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Freedpeople Describe the Meanings of Freedom

At the end of the Civil War, Northern officials were not yet sure what exactly freedom would entail for the millions of freedpeople in the South. The following first-person accounts by former slaves and free blacks describe their expectations, experiences, and struggles during the Reconstruction Era. Their actions, in the years following emancipation, defined what freedom would entail, from social equality to political participation to new threats of danger.

Land Ownership:

"Every colored man will be a slave, and feel himself a slave, until he can raise his own bale of cotton and put his own mark upon it and say this is mine."  —a Black Soldier

"There ain't going to be no more master and mistress, Miss Emma.  All is equal.  I done hear it from the courthouse steps. All the land belongs to the Yankees now, and they're going to divide it out among the colored people.  Besides the kitchen of the big house is my share.  I helped build it."  —Cyrus, a freedman to his former mistress, Emma Mordecai, after the fall of Richmond, April 1865

"Our wives, out children, our husbands have been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; for that reason we have a divine right to that land."  —Bayley Wyat, a former slave protesting eviction from land assigned to him by the Union Army

"We feel it to be very important that we obtain HOMES–owning our shelters, and the ground...which our children can say–'These are ours'"  —Resolution of Virginia freedmen sent to Freedmen's Bureau, August 4, 1865

Education:

"I was full of energy and hope, and…put forth every effort to make a man of myself, and to earn an honest living. I saw that I needed education; and it was one of the bitterest remembrances of [slavery] that I had been cheated out of this inalienable right….Hence I entered the night-school for freedmen… and faithfully attended its sessions during the months it was kept open."  —Louis Hughes, Thirty Years a Slave, 1897

"A question arose whether the white teachers or the colored teachers should be superintendents. The freedmen had built the school-house for their children, and were Trustees of the school….The result was a decision that the colored teachers should have charge of the school. We were gratified by this result...These people, born and bred in slavery, had always been so accustomed to look upon the white race as their natural superiors and masters, that we had some doubts whether they could easily throw off the habit; and the fact of their giving preference to colored teachers, as managers of the establishment, seemed to us to indicate that even their brief possession of freedom had begun to inspire them with respect for their race."   —Harriet Jacobs, Letter from Teachers of the Freedmen, 1864

Family and Marriage:

"This meeting again of mother and daughters, after years of separation and many [hardships], was an occasion of the profoundest [deepest] joy, although all were almost wholly [without] the necessaries of life. This first evening we spent together can never be forgotten. I can see the old woman now, with bowed form and gray locks, as she gave thanks in joyful tones yet reverent manner, for such a wonderful blessing."  —Louis Hughes, whose wife found her mother and sister in Cincinnati, Ohio after the war

"I went to church in Monticello [Kentucky], and there I and finally married Henry Coffee. Henry, he'd been in the war, and belonged to the 6th Kentucky Cavalry. Us was the third colored couple to get [a] marriage license in 1868....Then [we] moved to London [Kentucky], and Henry farmed and done first one thing and another to make a living. We bought a nice little place and lived real nice, and worked in the church."  —Anna Maria Coffee, interview for the Works Progress Administration Ex-Slave Narratives project

Law and Politics:

“The law no longer knows white nor black, but simply men, and consequently we are entitled to ride in public conveyances, hold office, sit on juries and do everything else which we have in the past been prevented from doing solely on the ground of our color…”   —Delegate to a convention of Alabama freedmen, 1867

"We were eight years in power.  We had build schoolhouses...provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the jails and courthouses, rebuilt the bridges and reestablished the ferries.  In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to recovery."  —Thomas Miller, a freeborn African-American who served in the South Carolina legislator

Violence and the Ku Klux Klan:

 "I am afraid to leave town and in constant dread of being murdered....This state of things cannot long continue.  Either we must have protection or leave....We have fallen upon evil times when an American citizen can not express his honest opinions without being in great danger of being murdered."  —Daniel Price, in a letter to Alabama governor William Smith, October 7, 1868

"On Friday night, there came a crowd of men to my house...calling, knocking, climbing and shoving at the door....It is a plot to drive me out of the country because I am a school teacher.  They say that I shall not teach school any longer in this country.  Please your honor, send some protection up here."  —Letter from Thomas H. Jones to South Carolina's Republican governor, 1871

Source | American Social History Project, Who Built America?: Working People and the Nations History, vol. 1, third edition, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008), 597; Joseph R. Johnson to Gen O. O. Howard, 4 Aug. 1865, National Archives, available at Freedmen and Southern Society Project, http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/J%20Johnson.htm; Louis Hughes, Thirty Years a Slave (Milwaukee, 1897) available at Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/hughes/hughes.html; Harriet A. Jacobs and Louisa Jacobs, "Letter from Teachers of the Freedmen," in National Anti-Slavery Standard, 16 April 1864, available at Documenting the American South, http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacob/support4.html; Anna Maria Coffee, Works Progress Administration (WPA) Ex-Slave Narratives, Library of Congress, http://dbs.ohiohistory.org/africanam/page.cfm?ID=13913&Current=004&View=Text; Delegate to a convention of Alabama freedmen, 1867, in William E. Gienapp, ed., The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001), 367; Thomas Miller, in American Social History Project, eds., Freedom's Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry Into the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: The New Press, 1996), 172, 229, 274, 261.
Creator | Various
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Various, “Freedpeople Describe the Meanings of Freedom,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 27, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/727.