Q9. What difficulties did African Americans face as they transitioned from slavery to freedom after the Civil War? Include in your essay the changes in family life, civil rights, and labor patterns.
) A. Freedom and Family
1. Reuniting families separated by slave sales and the war were among newly freed men’s and women’s highest priorities at the war’s end. One government official noted “the work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited.” A Missouri report indicated that when black men enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops, their wives and children were driven from the masters’ homes, and court records indicate that black women sought to be reunited with their children. In an effort to reestablish their families, some blacks traveled great distances in search of family members; others inquired about relatives at former plantation homes or searched for them in contraband camps, government agencies, and churches. Many blacks wrote letters in search of relatives, and those who could not write received assistance from people who could compose letters for them.
2. Most attempts to reunite with relatives were unsuccessful; time, distance, death, and the lack of records made finding loved ones nearly impossible.
3. For some newly freed blacks, finding long-lost relatives proved difficult. This was especially true for husbands and wives who had remarried after having been separated from their spouses. Their reunions were heartbreaking because the man or woman had to choose between reuniting with the former spouse or staying with his or her new spouse. The trouble that these difficult reunions caused can be easily observed in records of court proceedings in which men and women sought divorce from their long-lost spouses; custody battles raged over children, and mothers sought child support from negligent fathers.
4. Legalizing slave marriages was an important step in building free black communities. Freedmen pursued court-recognized marriages to fulfill their Christian obligations, and some needed legal marriages to secure Union veterans’ pensions and legitimate their children. Missionaries, preachers, and public officials supported these unions, and freedmen’s communities hosted wedding celebrations to solidify the now legally recognized marriages. Some freedpeople continued to observe old slave marriage rituals, such as “jumping the broomstick,” while others were married in a church or in court. Courts held mass weddings that married up to seventy freed couples at one time. In 1866, seventeen North Carolina counties registered 9,000 marriages; four Virginia counties registered 3,000 marriages that year.
5. Former slaves took new names as a symbol of their independent selfhood. During slavery, slaves were often assigned first names by their slave masters, who also used insults and derogatory phrases to address them.
6. Freedmen and freedwomen built flexible family units. Most families included two parents and their children, but they also often included extended kin and nonrelated members. Families were integral to economic life in free communities; together, they pooled their resources and built new independent communities.
7. While freedom inspired hope in black men and women, their families survived on very limited resources, and every family member had to work.
8. Black women, in particular found themselves contributing to the economic survival of their families. This dynamic gave black women greater input in making household decisions. Black women were also more willing to abandon dysfunctional relationships because they had become accustomed to providing for their families’ needs. Yet female-headed households were almost always poorer than dual-headed households.
Land and Labor
1. Landownership was one of the most important aspirations of former slaves. In order to become economically independent, black families had to acquire land. In 1864, the AME missionary and minister Richard Cain explained the importance of landownership to freedmen: “We must possess the soil, be the owner of lands and become independent.” Similarly, Sea Islanders shared their land interest with General William T. Sherman in 1865: “We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it, and make it our own.”
2. While Sherman did resettle more than 40,000 former slaves, the fact that President Abraham Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, promised to return Confederate lands made black landownership in the Reconstruction South very difficult to achieve. Many of the former slaves who worked the land that Sherman gave them were evicted when Confederate lands were returned.
3. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped some black farmers secure contracts to rent the land they were farming, but few freedpeople had access to enough credit or capital to buy land. Instead, northern and southern investors took advantage of the cheap land that was available in the South during this period. In 1866, Congress passed a Southern Homestead Act, which made public land available to freedmen, but the act had little impact on blacks in the South and was repealed after ten years.
4. As newly freed men and women encountered difficulties in securing land, their frustration with the failed promise of emancipation grew. Many former slaves believed that they had earned the right to own the land they and their ancestors had worked as slaves. One Mississippi group described black people’s inability to get land as “a breach of faith on the part of the government.” Others refused to leave the property that belonged to their former owners. Former slaves on the Taylor farm in Norfolk County, Virginia, took up arms when their former owners attempted to reclaim their prewar property.
5. Without money or credit to buy land, many blacks found themselves forced into tenancy during Reconstruction. Tenancy meant that black male heads of household signed contracts that established a new relationship between white landowners and black laborers. While freedpeople wanted fair compensation for their labor, they also expressed interest in having leisure time during which they could hunt, fish, gather wild produce, raise farm animals, and plant their own crops. Whites used tenancy contracts to stabilize their labor relations with blacks and ensure that their landholdings would be profitable. They offered black farmers limited wages, and the contracts were difficult to break. Most newly freed men and women could neither read nor write, so many of them relied on Freedmen’s Bureau officials to look out for their interests.
6. Tenancy contracts not only tied black farmers to the land, but they also re-created a hierarchical relationship between white employers and black workers. Farmers were contracted to sharecropping agreements under which they worked the land for a portion of the crop. The landowner often supplied the house in which the family lived, as well as the seed, work animals, and tools. Also, the landowner was often the merchant to whom the farmer sold his crops, for which the farmer would get paid in credit. All too often, owners and merchants cheated workers, forcing them into a pattern of cyclical debt.
7. While emancipation granted blacks the right to establish legally recognized marriages, allowed them to make contracts, and gave them access to courts, the court system was also integral in returning blacks to situations of forced labor. For example, blacks who could not prove that they were employed on farm property risked incurring fines that, if left unpaid, would result in them being forced to labor for whites.
8. Black codes gave courts the power to remove children from black families and assign them to white employers, often without their parents’ or guardians’ consent. These apprenticeship laws were challenged in Maryland in 1865 by Adeline Brown v. State, but the court there upheld the state’s black apprentice law. However in 1867, the case In re Turner overturned the law as unconstitutional because its educational provisions for black youths were different from those for white youths.