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A New Birth of Freedom: The Day of Jubilee Previous Next
Digital History ID 3098

 

The North's victory in the Civil War produced a social revolution in the South. Four million slaves were freed and a quarter million southern whites had died, one fifth of the male population. $2.5 billion worth of property had been lost.

Slave emancipation did not come in a single moment. In coastal South Carolina and parts of Louisiana and Florida, some slaves gained their freedom as early as the fall of 1861, when Union generals like John C. Fremont, without presidential or Congressional authorization, proclaimed slaves in their conquered districts to be free. During the war, slaves, by the tens of thousands, abandoned their plantations and flocked to Union lines. Black soldiers in the Union Army and their families automatically gained freedom.

Many slaves in Texas did not formally hear about freedom until June 19, 1865, which is why "Juneteenth" continues to be celebrated as emancipation day throughout the Southwest. Many slaves in the border states that remained in the Union--Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri--were not freed until December 1865, eight months after the end of the Civil War, when the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, was ratified.

For former slaves, emancipation was a moment of exhilaration, fear, and uncertainty. While some greeted the announcement of freedom with jubilation, others reacted with stunned silence. Responses to the news of emancipation ranged from exhilaration and celebration to incredulity and fear.

In Choctaw County, Mississippi, former slaves whipped a planter named Nat Best to retaliate for his cruelties. In Richmond, Virginia, some 1,500 ex-slaves gathered in the Free African church to sing hymns. A parade in Charleston attracted 10,000 spectators and featured a black-draped coffin bearing the words "Slavery is Dead." A northern journalist met an ex-slave in North Carolina who had walked 600 miles searching for his wife and children who had been sold four years before. But many freed men and women felt a deep uncertainty about their status and rights.

Ex-slaves expressed their newly-won freedom in diverse ways. Many couples, forbidden to marry during slavery, took the opportunity to formalize their unions. Others, who had lived apart from their families on separate plantations, were finally free to reside with their spouses and children. As an expression of their freedom, many freedmen dropped their slave names, adopted new surnames, and insisted on being addressed as "mister" or misses." Many black women withdrew from field labor to care for their families.

Many ex-slaves left farms or plantations for towns or cities "where freedom was free-er." Across the South, former slaves left white-dominated churches and formed independent black congregations; founded schools; and set up mutual aid societies. They also held freedmen's conventions to air grievances, discuss pressing issues, and press for equal civil and political rights.

Shocked at seeing former slaves transformed into free women and men, many southern whites complained of "betrayal" and "ingratitude" when freedmen left their plantations. Revealing slaveowners' capacity for self-deception, one former master complained that "those we loved best, and who loved us best--as we thought--were the first to leave us."

In many parts of the South, the end of the war was followed by outbursts of white rage. White mobs whipped, clubbed, and murdered ex-slaves. In contrast, the vast majority of former slaves refrained from vengeance against former masters. Instead they struggled to achieve social and independence by forming separate lodges, newspapers, and political organizations.

Reconstruction was a time of testing, when freedmen probed the boundaries and possibilities of freedom. Every aspect of southern life was subject to redefinition, from forms of racial etiquette to the systems of labor that would replace slavery.

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