry.

From the moment of emancipation, freedpeople gathered at churches to celebrate community events. Black Methodist and Baptist congregations spread rapidly across the South following the Civil War. In these churches, African Americans were no longer forced to sit in the back benches listening to white preachers claim that the Bible legitimated slavery. They were no longer punished by white church leaders for moral infractions defined by white masters. Now blacks filled the pews, hired black preachers, selected their own boards of deacons and elders, and invested community resources in purchasing land, building houses of worship, and furnishing them. Churches were the largest structures available to freedpeople in many communities and thus were used for a variety of purposes by a host of community organizations. They often served as schools, with hymnals and Bibles used to teach reading. Churches also hosted picnics, dances, weddings, funerals, festivals, and other events that brought blacks together to celebrate their new sense of freedom, family, and community. Church leaders, especially ministers, often served as arbiters of community standards of morality.

One of the most important functions of black churches in the years immediately following the Civil War was as sites for political organizing. Some black ministers worried that political concerns would overwhelm spiritual devotions. Others agreed with the Reverend Charles H. Pearce of Florida, who declared, “A man in this State cannot do his whole duty as a minister except he looks out for the political interests of his people.” Whatever the views of ministers, black churches were among the few places where African Americans could express their political views free from white interference.


• What were freedpeople's highest priorities in the years immediately following the Civil War? Why?

• How did freedpeople define freedom? What steps did they take to make freedom real for themselves and their children?

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