During this remarkable period of transition, former slaves debilitated their family lives, sought to control their work environments, established their own schools and churches, and participated in public life as citizens. While these goals may appear straightforward to us today, they were anything but simple to achieve at the time. The transition from slavery to freedom was as extraordinary as it was complex. Newly freed African Americans experienced both boundless joy and excruciating disappointment as they established themselves as free persons.
Freed people frequently encountered violent resistance to their efforts to become paid workers and active citizens. Many white southerners refused to accept former slaves as free persons. The state of Tennessee provides a particularly rich case study of the transition from slavery to freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Second only to Virginia in the number of skirmishes and battles on its soil, Tennessee was at the heart of the conflict between North and South. 1 The chaos of war visited many Tennessee communities and served to break down the bonds that kept 275,000 individuals enslaved.
Most Tennessee slaves gained their freedom during the war, not after it was over. According to a leading scholarly work on emancipation, “By the spring of 865, few Tennessee blacks were still living as slaves. “2 As soon as the war began, enslaved Tenseness paid attention to the conflict and how their owners reacted to it. For some slaves, the outbreak of war brought what they dreaded most: being uprooted and separated from their families and kin. Some slaveholders responded to the uncertainties of living in wartime Tennessee by selling their slaves or relocating with them to the south, into the interior of the Confederacy.
The many enslaved men and women who remained in Tennessee stayed alert, listening, observing, and sharing information with each other. As the Union army pushed into the state early in 1862, slaves could hear the battles and skirmishes, the rumble of the troops’ wagon trains-3 Tennessee African Americans hoped and prayed that the war would bring about a change in their condition. By the end of 1 862, the Union army occupied large areas of Middle and West Tennessee, including Nashville and Memphis; at the close of 1 863, the Federals also had control of Chattanooga and Knoxville in East Tennessee.
Union occupation would contribute significantly to the demise of slavery, even though that was not the army intention. Early on, most officers defiantly refused to accept escaping slaves into Union lines, and some returned escaped slaves to their Illusionist owners-4 In countless other cases, however, Union army officers and soldiers represented an alternative authority to slaveholders, and this played an important role in breaking down the bonds of slavery.
John Incline, who was a boy when Union forces camped near his owners plantation outside of Nashville in 1862, recalled how his owner had no power to stop the Federal troops from killing his livestock: “Master and the over-seer went out, under their umbrellas, and begged them to stop, but they went right on, paying no attention to them. ” Incline related how the troops also took rail fences to use as firewood, gave the slaves blankets and clothing, paid some of the slave women to work for them, and encouraged the slaves to claim their freedom by becoming laborers for the army.
By the end of 1862, Incline had done so with the 1 36th Michigan Infantry. 5 Enslaved African Americans in Tennessee achieved their freedom in various ways, for there was no single emancipation experience. Men appear to have been more likely than women to escape to Union lines, particularly early in the war. Many female slaves decided whether o stay or go during the war based on what they thought would be best for their children; they wanted to be free, but they did not want to break up their families. Women with young children in particular found it difficult to make their way to Unoccupied areas, although many did so. For thousands of slave men in Tennessee, an important element of the transition from slavery to freedom was service in the armed forces. By war’s end, more than 20,000 Tenseness had joined the United States Colored Troops (JUST); only two states furnished more black men to the Union war effort. African Americans eventually made up forty percent of Tennessee Union troops. Even those enslaved Tenseness who did not join up were heartened by the idea that black men were serving as soldiers. 7 Many of the men who joined JUST units in Tennessee first contributed to the Union war effort by working as military laborers.
The first men to enroll in the 2nd IS. S. Colored Infantry Regiment (later known as the 13th Regiment, JUST) in Murderousness in July 1863, for example, had worked for the Logion army at such posts as Clarksville, Gallatin, and Nashville. Local women showed their pride in the regiment by giving it a lag that read “Presented by the Colored Ladies of Murderousness. ” The 13th helped complete the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad to Jacksonville, served as guards along the railroad, and then fought gallantly in the Battle of Nashville in December 1864. Many of the former slave men who joined the Union army in Tennessee had wives, children, and other family members who also sought their freedom behind Union lines. 9 These fugitives, particularly women with young children and elderly persons who could not work, did not receive a warm welcome but were viewed as a problem by Union 2 commanders. Many escaped slave women tried to get work at Union encampments, and despite limited opportunities, some succeeded in working for the army as cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, and hospital workers. 0 Wartime freedom proved extremely difficult for families behind Join lines and was sometimes disastrous due to horrendous living conditions. By wads end, hastily built contraband camps had been established near Union army camps throughout Tennessee but proved to be very poor refuges for former slaves. The flimsy shelters in the camps provided little protection from the elements, and the overcrowded conditions resulted in alarming rates Of eases and death. What is more, contraband camps existed in war zones and offered little stability.
Some refugees had to move from place to place; others, like the residents of the contraband camp at Fort Pillow in April 1864, found themselves under attack when Confederate forces struck. In addition, women living in the camps suffered from sexual assaults by white Union soldiers and officers. In union-occupied towns, most former slaves tried to find their own accommodations rather than settle in the camps. 11 It is important to remember that some enslaved Tenseness chose to main at the home place rather than escape during the war, especially after they learned of the squalid living conditions in many of the contraband camps.
Even those slaves who stayed with their owners during the war, however, began to experience the transition from slavery to freedom. The threat of escape gave enslaved Tenseness some leverage with their owners. They were able to gain some concessions from their masters and mistresses, including doing more work for themselves and having more time for their families. 1 2 Slaveholders Sarah Kennedy of Clarksville, for example, amplified in 1863 that a slave man named Phil “did nothing but cut the wood for some time before he left. Before running off, Phil also apparently did not turn over to Sarah what he earned from hiring himself out. 13 Family Life as Free Persons Once no longer enslaved, a primary concern for African Americans throughout the South was to locate family members from whom they had been separated under slavery. With the Mobil¶y’ that they had long been denied under slavery, freed people in Tennessee took to their feet. They traveled to towns and cities, looking for each other and seeking any leads that eight help them reunite.
In addition, for years after the war, former slaves took out detailed ads in newspapers, trying to find each other. Henry Hill, for example, put a notice in the Colored Tennessee in October 1865 seeking information about his wife, Lucy Blair, whom he had not seen for five years: “l am a wagon maker by trade, and would be thankful for any information respecting [Lucky] whereabouts. I am in Nashville, Tennessee, on Gay Street, north of the Statehouse. ” 14 Those families who succeeded in reuniting experienced the joy of reconciliation, along with the strain of rebuilding severed relationships. The desire to keep their families intact continued to motivate former slaves after the war. Many external pressures threatened the family unit, however. Limited resources, depressed economic circumstances, and manipulation by white employers looking for 3 inexpensive laborers prompted some parents to bind out, or apprentice, their children to white employers. 16 The legalization of slave marriages was an important result of freedom. During and immediately following the war, federal authorities and missionaries encouraged former slaves to make their marriages legally binding for the first time.
Officials in West Tennessee were particularly diligent about this, requiring as of March 1864 that all couples who lived together in contraband camps had to be married. 17 Families especially embraced the opportunity to learn to read and write; it is virtually impossible to overestimate the desire for education among former slaves (and this topic will be discussed in more detail later in this essay). This strong dedication to education brought former slaves into close contact with teachers sponsored by religious and secular societies. Most of these teachers came from the North, and the majority of them were white women.
They provided moral instruction; taught the Abs; distributed clothing; ran sewing classes; administered medical care; and gave out advice on conduct, dress, childcare, and household organization. 18 Really better described as missionaries given the range of assistance they provided to freed families, these female teachers showed concern for black women and their families (a solicitude that was often in stark contrast to the indifference shown by Union officials). Foredoomed responded to this concern by relating their past and present troubles, taking advantage of the opportunity to testify to the suffering they had experienced.
The teachers tried to help former slaves reunite their families, and they encouraged black men and women to marry. While these female missionaries could often be both patronizing and paternalistic toward former slaves, they provided an important signal that slavery was no more, and that freedom would be different than slavery. 19 Work Ensuring that freedom truly would be different than slavery was an uphill battle during the years of Reconstruction, particularly in the area of work. Many former slaves worked for their former owners, often in agricultural jobs and usually for very little compensation.
Former slaves wanted to have autonomy within their work lives and control over their own time. These desires often clashed with former slaveholders’ belief that black Ten nesses should remain “in their place. ” Important to the transition to free labor during the early postwar years was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedman’s Bureau. Congress created the Bureau in March 1865 to help freed slaves achieve payment for their work, get an education, and gain access to their civil rights.
After the war ended, both the Freedman’s Bureau and Tennessee planters sought to convince newly freed slaves to remain on he land as agricultural workers (or, in the case of the many former slaves who had left rural areas for tm„S and cities, to return to the plantations). The planters wanted workers, and the Bureau hoped to reduce overcrowding in Tennessee towns and cities. In addition, the Bureau believed that African American workers were best suited for agricultural labor. The Bureau also wanted to promote 4 stability.
In most areas under union occupation, the federal government had established a contract labor system under which former slaves raised crops on lands abandoned by Confederates. Using this system as a model, the Bureau encouraged freed people to sign labor contracts to work for landowners for the year 1866. 20 During the first several months after the end of the war, many of Tennessee former slaves held out hope that they would receive land as compensation for their years of enslavement.
When at the end of 1865 they realized that they would not be provided with the rumored “forty acres and a mule,” many freed people signed labor contracts for the upcoming year. The vast majority of these labor contracts were for agricultural work. Often entire families would contract with a landowner to cultivate the crops. For compensation, he black workers received wages or a share of the crop. They might also be furnished with housing, food, firewood, clothing, and, occasionally, medical care. 1 Former slaves gladly left their bondage behind, but they wanted to retain some of the traditions they had developed in order to survive slavery. Agricultural workers who were living on land owned by their employers, for example, often insisted in their labor contracts that they be able to keep a separate garden plot for their families or raise hogs for themselves, privileges that had been customary under slavery. The 1866 contract between A. W. Moss and Sam Biostatic of Williamson County, for example, contained the provision that “Sam is to have two acres of ground for his wife to cultivate and that they are to have the products there of. 22 Planters also sought to continue some of the legacies of slavery. Many wanted to control the comings and goings of their workers, limit their visitors (or prohibit visitors altogether), and dictate how they should and should not behave. WA. Crockett of Williamson County, for example, insisted that Sophia Crockett “be perfectly civil and use no impudent language. ” He also stated, “I require her to work at what I desire. 23 The vestiges of slavery would linger for many years.
The struggle between former slaves trying to exercise their freedom and former slaveholders used to having total control over their workers meant that postwar workplaces were tense, and often violent-24 Many former slaves did not receive the compensation promised in their labor contracts. With the wartime devastation of the Tennessee economy, many planters did not have much money with which to pay workers after the war. Even given the limitations of the postwar economy, however, there is considerable evidence to suggest that many employers did not want to treat roomer slaves as free workers and compensate them accordingly.
Many freed people turned to the Freedman’s Bureau and its court system for redress, but white Tenseness resisted the courts’ authority, and they were discontinued in May of 1866. Still, former slaves persisted. On January 1, 1868, Moroseness’s Freedom’s Watchman reported that “the Bureau agents of the various counties are being applied to by scores of colored people who wish some aid in forcing their employers to fulfill the contracts made with them. “25 While agricultural work predominated, freed people performed many other types of labor after the war.
They built stone fences; worked in hemp factories; preached at newly 5 formed churches; sold fruits, vegetables, and baked goods; worked at branches of the Freedman’s Savings Bank; taught school; ran groceries, hotels, and brothels; and did blacksmithing. They cooked, washed, ironed, cleaned, milked, spun, and wove. When working for white employers, former slaves tried, often unsuccessfully, to be sure that freedom differed from slavery. Female house servants sought to live at home at night, rather than be on call twenty-four hours a day at the home of their employers.
Field workers tried to negotiate for shorter hours. Most freed people worked long hours, with little time off. 26 Some JUST veterans were able to translate their wartime experience into postwar employment. Private William Holland, for example, became a federal government employee at the United States National Cemetery in Murderousness. As a member of the 11 lath EJECTS, Holland had worked for Chaplain William Earner’s at the cemetery, reentering remains of union soldiers from throughout Middle Tennessee. After the war, Holland also owned a small farm near the cemetery.
Although his views on his postwar life are not known, Holland achieved the kind of independence that remained a AOL for most African Americans during the early years of freedom. 27 Schools and Churches Beyond their work lives, freed people established greater independence. They founded their own churches and schools throughout Tennessee. Hand in hand with these institutions, they also created benevolent and political organizations. The first wartime schools in Tennessee were begun by black people themselves during the fall of 1862.
As the war went on, the number of schools grew, many of them sponsored by Northern benevolent organizations, such as the Pennsylvania Freedman’s Relief Association, the American Missionary Association, and the Western Freedman’s Aid Commission. After the war, the Freedman’s Bureau oversaw many of the schools established in Tennessee for former slaves. One, the Fish School in Nashville, became a university in 1867 to train black teachers. 28 During the war and afterward, schools served both children and adults.
In 1867, the assistant commissioner for the Freedman’s Bureau in Tennessee stated, “Everywhere in the State the colored people are fully alive to the importance of educating their children and themselves. Nearly every school contains a class of adult persons, some middle-aged and some older. Leslie Wilson of Nashville, who had been enslaved for 56 years, expressed her joy at the opportunity to attend school: “l have been praying for this very time for near 20 years and now that it is here I must work with all my heart my whole heart is set on learning to read. 29 Willow’s inspiring testimonial was typical. The Tennessee legislature established a system of public education in 1867, and schools for black and white children were opened in every county except one. In 1 867, 72,350 African American children in Tennessee attended these public schools, 88,866 in 1868, and 89,503 in 1869. Funds earmarked for the schools were diverted elsewhere, however, and political opposition to state-supported education resulted in the repeal of the 6 legislation when the Democrats won control of the General Assembly from the Republicans in 1869. 0 Tennessee African Americans founded hundreds of new churches during and after the war. Former slaves wanted to meet when they wished and worship as they pleased. As early as 1 866, there were more than seven black churches in Nashville, and at least twelve in 1869. Murderousness had four black churches by 1870, two Methodist and ;o Baptist. 1 In many cases, these churches did not just spring up out of nowhere, but the seeds of these new congregations had their origins in the antebellum period. A good example of this is SST. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia, founded shortly after the end of the war.
SST. Pall’s founders descended from a group of black Christians who had first joined in fellowship at the white Methodist Episcopal church, meeting weekly in the basement. 32 Churches became important community institutions. They provided education through their Sabbath schools, which usually met on weekends and in the evenings. Many church buildings were also used as schools during the day. In addition, African American churches spawned numerous benevolent organizations that provided services for their members in times of sickness and death.
Cemeteries were established in many church yards. Churches also hosted political meetings. With the foundation laid during Reconstruction, African American churches would be the most vital racially independent organizations within black communities for the next century. 33 under slavery, African Americans in Tennessee had developed strong kin and “fictive kin” nee;arks for supporting each other when families were torn part. This ethos of mutuality continued during and after the war. Women in contraband camps in Clarksville and on President’s Island started orphanages.
Black Nashville ran a relief society after the war for the poor, regardless of color. 34 Many former slaves founded and joined fraternal organizations designed to provide social fellowship and to do good works in the community. Both churches and schools became the targets of white Tenseness who did not want to accept African American education or autonomy. Certainly, in most communities, there were some white individuals who supported black schools; these men and women sometimes donated land, or sold it at a low price, for the establishment of school buildings.
Yet there was a very strong undercurrent of opposition to African American schools in Tennessee. Opponents to black schools used intimidation and violence to try to shut them down. J. A. Edmondson, the superintendent for schools in Williamson County, reported in January 1 869 on opposition to black schools in Franklin: “On Friday night 300 masked men rode through the village of Franklin, yelling like demons. Mr… Gray, a [school] director in the 4th District, (where they had even notice that the less done about negro schools, the better), let it be know that he wanted to talk with them.
They rode to his house, and after quite a long parley, consented to let the negro school go on without disturbance, provided it was managed and controlled by white men. ” Two months later, Edmondson reported 7 much greater acceptance of the local free schools. 35 While violence was averted in this case, many schools (and churches that housed schools) were burned during the postwar period. Politics and Citizenship During and after the war, Tennessee former slaves frequently took to the trees to celebrate their freedom and express their hopes and dreams for the future.
Slaves had been forbidden from assembling in public, so the opportunity to gather in civic spaces was a clear way to distinguish freedom from slavery. Freed people held meetings and parades in courthouse squares and on main streets, claiming their right to these important public areas. Public activities held during the war included rallies to spur enlistment in the Union army, Independence Day parades, and celebrations in honor of emancipation and Tennessee ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.
S. Constitution, which abolished slavery forever. Black leaders used these events to call for full civil and political rights, education, and economic opportunity for Tennessee African Americans. 36 One forum developed by black leaders after the war was the “state colored convention” held annually to assess the needs of freed people, draw up lists of grievances, and agitate for equal rights. The first such convention Was held in Nashville in August 1 865 and attracted delegates from twenty-two counties.
The convention successfully petitioned Congress not to seat Tennessee delegates until the state legislature had granted African Americans equal rights. A second such invention was held in Nashville the following summer. After much debate over whether to focus on politics or economics and education, the participants called for suffrage for black men and for the acceptance of African Americans into the state militia. State colored conventions continued to meet into the sass, and Nashville hosted the Colored National Convention in 1876. 7 Former slaves viewed the right to vote as a key element of freedom and lobbied hard for it. The General Assembly’s approval Of the 14th Amendment, and Tennessee subsequent readmission to the Union on July 24, 1 866, paved the way for black suffrage. African American men in Tennessee succeeded in gaining this right through a law passed by the General Assembly in February 1867. The same law, however, barred black men from sitting on juries or holding office, provisions that would be overturned about a year later. At this time, most former Confederates in Tennessee were barred from voting.
During the twenty-five years after the end of the Civil War, Tennessee black voters helped send thirteen African Americans to the General Assembly; the first, Nashville barber Sampson Kibble, was elected in 1872, and twelve more held office during the 1 sass. These successes were short-lived, however, as the General Assembly passed a series of laws in 1889-1890 that disenfranchised the vast majority of black voters. )38 Once they had won the franchise in 1 867, African American men found themselves courted by political party representatives.
Although during the heady early days of enfranchisement there was some support among black Tenseness for the Conservatives, most former slaves favored the Radical Republicans. Freedmen across the state joined 8 political groups called Union Leagues, where they gained political organizing skills and bolstered the Radical Republican party. Excitement grew particularly high before the August 1867 election for governor, which would be the first opportunity for former slave men to cast their votes in Tennessee.
Black Tenseness provided Republican Governor William G. Brown with more than half of the votes needed for him to win a second term and helped Republicans dominate the election at every level. 39 While women did not gain the right to vote themselves, they showed a keen interest in political issues and attended mass meetings and rallies. During the postwar period, men, women, and children publicly celebrated Emancipation Day, Memorial Day, he Fourth of July, and other holidays. Parades, speeches, song and dance, and refreshments characterized these events.
Ministers, soldiers and later veterans, and other prominent men usually led the parades and gave the speeches, but women made important contributions as well, performing patriotic songs, reading aloud civic documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation, carrying the united States flag, dressing up to represent “Liberty’ or the states of the Union, presenting gifts to visiting dignitaries, and, especially later in the nineteenth century, raising funds and helping organize the celebrations themselves. 0 A July 4th parade held in Memphis in 1 875, for example, included twelve carriages filled with members of female benevolent organizations.