Welcome to the After Slavery Virtual Textbook

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People come to the study of slave emancipation for many different reasons, and looking to answer a range of questions. Students and educators need a credible web resource that offers easy access to high-quality classroom and research materials, along with reliable suggestions about where they might find readings that will deepen their knowledge of events they've been introduced to in high school, college and university courses. For others the stories that they are looking to uncover may be closer to home: individual researchers and members of local historical societies might recognize in the resources we've assembled here place names that they know well, or historical events that they've heard about from family or friends. For African-American community and church groups, for trade unions and activist organizations, the important series of struggles recounted here may not seem so distant, but resonate in the ways they've experienced the 'making of history' in their own lives, and in our own times. We recognize, and welcome the fact that people come to the After Slavery site for lots of different reasons, and we've tried our best to build an online classroom that will satisfy all these motivations, and inspire those who spend some time working through the units we've assembled to undertake research on their own. We hope we've built a site that will appeal to professional historians and their students, but we also want be clear that this site is for all of you, that no one will be turned away for 'practicing history without a license.'

History 'from Below' and the Importance of the Past

We start from the conviction that history doesn't have to be boring or dry. Too many of us were taught that learning history consisted of memorizing an array of names and dates-almost always associated with the 'great men' of the past. As you move through the materials on this site, you'll find that while we don't ignore political parties or men of wealth and influence who played a role in events, the main actors in the story we are attempting to reconstruct are working women and men, black and white-who for a brief time in the period after the Civil War (when, as one former slave put it, the 'bottom rail' was 'on top') enjoyed access to power and stood at the center of the stage of history. The various groups involved in the struggle to shape the new society that emerged after emancipation-slaves and their former masters; Union Army officers and federal authorities. schoolteachers, elected officials, journalists and newspaper editors-together left behind an extensive record that allows us to observe, at ground level, the collapse of one society and the early birth of a new one. With a little imagination about how to approach the study of the past, and some care in selecting documents and images that can convey a sense of the struggle that emancipation set off-in all its richness and complexity- we can move very far beyond history-as-memorization.

There is another problem facing all students of the past: powerful forces have insisted, from time to time, that the teaching of American history should emphasize those aspects of our past that confirm the nation's unique status as a 'beacon of freedom and democracy.' In a powerful essay that concluded his study of Reconstruction, W. E. B. Du Bois showed how this approach had produced a distorted interpretation of our history, and expressed his bewilderment with history-as-propaganda. If "we are going to use history...for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment," he wrote, "then we must...admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish." The material presented here, concerning one of the most tumultuous periods in American history, suggests that our collective past is heavily laden both with incredibly inspiring historical moments when ordinary people tried to lay claim to freedom and equality and other, far less flattering episodes when such attempts were met with unspeakable brutality. None of us alive today are implicated in any of the events recorded in the pages that follow, and perhaps as citizens in a society facing challenges of its own there are lessons to be learned from the past. In any case we believe there is no benefit in purposely avoiding uncomfortable truths from the past, and much to be gained from an honest confrontation with our history, warts and all.

A Note on Spelling, Punctuation and Racially-Charged Language

Many of the documents included here were written by people who were barely able to read or write; others by people whose spelling skills weren't spectacular, or whose handwriting can be difficult to decipher. Spelling and punctuation have been left throughout as they appear in the original documents; where misspellings or other errors in the original render it difficult to determine the meaning of a sentence, the correct spelling has been placed in brackets [ ] immediately after the word in question. Where a word or phrase in the originals cannot be read, [illeg.] appears in its place.

In many of the documents that we have selected, individuals use language that is racially offensive. Often they did this deliberately; at other times their language simply reflects the deeply-held racial prejudices common at the time. We have opted to retain such language in order to faithfully convey the original meaning. Readers should understand that in doing so we in no way condone such usage.

This ends the Introduction.


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Unit One - Emancipation: Giving Meaning to Freedom