From Slavery to Freedom? The Liberation of America’s Slaves

Written by Joe Elliott. Edited by Rebecca Woolley.

Institutionalized slavery is one of history’s most brutal cases of persecution. Perhaps the most famous example of this comes from the system of American slavery in the South that existed until the Civil War in the 1860s.

The American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 led to the deaths of nearly a million Americans, but brought the liberation of nearly four million more; black slaves across the South. But of course, as any history student knows full well, it is never quite that simple.

The process of emancipation was difficult and heavily debated. Many Northern politicians were against the idea of freeing the slaves. Even Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, famously remarked ‘if I could restore the Union without freeing a single slave, I would.’ Many Northerners sympathised. But as it became clear that the slave-holding Confederacy would lose the war, questions were increasingly raised about how to return the rebel states to the USA and the place slavery would have in this system. Could all the loyal deaths go in vain? Plus, there were slave states that had remained loyal to the Union when eleven others had rebelled. Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland were all keen to preserve their old slaveholding systems.

Beyond politics, Northern workers feared a mass exodus northwards by freed slaves which would drive down wages and provide competition for jobs. Many factory owners were worried that cotton and other resources farmed by slaves would become more expensive as farm workers in the South received wages. It can be easy to forget that this was a practical world experiencing rapid industrialisation; it was not concerned with ideological struggles.

But the slaves were freed in the eyes of the law. Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves within rebel territory on 1st January 1863. This was portrayed as a solely military measure, a decree designed to destroy the workforce of the southern States, and in 1865, with the war all but won, the Thirteenth Amendment, prohibiting slavery in any territory in the United States of America, passed in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination. But what sort of world did this newly liberated people enter?

The pre-war South was characterised by institutionalised racism. Life revolved around slavery. It formed the basis of the economy, and Southern society and while slavery as an institution was destroyed in the war, the prejudices of white Southerners were not.

Almost immediately they were launched into a new life of terror under the Ku Klux Klan, just one example of continuing Southern racial violence.

The Ku Klux Klan of the 1860s and 1870s was not the white-sheeted, cross-burning organisation we picture today, rather it was a hugely disparate, barely organised group of societies. Their dress sense still left a lot to be desired, though members were more likely to be found in garish Halloween costumes or wearing women’s clothing than white sheets. However, the unifying drive behind the movement was effectively to resurrect the South’s old system in the face of Northern rule and blacks receiving the vote. Extensively detailed in a Congress report, the Klan swept across the South in a vast reign of terror, whipping, killing and threatening freedmen who were judged to have committed any minor offense, being in a militia, or even just for making money and achieving a modicum of success. Most worryingly, the Klan received widespread support across the South, and in the strongest Klan areas, such as upcountry South Carolina, nearly every white male was a member. On the whole, the North turned a blind eye to this development, preferring to focus on the economy. It wasn’t until 1871 that the federal government took action to defeat the out-of-control South Carolina Klan.

But beyond the Klan, blacks still felt abandoned by the North. Shortly after the war’s conclusion promises of land, seized from traitors and romanticized as ‘forty acres and a mule’, failed to materialise. Any land that blacks had seized soon had to be returned, in often heart-rending confrontations with Union military officers and despondent black farmers. In politics, many Southern states introduced ‘Black Codes’, laws designed to attack freedmen with outrageous provisions such as confining blacks to cities or restricting their movement without a permit. Though these were quickly removed, many laws began to creep into Southern politics that had the aim of reducing blacks role in every part of life. This permeated throughout the Reconstruction period until Union troops were removed in 1877 which marked the tipping point and the full restoration of Southern home rule.

In 1874, influential cartoonist Thomas Nast published a picture showing two freed slaves cowering beneath a Klansman and a White Leaguer, a member of a organisation inspired by the Klan. The picture was entitled ‘Worse Than Slavery’ and for many blacks in the South, this wasn’t far wrong. For a long time after the emancipation, slaves saw little improvement to their position, whether socially, economically or politically. In the words of one freed slave ‘we were given nothing but our freedom.’ It took another eighty years for true civil rights developments to come about, in the meantime, America’s freed slaves were forced to languish in a world where they were barely better off than before, their liberation merely a formality.