TO DESCRIBE the end of slavery in the South is to re-create a profound human drama. The story begins with the outbreak of the Civil War, when the South’s quest for independence immediately underscored its dependence on black labor and black loyalty and set in motion a social upheaval that proved impossible to contain. Throughout this devastating war, and in the immediate aftermath, the two races in the South interacted in ways that dramatized not only a mutual dependency but the frightening tensions and ambiguities that had always characterized the “peculiar institution.” The extent to which blacks and whites shaped each other’s lives and destinies and were forced to respond to each other’s presence had never been more starkly apparent. The truth of W. J. Cash’s observation—“Negro entered into white man as profoundly as white man entered into Negro, subtly influencing every gesture, every word, every emotion and idea, every attitude”—has never been more poignantly acted out. Under the stress of war, invading armies, and emerging black freedom, pretensions and disguises fell away and illusions were dissolved, revealing more about the character of slavery and racial relationships than many white men and women wished to know or to believe.
The various dimensions of slavery’s collapse—the political machinations, the government edicts, the military occupation—should not be permitted to obscure the principal actors in this drama: the four million black men and women for whom enslavement composed their entire memory. For many of them, the only world they knew ended at the boundaries of the plantations and farms on which they toiled; most of them were several generations removed from the African immigrants who had been torn from their homeland and shipped in chains to the New World. The distant voices of Africa still echoed in their music, in their folk tales, in the ways they worshipped God, and in their kinship relationships. But in 1860 they were as American as the whites who lorded over them.
The bondage from which black men and women emerged during and after the Civil War had varied in conditions of living, in degrees of mental and physical violence, and in the character of ownership. But the education acquired by each slave was remarkably uniform, consisting largely of lessons in survival and accommodation—the uses of humility, the virtues of ignorance, the arts of evasion, the subtleties of verbal intonation, the techniques by which feelings and emotions were masked, and the occasions that demanded the flattering of white egos and the placating of white fears. They learned to live with the uncertainties of family life, the drab diet of “nigger” food, the whippings and humiliations, the excessive demands on their labor, the wiles and changing moods of masters and mistresses, the perverted Christianity of white preachers, and the inhumanities few blacks would ever forget—a spirited slave reduced to insensibility, a father helpless to protect his wife or children, a mother in the forced embrace of the master or his sons. Not only did most of the slaves learn to endure but they managed to create a reservoir of spiritual and moral power and kinship ties that enabled them under the most oppressive of conditions to maintain their essential humanity and dignity.
The slaves came to learn that the choices available to them were sharply constricted, that certain expectations would remain unrealized, that a lifetime could be spent in anticipation and disappointment, that to place any faith in the promises of white men and women or to misinterpret their occasional displays of patronizing affection might result in betrayals and frustrations that were psychologically debilitating. Each generation complied in its own ways with the demands and expectations of those who claimed to own them, sucked whatever joy they could out of their lives and families, and gave birth to still another generation of slaves. But for the black men and women who lived to experience the Civil War, there would be the moment when they learned a complex of new truths: they were no longer slaves, they were free to leave the families they had served, they could negotiate the terms of their future labor, and they could aspire to the same rights and privileges enjoyed by their former owners. It is that moment—and the days, months, and years that immediately followed—which this book seeks to capture: the countless ways in which freedom was perceived and experienced by the black men and women who had been born into slavery and how they acted on every level to help shape their condition and future as freedmen and freedwomen.
To describe the significance of freedom to four million black slaves of the South is to test severely our historical imagination. Perhaps only those who have endured enslavement and racial oppression are capable of fully appreciating the various emotions, tensions, and conflicts that such a dramatic change could provoke. The sources for assessing how black freedom traumatized the white South are abundant, for the war and postwar years produced a deluge of reactions in letters, journals, diaries, and the press; indeed, some whites could talk and write of little else in the aftermath of the war but the dimensions of their defeat and the loss of their chattel. For the slaves, the sources are no less plentiful but far more elusive. Newly freed slaves related their perceptions of freedom to Union soldiers, Freedmen’s Bureau officers, northern visitors, newspaper reporters, clergymen, missionaries, teachers, and, with somewhat greater caution, to the masters and mistresses who had formerly owned them. More importantly, they acted on their perceptions in ways that could not escape the rapt attention and curiosity of contemporaries eager to ascertain how a once enslaved population would manifest their freedom and whether they could exercise responsibly the prerogatives of free men and women.
Some seventy years after the Civil War, the Federal Writers’ Project (a New Deal agency) conducted interviews with more than two thousand surviving ex-slaves, most of them over eighty years of age. This book draws on those interviews (along with black testimony in the 1860s) in the belief that they are especially valuable for illuminating the experiences of freedmen and freedwomen. The reliability of such testimony has been questioned, reflecting concern about the memories of aged people, the biases and distortions of white interviewers, whether ex-slaves caught up in the Great Depression might not recall more favorably the relative security—food, clothing, and shelter—afforded them under bondage, and the likelihood that black men and women still seeking to survive in the racially oppressive South of the 1930s might choose to fall back on time-honored tactics of evasion and selectivity, thinking it expedient to tell whites what they thought the whites wanted to hear. Such objections suggest not that these records are invalid but only that historians need to use them with care and subject them to the same rigorous standards of historical criticism they would apply to other sources. Fortunately, and not surprisingly, neither old age nor the presence of a white interviewer seems to have dimmed the memories of such a critical event in their lives. Whether they chose to recall bondage with terror, nostalgia, or mixed feelings, their thoughts, concerns, and priorities at the moment they ceased to be slaves emerge with remarkable clarity and seldom conflict significantly with the contemporary historical evidence.
Whatever the surviving sources of black testimony, they have been compiled largely by white men and women. Not only could the reporter’s race influence what he chose to record but his unfamiliarity with black speech patterns affected how he transmitted the material. No attempt has been made in this book to alter the transcription of Negro dialect, even in those instances where the white man’s perception of black language seems obviously and intentionally distorted. But to transpose the dialect into standard English would only introduce other forms of distortion and project into black speech the biases and predilections of the modern observer. For that reason, the reader will simply be asked to keep in mind the conditions under which black people often related their experiences, including the circumspection some of them deemed necessary in the presence of whites.
Never before had black people in the South found any reason to view the future with more hope or expectation than in the 1860s. The war and freedom injected into their lives the excitement of anticipation, encouraged a new confidence in their own capabilities, and afforded them a rare insight into the vulnerability and dependency of their “white folks.” For many, these were triumphs in themselves. If their optimism seems misplaced, the sights which greeted newly freed slaves suggested otherwise—black armies of occupation, families reunited, teachers offering to instruct them, Federal officials placing thousands of them on abandoned and confiscated lands, former masters prepared to bargain for their labor, and black missionaries organizing them in churches based upon a free and independent expression of their Christianity. To measure the significance of emancipation is not to compare the material rewards of freedom and slavery, as many contemporaries were apt to do, but to appreciate the many and varied ways in which the newly freed moved to reorder their lives and priorities and the new assumptions upon which they acted.
Even as many freed blacks found themselves exhilarated by the prospects for change, the old ways of living, working, and thinking did not die easily and those who had been compelled to free them immediately searched for alternative ways to exploit their labor and command their lives. Seldom in history have any people faced tasks so formidable and challenging as those which four million southern blacks confronted in the aftermath of the Civil War. This experience, like that of their enslavement, they could share with no other Americans. Nor was the dominant society about to rearrange its values and priorities to grant to black Americans a positive assistance commensurate with the inequalities they had suffered and the magnitude of the problems they faced. If the ex-slaves were to succeed, they would have to depend largely on their own resources. Under these constraints, a recently enslaved people sought ways to give meaning to their new status. The struggles they would be forced to wage to shape their lives and destinies as free men and women remain to this day an epic chapter in the history of the American people.