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Freedwomen

Wilma King

in Black Women in America, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195156775
Freedwomen

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During the 1930s, an interviewer for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) asked the Texan Margrett Nillin about her days in bondage. Her comments appear in George P. Rawick's The American Slave and note changes in the status of enslaved and emancipated woman. “In slavery I owns nothin',” said the ninety-year-old freedwoman, adding, “never owns nothin'.” By contrast, “In freedom,” she affirmed, “I's own de home and raise de family. All dat cause me worryment.” Despite these woes, when an alternative was at hand Nillin declared, “I takes freedom.”Emancipation for Nillin and millions of blacks within the context of the bloody Civil War resulted in one of the most significant constitutional, economic, and social occurrences in American history. The circumstances surrounding that grand event overshadow other occasions when black women gained freedom.The number of free persons in the United States, with no distinction made between freeborn and freed or emancipated females and males, increased from several thousands in 1750 to 59,466 by 1790. This population constituted 7.9 percent of the 697,624 blacks in the United States at the time. Less than one-half, or 27,109, of the free persons lived in the North while the remainder made their homes in the South.The Revolutionary War era was responsible for the largest increase in the number of free persons in the eighteenth century. Ostensibly, the revolutionary spirit flowed generously from newly independent lawmakers to unfree persons beneath them. Freedom did not come for all at the same time. Some states north of Delaware abolished slavery while others made provisions for its gradual demise. New York granted unconditional emancipation to women born before 1799, but those born afterwards remained unfree until twenty-five years of age. Similar laws in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey granted freedom to women when they reached eighteen years of age. Over time, northern slavery ended.By contrast, bondage became more firmly entrenched in the South. To be sure, there were exceptions in public and private manumissions, judicial decisions, self-purchases, and “theft of self,” or running away. Several wartime measures including the First Confiscation Act (August 1861), abolition of slavery in Washington, DC (April 1862), the U.S. territories (June 1862), and the Second Confiscation Act (July 1862) chipped away at slavery. Despite this multiplicity of emancipations, millions of women, men, and children remained in bondage until December 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment liberated them.The Transition from Slavery to FreedomThe transition from slavery to freedom created a new set of circumstances that neither former slaves nor slaveholders could ignore. Questions arose about the new social, economic, and political order. What would it mean to be a freedwoman in post–Civil War America? How could the women shape and give meaning to their own liberty? Finally, would the amorphous mass of freedwomen overshadow distinguishing factors and special interests of black women who were free prior to the general emancipation in 1865?Regardless of how and when the women were liberated, emancipation was far more meaningful if they shared it with loved ones, especially those from whom they had been separated by sales, forced migrations, or war. Mass relocation began as soon as news of the general emancipation spread.Some freedwomen worked independently to reunite family and friends. Sometimes they used newspaper advertisements similar to those employed by slaveholders hunting for fugitive slaves. Other women sought help through the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, created by Congress in March 1865 and known as the Freedmen's Bureau. Reunification, regardless of the methods used, was not without obstacles, despite the bureau's best efforts. Besides, relocating a former partner did not always guarantee a happy reunion. Laura Spicer's family remained incomplete after she learned of the whereabouts of her husband, a former slave. Unfortunately for her, he had remarried, assuming their involuntary separation was permanent. Adding to her heartbreak, he admitted not knowing which of his wives he loved more.Some women took advantage of their freedom and ended marriages they once desired, as well as those forced on them by owners. The Virginia-born Lucy Skipwith admitted being sorrowful about parting with her spouse but confessed that being married to him was a “life of truble” (sic). By contrast, the Texan Rose Williams did not regret ending her union with Rufus. Their owner had forced her to live with a man she neither chose nor loved. She hated the arrangement and those responsible for coercing her to endure it.Notwithstanding the circumstances, many newly freed women worked at creating their lives anew. Slave marriages had no legal standing; therefore, many were eager to legitimize unions, whether required by law or not. Legal unions placed couples within accepted and acceptable social and religious practices. Also, legal marriages protected them against the possible loss of children, and their labor, through apprenticeship laws. Such statutes made orphans of freed children before families reunited, or parents could prove their ability to support offspring.Free to Earn a LivingAs freedwomen formed or reunified families, they made provisions for their economic security. The four years of intense fighting and the loss of personal property made the economic status quo antebellum impossible. A Georgian who witnessed the physical devastation of war said whenever the Union and Confederate armies came into the region, “the foundations of civilized society seem broken up.” The destruction of property, interruption in production, and general military devastation made the war extremely costly, especially in the South. Confederate wealth declined by an estimated 43 percent.An illuminating but exceptional example is Natchitoches, Louisiana, the home of the Metoyers, offspring of Marie Therese, née Coincoin, who was born a slave, and her former owner Claude Thomas Pierre. The wealth of the community located on the Cane River amounted to over $750,000 before the Civil War. The average estate in Natchitoches was worth $8,658 in 1860 while the state's average was $2,074. After the Civil War the average Cane River estate fell to $1,116.. Slaves of General Thomas F. Drayton, photographed by Henry P. Moore in May 1862. New Hampshire Historical SocietyWidespread ruin aside, few of Natchitoches's people of color filed Southern Claims Commission (SCC) claims requesting compensation for Union Army damages. Beyond proof of losses, SCC applicants were to prove wartime loyalty to the United States. Many Cane River residents supported the Confederacy because they feared the Union, if successful, would destroy their slave-based economy. Among the six blacks filing claims was Emilie Kirland, a Metoyer descendant with losses amounting to $19,015. The vast majority of claims, 21,347 out of 22,298, requested less than $10,000, and generally received compensation worth less than 50 percent of the face value losses. At base, the formerly prosperous Cane River residents were divested not only of their real and personal property but also their special status as gens de couleur libre as well.Newly freed persons elsewhere, especially in regions where they owned property resulting from activities in the “internal economy”—informal trading involving enslaved persons—or money earned in their free time, filed SCC claims. The SCC disallowed most of these claims because plaintiffs lacked clear property titles, or officials believed they were fraudulent transfers from slaveholders intent on recovering the property at a later date. For many slave-born women, the army of liberation combined with the government's parsimonious fiscal policies made their freedom more arduous than it should have been.Similarly, freedwomen claiming entitlement under the 1892 Army Nurses' Pension Act faced obstacles in claiming their rightful compensation. Biased officials thwarted their quests when evaluating Civil War service records. Officials asserted that the work of black nurses was not equivalent to that of white nurses. Even more poignant, officials claimed patriotism had not motivated black women in their choices as it had white women.Federal agents determined who would or would not receive pensions. Furthermore, they used “competent authority” (testimony from selected witnesses) in decision making. This made it nearly impossible for illiterate black women to have direct access to doctors with whom they had worked three decades earlier. The lapse in time between the war and passage of the pension act further dimmed the memory of physicians and nurses who had seen African American caregivers as an amorphous mass of black women, not as individuals with specific needs. Finally, ignorance of complex bureaucratic procedures further hindered the women's pursuits. Ultimately, far fewer than the actual number of persons with legitimate claims to entitlements received them.The obstacles black women faced when filing pension applications after service members died were not unlike those associated with other claimants. Rarely could illiterate freedwomen furnish marriage licenses or birth certificates to prove their claims, yet the absence of documents did not stop them. One applicant declared that her father “died on the Battle field and gave his life to his Country to help to Emancipate his wife and Children and race…[therefore] my poor old mother…is entitled to that which the Government promised to give her, so it is left with you and God to settle.” If granted the six or eight dollars per month, the women adhered to strict guidelines regarding their personal lives. Otherwise, they lost the small sums that made a difference in whether they starved or survived. The women were free to determine what was or was not in their best interest.In a similar vein, a few freedwomen were parties in lawsuits over property acquired during slavery or inherited afterwards. W. W. Whitehead v. M. A. Levy and Ann Wood (1868), an illustrative case, involved the slave-born defendant, Ann Wood, who counted General Ebenezar B. Nichols, Confederate States of America, among her character witnesses. Wood's owners, George T. Wood, second governor of Texas, and his wife, died intestate. Afterwards, the executor of their estate charged that Ann Wood held property that belonged to the Wood estate.The case, focused on ownership of Lot No. 11 in Block 12 on the South side of Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Harris County, Texas, and began in 1868. The self-supporting Ann Wood lived in Harris County where she hired her own time and paid her owners $20 per month. On 30 September 1850, Wood had $100 in hand and purchased the Buffalo Bayou property. She bought the lot with Governor Wood's permission and had the deed recorded in his name. She offered the deed to him for safekeeping, but he declined, saying she was competent enough to keep it herself. He had no interest in the property other than as a trustee. Afterward, Ann Wood hired a carpenter and built a fifteen- by twenty-five foot, one-story frame dwelling with a gallery. To supplement her income Ann Wood took in boarders, a Polish immigrant and his family. Within this environment, Wood enjoyed degrees of freedom, and it is ironic that the challenge to her property right came only after she was legally free. The thought of losing her home, a symbol of her freedom and autonomy, was disturbing. As a result, she waged a court battle to keep it.A sharp contrast exists between Ann Wood and the majority of former slave women who entered freedom without real property. That they were without property did not erase their steadfast convictions about defining their own liberty. They were not helpless victims willing to accept arrangements reminiscent of bondage or give up their independence without a fight.Their most valuable possession, aside from their freedom, was their own labor, which they used as a bargaining tool. In redefining the ownership of labor, former slaveholders and former slaves struggled bitterly over contested terrain. The general unwillingness of whites to accept the implicit notion of equality between contracting parties in employer-employee relationships in a capitalistic society further exacerbated racial hostilities.Following emancipation, many freedwomen in low country South Carolina remained on plantations and worked while their menfolk earned wages elsewhere. These women negotiated the terms of employment and worked as “prime hands,” or high quality laborers, during the most productive years of their lives. When freedwomen, prime hands, defined and defended their liberty, whites perceived their attitudes as rude or disrespectful. Whites also thought of the black women's behavior as incorrigible and sometimes dangerous.Persons controlling their own labor defined what was most advantageous to them, not to their employers. It was disconcerting for whites who had depended on black labor and laborers they once owned or controlled. Against this background, accusations about freedwomen refusing to work and charges of “female loaferism” were rife. Rather than slothfulness or “playing the lady,” common parlance for imitating white women, freedom enabled former slaves to exert more independence in defining conditions under which they toiled. Therefore, when whites charged that they were lazy and would not work, the women retorted saying whites were stingy and would not pay.Freedwomen did work, but it was in their own way. Rather than toiling as domestic servants, many freedwomen preferred other arrangements, such as relatives toiling in squads or groups under their own supervision. Likewise, sharecropping held the potential for autonomy and self-support, but it required the labor of more than one person. As a result, it was nearly impossible for freedwomen heading households to succeed without the labor of other adults or children old enough to make substantial contributions in the fields.Despite apparent opportunities for autonomy, sharecropping often failed to serve workers well because of factors beyond their control. Poor weather conditions and infestation of pests resulted in negligible yields. That hindered freedwomen from satisfying obligations incurred through credit buying; therefore, debts carried over from one year to another. Added to the devastating acts of nature, landowners often required sharecroppers to produce specific cash crops. Such demands subjected them to a market economy linked to national and international price fluctuations. Furthermore, unscrupulous landowners and storekeepers often took more than their fair share of agricultural yields. Such practices victimized both astute and unwitting sharecroppers and tied them to the land indefinitely. This apparent extension of slavery caused freed persons to seek alternatives.Historians have not engaged in systematic studies of household labor and discretionary work that benefited freedwomen in the same manner as the internal economy benefited enslaved persons. Such investigations would reveal the extent to which freedwomen garnered time for themselves to raise poultry, peddle eggs, sell dairy products, pick berries, gather nuts, catch fish, trap game, grow vegetables, or produce handicrafts to barter for goods and services in kind or sell for cash.While it seemed possible for freedwomen to survive through an alternative economy, a proliferation of post-war game and stock laws made it difficult. The legis-lation, ostensibly designed to prevent livestock from trampling over cultivated land, literally sent the women to the poorhouse or jail if they could not pay fines due to their animals damaging or destroying crops.Laws against trespassers had the same effect when they eroded the customary rights of slaves who had been privileged to hunt, fish, forage, and graze animals on land they did not own. Without this privilege, freedwomen had fewer opportunities to supplement food supplies. Moreover, they were now subject to arrest for trespassing. If jailed, they had little if any money to pay fines and could be leased out. At bottom, the laws did much to limit alternative employment options and abilities to survive without dependence on whites for employment or land use.Free to LearnAside from striving to support themselves, many freed persons showed interest in the flurry of activities associated with gaining literacy. The vast amount of literature focusing on the subject often highlights the work of northern white missionaries who busied themselves lifting veils of ignorance from masses of blacks hungry for knowledge. Booker T. Washington described the era as one in which a whole race was trying to go to school because of the intense desire for literacy.Sometimes freedwomen and their children used spelling lessons as a pastime and attended classes together. A northern-born white teacher, Elizabeth Botume, remembered a South Carolina woman with a baby in arms in class with her two young boys. When the mother's turn came to recite, the family stood and responded together. Ordinarily, children attended school alone but shared lessons with parents once they returned home.While many teachers were white New Englanders, some black women also worked as educators. Included among them was Olivia Davidson who had attended the black-owned Albany Enterprise Academy in Ohio. Prior to her 1882 marriage to Booker T. Washington, Davidson taught former slaves in Hernando, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee. Her dedication was no less serious than that of Blanche Harris, an Oberlin-educated American Missionary Association teacher in Mississippi, North Carolina, and Kentucky.The most detailed accounts of a black teacher's work during Reconstruction are Charlotte Forten's journals chronicling events from late 1862 until May 1864, which the historian Brenda Stevenson edited. The entries offer a rare glimpse of the times and tell much about Forten's relationship with the freed people. Furthermore, her text offers insight about the absence of shared genuine bonds of sisterhood between freeborn and newly freed women. As a northern educated woman, Forten was often mystified by local cultural manifestations that differed from her own.At times Forten's writings are condescending. A pithy December 1862 comment following a December 1862 visit from a local minister and his family is revealing. “They seem good, kindly people though not very cultivated,” wrote Forten. The remarks are similar to those penned by the northern-born Tryphena Fox in June 1860 when a plantation manager and his family visited her Louisiana home. “They are good-hearted people,” Fox wrote, “but not very intelligent or refined.”The remarks reflect the gaze of two educated women, and it did not matter that one was black and the other was not. The differences in their northern background, education, and class standing are striking when compared to the others around them. Both Forten and Fox enjoyed or aspired to a firm middle- or upper-class standing. And, both appeared ill at ease with poor unlettered folk, whether they were black, white, male, or female.Class differences are also evident in comments made by the freeborn northern teacher Rebecca Primus who moved to Talbot County, Maryland, after the Civil War. The superior air is hard to ignore when Primus mentions the “ladies” in their “spring costumes.” She admitted that the garments looked “tolerably well” but probably would not hold up under “closer inspection.” Following a church service several weeks later, the teacher again saw freedwomen attired in their new spring finery. Readers cannot miss Primus's aspersions when she asserted that some of the women made themselves appear much more ridiculous than they actually were.Forten was no less acerbic when writing about the frequency of weddings in her neighborhood. She wrote about the brides' “unique” dresses and speculated that they were “cast-offs” from former mistresses. Forten commented about the well-worn, or what she described as “well ventilated,” gloves worn by one bride and the tattered headdress of another. In her estimation, these freedwomen were “very ridiculous.” In one bridal party, by Forten's standards, only one person could make any claim to good looks. Perhaps it was the plain silk dress she wore that caught Forten's attention.The chasm between her ideas and those of the freedwomen was immense. Forten described their clothing as comical bridal costumes worn by the “principal actors.” Fortunately, wrote Forten, the freedwomen were unconscious of their ridiculous appearance. Instead, they exuded pride and happiness. Charlotte Forten's word choices about the clothing reveal cynicism and arrogance. Her imperial attitude emphasizes the gulf between a privileged freeborn woman and freedwomen as they defined their own liberty.Both Primus and Forten were critical of the freedwomen's taste for stylish clothes and seemed oblivious of this seemingly normal interest in fashions. While in bondage, enslaved persons had few if any chances to wear clothing, no matter how tasteful, of their own choosing. To rid themselves of the obvious “badge of slavery,” enslaved women changed the color of standard garments with dyes extracted from vegetables, nuts, leaves, roots, and berries to show individual tastes. Weavers used different threads to create what they called “checkedy” cloths. The WPA informant, Morris Sheppard, remembered that his mother liked fancy cloth; therefore, “everything was stripedy.”Once freed, they distanced themselves from clothing reminiscent of slavery. What the teachers wrote remained their personal opinions, enveloped in epistles to family members or in private journals. Their missives were not intended for public consumption, yet it is obvious from these sources that distinctions existed between the free-born and newly freed women based on background, education, and material well-being.These women, whose backgrounds differed so dramatically, did establish true bonds of sisterhood. When casting infelicitous remarks aside, Forten appears delighted to see freedwomen enjoy the privileges emancipation offered, including marriages. Ordinarily, Forten and other teachers were solicitous in visiting the sick, mourning the dead, and sharing the joys of dreams fulfilled. On occasions, Forten reminded herself, “It was for no selfish motive that I came here.”The dedication of Forten and other teachers was remarkable in their effort to educate their people. Hettie E. Sabattie, a freeborn Georgian, held classes with a great many children in a Darien church in 1868 through 1869. They had no books initially, but by early January 1869, Captain J. Murray Hoag, a Freedmen's Bureau official, forwarded thirty primers and readers along with fifteen spellers and fifteen second readers. The supply was not adequate for the 125 pupils, yet Sabattie continued her work.Rebecca Primus made petty remarks about freedwomen; however, she directed her attention to constructing a school. When a local former slaveholder donated two trees for sills, Primus recognized the savings in not having to pay the costs of transporting the sills from elsewhere. Involvement in this kind of work earned special praises from the local blacks and served as a basis for special amicable relationships with freedwomen.Although local freedwomen and freedmen admired the teachers and worked fervently to hire and retain them, class differences often prevented sharing bonds that had nothing to do with activities beyond those associated with school events and parent-teacher associations.Violence of a Different KindOutside their own circles, whites made no distinction between the educated freeborn women and their unlettered freed sisters. In a letter dated 7 April 1866, Rebecca Primus recounted the story of a colleague who was “stoned by white children, and repeatedly subjected to insults from white men.” Several men jostled her on the sidewalk and injured her shoulder. Incidents of this sort reminded black women, freeborn and freed, that they remained vulnerable to hostile whites.Violence against black women was not uncommon in the post–Civil War South. In fact, there are cases of worse abuse involving gangs of rowdy white men who raped black women with impunity. Rhoda Ann Childs of Griffin, Georgia, complained to the Freedmen's Bureau that several men seized and beat her by “bucking” her across a log. Afterwards, they threw her on the ground with one man standing on her breast, while two others held her feet and stretched her legs as far apart as possible. While in this position, one man “applied the strap to [her] private parts until fatigued into stopping.” Before finally releasing the woman, one man, she testified, “ran his pistol into me.” Another man, on crutches, “ravished” her.Unbridled hostilities against black women during the 1866 race riot in Memphis underscores the hatred some whites held towards emancipated blacks. In Memphis and elsewhere, the assailants did not stop with raping black women but further brutalized them with whippings, burning pubic hairs from their bodies, and using knives to lacerate the skin in the vaginal area. Rape, an instrument of terror, often accompanies war. As an incidental atrocity without regard for time, place, race, or religion, the victors use rape to destroy national pride and solidify conquest in the wider world.As the violence against freed blacks became more widespread, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper incorporated it as a theme in her 1869 novel, Minnie's Sacrifice. The author asserted that the spirit of the lost cause was present as the numbers of blacks murdered escalated. Secret organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan, were responsible for widespread terror and deaths, wrote Harper.The Political ArenaThreats to their physical and emotional well-being remained constant, yet the women struggled to remain optimistic. Some believed migration was the solution while others saw possibilities in political power. The historian Elsa Barkley Brown's study of black women in post–Civil War Richmond, Virginia, argues that the absence of the franchise did not prevent black women from active participation in the political arena. They attended meetings, listened to debates, and ignored work on election days. As a part of their political worldview, the women believed freedom would benefit individuals only when all women were collective recipients of those benefits. Consequently, it was in their best interest to follow debates and encourage their menfolk to vote “right” for the benefit of black community. This behavior was not entirely unique to Virginians.Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's 1872 poem, “Sketches of Southern Life,” lends credence to the belief in political collectivity. The poem's narrator, Aunt Chloe, claimed Milly Green followed her man, Joe, day after day and assured him that if he did not vote “right” he would be compelled to pack his “rags and go.” The women used other methods of intimidation according to Robert Smalls, a slave-born South Carolinian who served in the Union Navy and as a Reconstruction politician. Smalls claimed black women, with clubs in hand, went along to the polls to persuade the men to vote against the Democrats. The clubs could also be used to defend themselves or the men against violence at the polls.Rebecca Primus had followed the debate and passage of the 1866 Civil Rights Act and wrote about it in an April 1866 letter to her family: It “is excellent I think, only I hope the col[ore]d people will not take the advantage of the privileges it prescribes.” She was anxious about the hostile post–Civil War climate when angry whites looked for any excuse to mistreat recently freed women and men. The teacher longed for the day when she and her people would enjoy impartial justice.To be sure, many black women were bitterly disappointed because their reality contrasted sharply with their “exaggerated ideas of liberty” described in the autobiographical writings of the slave-born seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. She claimed some freed persons imagined freedom as “a beautiful vision, a land of sunshine, rest, and glorious promise.” Yet, they were not inclined to wait until given impartial justice. Nor were they willing to dismiss the notion that the true essence of liberty could be more imaginary than real. Their interest was in making freedom a “glorious promise” through acts that would bring liberty, equality, and autonomy to all. This vision of freedom caused the slave-born Victoria Adams to posit, “I like being free more better.”

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Subjects: History

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