FAMILIES IN FREEDOM

With slavery dead, institutions that had existed before the war, like the black family, free blacks’ churches and schools, and the secret slave church, were strengthened, expanded, and freed from white supervision. The family was central to the postemancipation black community. Former slaves made remarkable efforts to locate loved ones from whom they had been separated under slavery. One northern reporter in 1865 encountered a freedman who had walked more than 600 miles from Georgia to North Carolina, searching for the wife and children from whom he had been sold away before the war. Meanwhile, widows of black soldiers successfully claimed survivors’ pensions, forcing the federal government to acknowledge the validity of prewar relationships that slavery had attempted to deny.

A post-Civil War photograph of an unidentified black family, seated before their humble home, possibly a former slave cabin.

But while Reconstruction witnessed the stabilization of family life, freedom subtly altered relationships within the family. Emancipation increased the power of black men and brought to many black families the nineteenth-century notion that men and women should inhabit separate “spheres.” Immediately after the Civil War, planters complained that freedwomen had “withdrawn” from field labor and work as house servants. Many black women preferred to devote more time to their families than had been possible under slavery, and men considered it a badge of honor to see their wives remain at home. Eventually, the dire poverty of the black community would compel a far higher proportion of black women than white women to go to work for wages.

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