“Was Freedom Enough?” Gregory Downs at NY Times Disunion Blog

Declarations of Dependence

At the NY Times Disunion Series, Gregory Downs, Author of Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908, and James Downs weigh the pros and cons for emancipated slaves. These newly freed slaves experienced their freedom but were cast out into the world with little or no money, no home, and few civil rights. Had life for these former slaves really improved? They explain:

For a century and a half, historians, like Washington, have explained the emancipation of 4 million slaves by contrasting their slavery with their newfound freedom. The nation’s achievement, won with the blood of hundreds of thousands of men, was essentially a negative quality, an absence of an evil. For Washington, as for almost everyone who has wrestled with the story of the end of slavery, the idea of freedom did double historical duty: the word was simultaneously slavery’s antonym and one of the keywords of the nation’s history, embedded in its Bill of Rights. In becoming free, slaves seemed to not only make themselves more American, but the rest of the nation, too. Slavery had ended, and the paradox at the heart of American democracy had been resolved.

But contrast Washington’s celebration of freedom with an account by Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved woman turned reformer and author. She confronted the many meanings of freedom when she encountered dozens of liberated slaves in Duff Green’s Row in Washington in 1862. “Many were sick with measles, diptheria [sic], scarlet and typhoid fever,” she wrote. “Some had a few filthy rags to lie on; others had nothing but the bare floor for a couch.” As Jacobs attempted to comfort them, they looked up at her with “those tearful eyes” that asked, “Is this freedom?”

In recent years Jacobs’s question has been echoed by a growing number of historians. Was freedom, narrowly construed, enough? Was freedom simply a license, the right to make choices, however constrained, as white planters claimed? Or did freedom extend to the ballot box, to education, to equality of opportunity? And who defined freedom, and what did it mean to 19th-century African-Americans, both under slavery and after the war?

Take a look at the full post, Was Freedom Enough? at the NY Times Disunion blog.

The piece makes reference to several other UNC Press books that may be of interest to you. To explore further the perspectives of African Americans before and after emancipation, check out these books:

The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, edited by Jean Fagan Yellin

The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers (Two-Volume Boxed Set), edited by Jean Fagan Yellin

An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C., by Kate Masur

An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C., by Kate Masur

The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South, by Dylan C. Penningroth

The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South, by Dylan C. Penningroth