A Critical Period in the American Past-Too Long Misunderstood

Until a generation ago, many professional historians regarded slavery as an incidental aspect of the American past-an aberration in an otherwise unique and exceptional story of American freedom. Less than a century ago, prominent and acclaimed historians argued openly that racially-based slavery had been an appropriate, even a humane means for organizing a society comprising what they assumed were two inherently unequal races. Likewise, some argued that the end of slavery in the United States had been brought about without any initiative on the part of the slaves themselves: in the words of one historian, African Americans were "the only people in the history of the world...that ever became free without any effort of their own."

Today-a generation after the modern civil rights movement succeeded in doing away with many of the most flagrant markers of racial inequality in the US-that entire tradition of scholarship has been discredited. While persistent calls to downplay slavery and re-emphasize the inspirational elements in the nation's history continue to emanate from influential quarters, the clear consensus among working historians is that American slavery was far from an aberration, and that much of what remains truly inspiring about our past originated in the long and difficult struggles-by slaves and their allies-to bring an end to a system that enshrined the right of slaveholders to hold human beings as property. Part of what drives the After Slavery team in creating this site and making the research tools that you will find here widely available is our conviction that an honest and rigorous confrontation with the past is an essential element in grappling with the dilemmas we face in our own time.

An Important Chapter in the History of Working People

Attuned to the best of recent scholarship on the ending of slavery in the United States, the After Slavery Project understands the contest that developed in the wake of emancipation not simply as an attempt by African Americans to overcome racial oppression, but as a profoundly important chapter in the history of America's working people more generally. Many of the historians who have written about Reconstruction and its aftermath over the past generation have emphasized its place in a long and continuing series of struggles to do away with racial inequality-and this was certainly a prominent and necessary aspect of freedpeople's struggles in the period after the Civil War.

Attempts to remake society had an important cultural aspect as well: the sharp reversal of fortunes brought on by the Confederate defeat, which placed the "bottom rail on top," meant that even the most trivial, everyday interactions between ex-slaves and their former owners were charged with significance. As leading Reconstruction scholar Eric Foner has written, in the new dawn of freedom former slaves "relished opportunities to flaunt their liberation from the innumerable regulations... associated with slavery. Freedmen held mass meetings and religious services unrestrained by white surveillance, acquired dogs, guns, and liquor (all barred to them under slavery), and refused to yield the sidewalks to whites. They dressed as they pleased, black women sometimes wearing gaudy finery, carrying parasols, and replacing the slave kerchief with colorful hats and veils." There was hardly an aspect of southern custom or tradition left untouched by the fundamental revolution in everyday life set off by emancipation. It could hardly have been otherwise.

Electioneering in the South

'Electioneering in the South'
An Orator Addresses Freedpeople at an Outdoor Meeting, Harper's Weekly

Still, most fundamentally the process of emancipation was about bringing about an end to a system of forced labor, and at the root of the bitter conflict that developed after 1865 was a confrontation between freed slaves and their former masters over what freedom would mean, over the question "How free is free?" For the most part, ex-masters accepted that legal slavery was gone for good, but hoped to rebuild a society which kept blacks "in their place"-desperately poor, landless and dependent-in a phrase, as close to the condition of slavery as possible. Freedpeople naturally aspired to the exact opposite: they wanted independence from their former owners; land enough to allow them this, and a measure of prosperity. They aspired to a life purged of all the indignities and privations they associated with slavery. Freedpeople sought not merely and end to racial discrimination or relief from southern white cultural domination, but a fundamental change in the social and economic order on which slavery had been built-a revolution in social relations.

As the resources available on this site make clear, ex-slaves were by no means passive by-standers in this attempt to "achieve democracy for the working millions." On plantations and workshops and on port-city docks; in their churches and on the stump at outdoor mass meetings; in the state legislatures and in local meetings of the Union and Loyal Leagues, the black laboring poor of the South-weeks, months, a few years at most removed from slavery-attempted to carve out a vision of a new society that conformed to their aspirations. Sometimes they were joined by poor and middling whites bearing their own resentments and grievances against the planter elite; at other times they faced near-unanimous white hostility. On occasion freedpeople were aided by the determined commitment of Republican officials, army officers and Freedmen's Bureau agents; but at other times federal authorities considered them a nuisance, and did their best to undermine freedpeople's struggles to build a new world from the old.

A Bitter Struggle Convulses the South

These conflicting aspirations between ex-slaves and their former masters set the stage for a bitter struggle that would convulse the South, and the nation, through the late 1870s, and whose outcome would reverberate in American history-and in the history of American working people in particular-to this very day. The ensuing turmoil, which included large-scale white paramilitary terror, would test not only the determination and capacity of freedpeople to secure their new rights, but also the commitment of the Republican Party-the party of Lincoln-and the U. S. federal government to upholding these rights. By the late 1880s, the gap between the promise of emancipation and the reality of black life across the former slave South was painfully obvious, and for many who had lived through the aftermath of emancipation, unbearably disheartening. "The slave went free," Du Bois wrote, "stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery."

History did not come to an end, of course, with the overthrow of Reconstruction in the late 1870s. Poor black and white Southerners would continue in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to try to shape their world to suit their needs, and their experience of organizing during Reconstruction infused black working-class activism long after the possibilities for fundamental change had expired. But in the new context, with white conservatives restored to power across the region on the basis of a raw campaign of racial hatred, freedpeople and their allies faced overwhelming disadvantages. The national context, too, was extremely unfavorable: within the Republican Party, the Radicals who had most consistently supported black rights lost the initiative to moderates and conservatives, who were anxious to ditch the commitment to racial equality and increasingly enamored with the prospects for money-making.

In the demands of former slaves for land redistribution and in the curtailing of white elite power in the Reconstruction state legislatures, prominent Republicans perceived a threat to property and privilege in the North, a perception that alerted them to the need for stability and hierarchy they shared with southern white conservatives. Significantly, federal troops withdrawn from their role in protecting the rights of former slaves in the South went in two directions: to the north where they were deployed in suppressing angry, massive strikes by workers outraged at growing inequality; and to the west, where they prosecuted the final phase of the war to exterminate the Plains Indians. Reconstruction was overthrown and the great optimism that had accompanied the end of slavery had been sapped by violence, federal indifference and the new imperatives attending the rise of an expanding industrial America. Non-elite whites seldom realized that along with ex-slaves they had a stake in the outcome of the struggle in the South, but they too suffered the consequences of its defeat. Reconstruction was, in one historian's words, America's "great missed opportunity," with implications not only for the former slaves or their descendants, but also for working people throughout the United States and beyond.

The Varied Experience of Emancipation

One aspect of the story of emancipation that has become clearer in recent years is the variety of experience among former slaves across the South. In parts of lowcountry South Carolina and southern Louisiana some slaves tasted freedom as early as late 1861; elsewhere emancipation accompanied the movement of the Union army across the region or awaited the end of the war in April 1865; but in parts of the rural interior, federal authorities were reporting as late September 1865-a full five months after the Confederate surrender-that they were still coming across men and women who were unaware that they were free!

Others were aware of the formal change in their status but had noticed little substantive change in their day-to-day lives. As early as the spring of 1865, freedpeople on the sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina had taken possession of the plantations abandoned by their former masters and were putting in 'their' first crop. From across the South came reports that the roads were filled with freed men and women tramping over long distances in search of better conditions or family and loved ones from whom they'd been separated under slavery. But in many places, freedpeople continued to work under their former owners for nominal wages that made little real difference in their material well-being. For some, including freedwomen with young children, the aged and the sickly, life could actually become more precarious, as planters reacted with bitterness to the new 'free labor' arrangements by casting them out of their former homes, leaving the most vulnerable to patch together a bare subsistence as best they could, or to die in hunger and squalor.

Rice Raft in Georgetown

'Casual' laborers - all women and children - on a Georgetown, SC rice plantation, ca. 1895
South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

These variations in freed slaves' experience make it necessary to move away from broad generalizations about the African American experience after the Civil War and to try to uncover both the shared elements in black life across the region and the varying capacity of freedpeople to mobilize in pursuit of their priorities. When we pay close attention both to the wider regional and national contexts and the way freedom unfolded at local level we can identify a number of key factors shaping ground-level outcomes. In areas where freedpeople outnumbered whites significantly, or where their concentration in large numbers on plantations only lightly supervised by whites, their ability to shape the post-emancipation order was impressive, and in exceptional surroundings they were even able to hold onto a degree of power after the collapse of Reconstruction. In rural areas, freedpeople tended to be more outspoken and effective in the vicinity of federal garrisons, or black troops, or a Freedmen's Bureau post, than they were in isolated settlements out of the reach of authorities. But even here there was variation: sometimes the presence of an especially courageous or adept local Union League president, or minister, or militia captain, could compensate for other disadvantages. The presence of a substantial population of white unionists could temper white violence and open up potential areas of political cooperation unavailable elsewhere. In selecting the resources for the After Slavery site, we have done our best to locate materials that offer a vivid and richly textured sense of both the general context in which freedpeople's struggles developed and the local variations so important to the larger story.

The Carolinas - Diversity in a Shared Context

This emphasis on what After Slavery project partner Susan O'Donovan has called the "multiple configurations of freedom" across the post-emancipation South led us to focus our attention on North and South Carolina. Together these two states reflect the productive, demographic and geographical diversity of the region as a whole. South Carolina was one of two states with a black majority in 1865 (the other being Mississippi), while to its north freedpeople in the Tar Heel state made up just over a third of the population. Both states included coastal lowcountry with dense concentrations of former slaves and hill or mountain regions where non-slaveholding whites predominated; some of the largest staple-producing plantations in the region but also important port cities and industrial settings. South Carolina endured throughout the Reconstruction years a bitter, quasi-military confrontation that by 1877 brought an end to bi-racial Republican government and restored power to outspoken proponents of white supremacy. North Carolina was also deeply convulsed by white paramilitary violence, but in the maritime east the militancy growing out of a deep-rooted political culture acted as a check on white belligerence, and in the west divisions among whites meant that the Klan provoked opposition on both sides of the color line. In the Palmetto state black participation in formal politics was effectively sidelined after conservatives returned to power, while in North Carolina political cooperation between freedpeople and dissenting whites persisted until 1898.

Carolina 1860 Slavery Map

Map Showing the Concentration of Slaves in the South, 1860

The differing experience of former slaves and their white allies in the Carolinas reflects, in microcosm, broader trends that scholars of Reconstruction have uncovered across the South as a whole, and a close look at the documentary record for these two states can offer student and educators at all levels a unique opportunity to grasp the meaning and significance of Reconstruction in the American past, and at the same to gain a sense of the complexity and enduring importance of this key moment in the American past.

Tools for Engaging with the Past

The internet offers exciting new opportunities for making available to a large and diverse community of scholars and citizens a range of high quality research materials for understanding the past. A substantial volume of resources related to emancipation are already available on the web, and we have included on this site links to those we consider the most useful. While serious, original scholarship on any of the wide array of topics included on the After Slavery site will require that individuals engage with archival sources beyond what we have been able to assemble here, the experience of the After Slavery project partners as educators in the classroom has convinced us that there is an urgent need for an imaginatively constructed, dedicated website that offers to students and educators alike a comprehensive array of tools for coming to terms with the history of slave emancipation in the United States.

Though the website will be for some time a work-in-progress, over the coming months we hope to make available a wide array of materials in a range of media formats: scanned copies of original documents from freedpeople, their allies and adversaries; contemporary images and interactive maps; extensive searchable bibliographies; blogs, podcasts and online interviews featuring some of the leading scholars in the field; syllabi and conference papers; links to the best resources elsewhere and notices about upcoming lectures, workshops and other relevant events. In short, our team is dedicated to making After Slavery the most user-friendly, pedagogically innovative, and visually and technologically impressive educational website available to anyone interested in studying the aftermath of slavery in the United States.