Freed Blacks in America (1860s-1940s)

American race relations
Figure 1.--This fascinating family portrait is unidentified, but the fashions suggest it was taken in the early 1890s. A caption on the frame reads, "Mrs. Kelly From. W.R." We would guess that it was taken in the South. This white family surely had black servants. What is particulasrly interesting is that a black boy (presumably the son of a black servant) holds the baby rather than the child's mother. This is a pattern frim slave days in which a slave child would help care for younger children and eventually become a playmate. Click on the image for an enlargement.

The Civil War was not fought because abolitionist sentiment dominated the American Republic, but President Lincoln turned abolition into a major goal of the War. The idea of black civil rights had even less support, but Republicans in Congress turned this into a reality with the the 14th and 15th Amendments. Reconstructon in the South tried to integrated the new freed blacks fully into American society. Terrorism persued by the Ku Klux Klan effectivly denied these rights to blacks in the southern states. Thus while blacks wee emancipated, many faced very restricted opportunities. Problems existed throughout the country, but were most severe in the southern states. There are relatively few photographic images of slaves. Daguerotypes were relatively expensive. The new CDV and cabinets cards were much less expensive, but only became available in the 1860s as the slaves were being liberated by the Civil War. Thus we have many more images of blacks in America after emancipation. These images provide fascinating insights into life for blacks in the period from Emancipation (1863-65) to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement after World War II.

Contrabands

After the Civil War erupted, large numbers of slaves flocked to Federal lines. Federal troops also occupied substantial areas in the rebelious states, primarily in the areas of the south along the Mississippi River and Tenessee. The slaves who ran away and began reaching Federal units were at first referred to as "contaband". Federal law at the time before issued the Emancipation Proclmation became effective (January 1, 1863) required run away slaves to be returned to their masters. Most of their masters, however, were in rebellion and such an action would have alienated northern abolitionists who were strongly supporting the Federal war effort. It would have also hurt the Federal cause in Europe where diplomats were struggling to keep Britain and France from recognizing the South. Both countrues had strong economic ties to the South which was their primary source of cotton. This is much more important than it sounds today. Cotton was a critical commodity in the 19th century and in fact central to the emerging industrial economies of Britain and France. Yet anti-slavery sentiment made it difficult for either government to recognize the Confederacy. The runaways were not at first accepted as soldiers. Federal units began, however, using them as laborers, both to construct fortifications and in daily camp chores like laundry and cooking.

Emancipation (1863)

The Civil War was not fought because abolitionist sentiment dominated the American Republic, but President Lincoln turned abolition into a major goal of the War. The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the key documents in American history. Not other document except perhaps the Declaration of Independence had a more revolutionary impact on America. The Proclamation itself was closely tied to the progress of the War. Like many other steps on race issues, it was not taken by Congress, but was a presidential proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln had wanted to act sooner on the slavery issue, but was afraid that Confederate victories would make emancipation look like an act of desperation. Only after the Federal victory at Antitem (September 1862), did he feel confident to proceed. President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that all "... slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, ... then ... in rebellion ... forever free." It was a half measure to be sure. The slaves in the border states were not freed. It did signal, however, a fundamental shift in Federal policy. The War was now to be fought, not only to preserve the Union, but to free the slaves. One of the interesting aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is its very legalistic tone, in sharp contrast to the soaring retoric of his Gettysburg Address or the Second Inagural.

Liberation

Much has been made of the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves in the border states. But relatively few slaves lived in the border states. The great bulk of the slave population lived in the Deep South where they worked on cotton and other plantations. And while the Army of the Potomac struggled to reach Richmond in the East, other Federal armies took substantial areas of the Condederacy in the West. New Orleans fell early in the War because of Federal naval power. Grant after a long campaign took Vicksburg, Mississppi (July 1863). Sherman finally took Atlanta, Georgia (September (1864). Federal armies seized coastal areas of South Carolina, in part using black regiments (1863). In the process of these campasigns, large numbers of black slaves were freed. I am not sure how many slaves were freed in this manner as oppossed to running away to Federal lines. Nor do I know of any reliable estimates exist on this.

Race Relations: Liberation

Race relations at the time of the Civil War are commonly viewed through the prisim of our modern relationships and the picture of slavery painted by abolitionists. This is often at odds with the picture pained by thevLost Caue view, prominently depicted in Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'. While the the Lost Cause historians largely depicted a false narative of the civil War and slavery, Mitchel's novel did capture a too often neglected aspect of the relationship between slaves abd their owners. It was an unequal relationship and all too often it was a flaed relationship, but there was a relationship and in some cases one of respect and trust. However flawed the relationships in the South, in the North there were often no relarionships between blacks and whites. This would become afactor acenuryboatr during the Civil Rights movement. This is hard to follow in written dicumnts. Few slaves were literate and few whites set such matters down in writing. An unfortunately small numbers of photographic can through photo forensics provide taunrelizing clues into this little reported subject. These relationships were to be twistd by white resistance to black rights and ondividuals like Nathan Bedford Forest and the Ku Klux Klan. It makes us wonder if the tragic failure of Reconstructiin coukd have had a different outcome. If Lincoln had been in the White House rather than Johnson, one wonders what could have been accomplished.

Fund Raising for Freed Slaves

The Civil War created a great humanitarian crisis. There was no provision made for the slaves that rushed to the Federal lines or those slaves in liberated areas. Some followed the Federal units. Here there was some employment as there were arange of military condtruction tasks to be performed. Other set up camps in Washington, D.C. and other areas. Again the Federal Government made no effort to provide fopd and shelter. The focus was on winning the War. I believe that there were find raising efforts in the North to assist the contrabands and after the Empancipation Proclamation, the freed slaves. We know very little about the find raising at this time.

Reconstruction

The idea of black civil rights had even less support, but Republicans in Congress turned this into a reality with the the 14th and 15th Amendments. Reconstructon in the South tried to integrated the new freed blacks fully into American society. Terrorism persued by the Ku Klux Klan effectivly denied these rights to blacks in the southern states. After the Civil War, the Federal Government began a process of Reconstruction. The Federal Government descipte Southern critics, persued a soft peace. Southern soldeiers were allowed toi simply return home after afirming loyalty. Lee's soldiers after surrender were not even interned. The same was true of Johnston's soldiers in North Carolina who surrendered soon after. Blacks for the future. White southerners attepted to intoduce a legal system which kept the freed slaves in a state of servitude. Their primary instrument was the Black Codes (1865). They resstricted the rights of Blacks and limited economic and educatioinal opportunities. White southerners formed a secret paramilitary white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK terrorized blacks with beatings, whippings, burning of homes and lynching. Radical Republicans in Congress persue a policy aimed at protecting southern Blacks. Here the quarled with President Johnson (1864-69). President Grant was more supportive (1869-77). The central step taken was the passage of the 13-15 amendments which abolished slavery and guaranted the civil rights, including the right to vote, of the freed slaves and guaranteed the equal protection of the law. (The Emancipation proclamationThere was an execyive order and open to legal chgalenge.) The slaves were freed, Reconstruction brought great hope for change in the South. There were some considerable gains made. Schools were established and Blacks elected to public office. The Freedman's Bureau was established. After President Hayes (1877-81) withdrew Federal troops from the South, the white majority began to take away the civil rights that the freed slaves had briefly experienced.

Jim Crow

Thus while blacks wee emancipated, many faced very restricted opportunities. Problems existed throughout the country, but were most severe in the southern states. The hope of real freedom for the emancipated slaves after the Civil War was quashed by racist state governments after the withdrawl of Federal trops in the 1870s. The gains achieved by blacks were gradually eroded by racist Jim Crow legislation and extra legal terror fomented by the Klu Klux Klan. Lynchings and mob vilolence througout the South cowed blacks into submission and precented them from voting.

Black American Life

There are relatively few photographic images of actual slaves before the Civil War (1861-65). Daguerotypes were relatively expensive. Slaves and even most free blacks could not afford them. And few slave owners were iterested in photographing their slves. The new CDV and cabinets cards were much less expensive, but only became available in the 1860s as the slaves were being liberated by Federal soldiers during the Civil War. Thus we have many more images of blacks in America after emancipation. These images provide fascinating insights into life for blacks in the period from Emancipation (1863-65) to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement after World War II (1941-45). Many but not all of these images are raciss, especially the commercial images. But blacks as other Americans had their portraits taken and afer the turn-of-the 20th century, family snap shots become available. During this period we see many of the same social patterns persisting even after Emancipation. Share cropers were still dirt poor--although the end od slavery should not be seen as unimportant. Blacks continued to live mostly in the South until the advent of the 20th century. We note emmigration north, especially after World War I. There is the gradual growth of a black middle class. Black communities often centered on the Church. Blacks in many ways lived a separate existince in America, especially in the North. There were social interactions that in some way were more intimate than is the case in modern America. This was especially true in the South. The segregated housing patterns in many southern cities, for example, are relatively recent phemomena.

Sharecropping

Sharecropping is an agricultural system which developed in the Southern states during the Civil War. It was a farm tenancy system in which families worked a farm or section of land in return for a share of the crop rather than wages. Sharecropping replaced the plantation system destroyed by the Civil War. The victorious Federal authorities which occupied the South did not seize plantations, but empancipation meant that the owners no longer had a captive laor force. The former planters, even those activly engged in rebellion, for the most part still had their land, but no slaves or money to pay wages. The former slaves on the other hand did not have jobs or land and because they had been denied education, had few options. Sharecropping developed because the former slaves and planters needed each other. The principal crop continued to be cotton. And the planters under the sharecropping system contnued to a large degree to control the lives of the blacks working their land. While the system at first developed to obtain black labor, eventually poor whites also entered the sharecropping system. The system varied, but in many cases all the cropper brouht to the arrangement was his labor. The planter provided the land, but also commonly animals, equipment, seeds and other items. The land owners also commonly advanced credits for the family's living expences until the crop was harvested. The system was open to considerable abuse because the cropers were uneducated, commonly iliterate. Akmost all slaves in the Deep South following the Civil War would have been illiterate. It was illegal to teach slaves to read. The system continued into the Depression of the 1930s. After World War II, migrtion to the North, farm mechinization, education, other employment options, and the Civil Rights movement brught the system to an end.

Rural Southern Population

At the time of emancipation, black Americans were a rural, mostly southern population. There were northern free backs, but more than than 90 percent of American blacks lived in the South, mostly in rural areas, often on plantations in the Deep South. It is one reason why Lincoln could justify emancipation as a war measure damaging the Confederate economy. His was important because there was bound to be a legal challenge to the Emancipation Proclamation. There were blacks in the North, but relatively small numbers. In contrast to the South, northern blacks primarily lived in cities. This demographic pattern did not change significantly after Empancipation. Many of the emamcipated blacks became share croppers. This was not a system just for blacks. There were also many white share croppers and their econonmic lecel was only marginally abive those of blacks. At the turn of the 20th century, blacks continued to live primarily in the rurl South. A good example is an unidentified Savanah, Georgia family in 1907. Some southern blacks did move into cities, mostly southern cities. Relativelhy few blacks moved north in the 19th century. But there was a degree of movement within the South, such a movement west to Texas. The Great Migration of southern blacks in the 20th century was part of a much wider process by which southern blacks first began migrating within the South in search of economic, social, and political justice. [Reich] We are not entirely sure why the movment North did not begin earlier.

The Great Migration

At the time of emancipation, black Americans were a rural, mostly southern people. More than than 90 percent of blacks lived in the rural south, many on plantations. There were blacks in the north, but relatively small numbers. In contrast to the South, northern blacks primarily lived in cities. This dempgraphic pattern did not change significantly after Empancipation, but some southern blacks did move into cities, mostly southern cities. Few blacks moved north. This did not change until the 20th century. Large numbers of blacks first began moving north during World War I. This became known as the Great Migration. Rural blacks headed to northern cities. Blacks left the South for a range of reasons. The Jim Crow susten stripped blacks of civil rights and constricted most to eke out a miserable existence through sharecropping. Blacks wh resisted the system in any way risked extra-legal violence and the lynch mob. The North offered basic rights, decent paying jobs and living conditions as well as educational opportunities. Higration continued after World War I. After the Depression, World war II opened opportunities in the North never before available. The Great Migration trasforned the black population in America from a southern rural people to a northern urban population. It also brought poltical power to black Americans. Black urban voters often swing state elections

Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights movement fundamentally chnged the place of blacks in American society. The American Civil Rights Movement is one of the most momentous epics in the history of the American Republic. I date it from the Brown vs. Topeka Supreme Court deseggregation decission (1954) to the passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965), but of course the struggle began long before that and continues today. The hope of real freedom for the emancipated slaves after the Civil War was quashed by racist state governments after the withdrawl of Federal trops in the 1870s. The gains achieved by blacksere gradually eroded by racist Jim Crow legislation and extra legal terror fomented by the Klu Klux Klan. Lynchings and mob vilolence througout the South cowed blacks into submission and precented them from voting. The economic deprivation and terror caused a small numbers of blacks to migrate north and after World War I (1914-18) this migration increased significantly. The Supreme Court countenced segreagation in the Plessy vs. Fergusson decission (1898) and a system of racial apartaid enforced by law and the lynch rope ruled the American South until after World War II (1939-45). President Truman prepared the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement when he desseggregated the military (1948) and took other steps which led to the landmark Supreme Court Brown decission. Brown Although the Brown decission did not immediately desegragate Southern schools, it did help foster a decade of nonviolent protests and marches, often carried out by teenagers and youths. These ranged from the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott to the student-led sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the 1960s. These protests were finalized by a massive March on Washington (1963). The Civil Rights Act (1964) which provided a frange of legal protections including access to public accomodations. The Voting Rights Act (1965) was the capstone of the movement, guaranteeing access to the voting booth and in the process fundamentally changing America.
Sources

Reich, Steven A. (ed.) Encyclopedia of the Great Black Migration (Greenwood Milestones in African American History, 2006).







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Created: 11:30 PM 3/20/2005
Last updated: 6:32 PM 1/10/2018