Excerpt from Thirty Years a Slave Describing events in 1865; published in 1897; reprinted on Documenting the American South (Web site)
Reminiscences from a long-time slave
"We knew it was our right to be free … yet they still held us.…"
Four million slaves were freed by the American Civil War (1861–65), but their bondage did not end the instant Confederate troops surrendered in April 1865. In some pockets of the rural South, white men continued to keep African Americans as slaves for months after the war until Union troops liberated, or freed, them. Other plantation owners simply hired their former slaves to do their old jobs for meager pay, until the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency created to help ex-slaves, stepped in and required better terms of employment. Still other landowners created "sharecropping" arrangements with ex-slaves: The whites provided the land and farming equipment, the African Americans provided the labor, and the two split the value of the crop at the end of the year. While the deal sounded attractive at first, some African Americans ended up financially trapped. Sometimes the landowner would tell his sharecroppers that they owed him money at the end of the season—for food, clothing, medical care, and other supplies—so they would have to stay the next season to work off the debt. For the unlucky ones, the debt became a deeper hole from which they struggled to emerge.
The lucky ones found themselves in Union-controlled territory, where ex-slaves were given land to build homes and raise their own crops. Union general William T. Sherman (1820–1891) issued an order January 16, 1865, seizing all land within 30 miles of the coast of the Carolinas and northern Florida, then dividing it among African Americans, up to 40 acres per family. The Army also provided leftover mules to help African Americans plow their new farmlands. This promise of "40 acres and a mule" spread quickly through the South, as former slaves dreamed of starting their new life.
But the deal would not last. After the war ended, the white landowners returned to those lands. Many received pardons from President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69), entitling them to take their property back. Johnson also gave a series of orders in August 1865 that required the military to return the confiscated Confederate land to its previous owners. In his 1866 book, The South: A Tour of Its Battlefields and Ruined Cities, Northern journalist John Townsend Trowbridge described an African American man in Hampton, Virginia, who built his home and blacksmith shop on a half-acre seized from its Confederate owner during the war.
He [the African American man] was doing very well until the owner of the soil appeared, with the President's pardon, and orders to have his property restored to him. The land was worth twenty dollars an acre. He [the previous owner] told the blacksmith that he could remain where he was, by paying twenty-four dollars a year rent for his half acre. "I am going to leave," said the poor man, quietly, and without uttering a complaint.
As noted in The Struggle for Equality, a different African American man who made his home on the South CarolinaSea Islands said: "To turn us off from the land that the Government has allowed us to occupy, is nothing less than returning us to involuntary [forced] servitude" (see box).
Hundreds of thousands of African Americans fled the plantations and flooded the Union military bases and occupied cities. They looked for jobs. Some headed to the North in search of better opportunities. Many looked for lost family members who had been sold off years ago. Newspapers filled with ads like this one from the Nashville Colored Tennesseean, reprinted in Black Voices from Reconstruction:
$200 Reward. During the year 1849, Thomas Sample carried away from this city, as his slaves, our daughter, Polly, and son, Geo. Washington, to the state of Mississippi, and subsequently [afterward], to Texas, and when last heard from they were in Lagrange, Texas. We will give $100 each for them to any person who will assist them, or either of them, to get to Nashville, or get word to us of their whereabouts, if they are alive. Ben & Flora East.
Like scores of other ex-slaves, Louis Hughes would spend the years after the war searching for long-lost relatives, such as his brother, Billy, and the mother of his wife, Matilda. But first he faced a larger obstacle: escaping from the owner who still held him as a slave, months after the war had supposedly freed him. A house servant born in Virginia, Hughes had tried to escape Edmund McGee's Memphis home and Mississippi plantations four previous times, only to get caught and beaten by his master. But now the war was over. He knew he was entitled to freedom, and he was determined this time to get it.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Thirty Years a Slave:
- The North declared the slaves free when the Civil War ended, but some whites stubbornly held onto their slaves for months after the war, until Union troops came to their area.
- Former slaves left plantations by the thousands and flocked to Union military bases and cities, where they felt safer. They wanted to distance themselves from the farmlands where they had been mistreated. Many started to search for long-lost relatives.
- The rural South held several options for freed slaves. They could work for their former owners for a small wage. They could enter into a "sharecropping" agreement that could place them further in debt, if the landowner charged high prices for food, clothing, farming equipment, and other necessities. Or they could set up their own farm on land confiscated from the Confederates—until the white landowners came back and reclaimed their property. Faced with those options, some African Americans headed instead for the cities, particularly in the North, where they hoped to find better opportunities.
Excerpt from Thirty Years a Slave
We had remained at old Jack's [plantation in Panola, Mississippi, belonging to their master's father] until June, 1865, and had tried to be content. The Union soldiers were still raiding all through that section. Every day some town would be taken, and the slaves would [secretly] rejoice. After we came back from Alabama we were held with a tighter rein than ever. We were not allowed to go outside of the premises. George Washington, a fellow servant, and Kitty, his wife, and I had talked considerably about the Yankees, and how we might get away. We knew it was our right to be free, for the [Emancipation] proclamation had long been issued—yet they still held us. I did not talk much to my wife about going away, as she was always so afraid I would be killed, and did not want me to try any more to escape. But George, his wife and I continued to discuss the matter, whenever we had a chance. We knew that Memphis was headquarters for the Union troops, but how to reach it was the great question.…
It was Sunday afternoon, June 26th, 1865, when George and I, having made ready for the start for the Union lines, went to bid our wives good-bye. I told my wife to cheer up, as I was coming again to get her. I said to Kitty, George's wife: "We are going, but look for us again. It will not be with us as with so many others, who have gone away, leaving their families and never returning for them. We will be here again." She looked up at me, smiling, and with a look of resolution, said: "I'll be ready." She was of a firm, daring nature—I did not fear to tell her all my plans. As my wife was so timid, I said as little as possible to her. George and I hurriedly said our farewells to our wives. The parting was heart-rending, for we knew the dangers were great, and the chances were almost even that we should not meet again.…
We crept through the orchard, passing through farm after farm until we struck the railroad, about seven miles from home. We followed this road until we reached Senatobia, about half past seven in the evening. We felt good, and, stopping all night, we started the next morning for Hernando, Miss., another small town, and reached there at two o'clock in the afternoon. The most of the bridges hadbeen burned, by the troops, and there were no regular railroad trains. Fortunately, however, flat cars, drawn by horses were run over the road; and on a train of this kind we took passage.…
We at last reached Memphis, arriving about seven o'clock Monday evening. The city was filled with slaves, from all over the south, who cheered and gave us a welcome. I could scarcely recognize Memphis, things were so changed. We met numbers of our fellow servants who had run away before us, when the war began. Tuesday and Wednesday we spent in making inquiries .… Thursday we went to see Col. Walker, a Union officer, who looked after the colored folks, and saw that they had their rights. When we reached his office we found it so filled with people, waiting to see him, that we were delayed about two hours, before we had an opportunity of speaking with him. When our turn came, we went in, and told him that we were citizens of Memphis until the fall of Fort Pillow and Donelson, when our master had run us off, with a hundred other slaves, into Mississippi, and thence to the salt works in Alabama.… After a few minutes, I said: "Colonel, we want protection to go back to Mississippi after our wives, who are still held as slaves." He replied: "You are both free men to go and come as you please." "Why," said I, "Colonel, if we go back to Mississippi they will shoot the gizzards out of us." "Well," said he, "I can not grant your request. I would be overrun with similar applications; but I will tell you what you can do. There are hundreds of just such men as you want, who would be glad of such a scout. " We thanked him and left.…
We arrived in Memphis on the Fourth of July, 1865. My first effort as a freeman was to get something to do to sustain myself and wife and a babe of a few months, that was born at the salt works. I succeeded in getting a room for us, and went to work the second day driving a public carriage. I made enough to keep us and pay our room rent. By our economy we managed to get on very well. I worked on, hoping to go further north, feeling somehow that it would be better for us there; when, one day I ran across a man who knew my wife's mother. He said to me: "Why, your wife's mother went back up the river to Cincinnati. I knew her well and the people to whom she belonged." This information made us eager to take steps to find her. My wife was naturally anxious to follow the clue thus obtained, in hopes of finding her mother, whom she had not seen since the separation at Memphis years before.… On arriving at Cincinnati, our first inquiry was about her, my wife giving her name and description; and, fortunately, we came upon a colored man who said he knew of a woman answering to the name and description which my wife gave of her mother, and he directed us to the house where she was stopping. When we reached the place to which we had been directed, my wife not only found her mother but one of her sisters. The meeting was a joyful one to us all. No mortal who has not experienced it can imagine the feeling of those who meet again after long years of enforced separation and hardship and utter ignorance of one another's condition and place of habitation .…
What happened next …
Louis Hughes and his family continued north to Canada, a country he considered "the safest place for refugees from slavery." Over the next decade, he worked in hotels in Windsor, Ontario, Canada; Chicago, Illinois; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While in Chicago, Hughes attended a night school for African Americans, finally learning to read and write. After settling in Milwaukee, Hughes got a job working for a doctor, and eventually became a nurse. By word of mouth, Hughes learned his brother, Billy, was working at a hotel in Cleveland, Ohio. The two brothers, who had been auctioned off to different owners as young boys, had a joyful reunion. "As we related our varied experiences—the hardships, the wrongs, and sorrows which we endured and at last the coming of brighter days, we were sad, then happy," Hughes wrote.
Some African Americans had happier endings than others in the years after the Civil War. Some would scrape together their savings (money saved from selling garden vegetables, chickens, and livestock they raised on the side as slaves) to buy land and become independent farmers. Somewould run for political office and help shape the new laws providing free education and better opportunities for African Americans. Some would find family members after decades of separation. But others would struggle to make a living for their former masters, or suffer attacks at the hands of racist whites. Former slave Norvel Blair wrote Book for the People! in 1880, which described how dishonest whites in Illinois—including his own attorney—tried to trick him out of his life's savings through a series of unfair contracts. "I have gone from the lower courts to the higher courts.… I am going to go on til I see if a colored man has any rights before the law," a frustrated Blair wrote.
Did you know …
- Sherman's order dividing property among former slaves put about 40,000 African American families on about 485,000 acres. But those families were kicked off the land under President Johnson's orders when the previous owners returned.
- A Confederate colonel from Tennessee, P. H. Anderson, wrote to one of his escaped slaves in 1865 asking him to return as a paid employee. The ex-slave, Jourdon Anderson, replied that he would consider the offer if the colonel would pay him and his wife, Mandy, for their years of service as slaves. "At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680," Anderson wrote in a letter reprinted in Black Voices from Reconstruction. "Add to this the interest for the time our wages has been kept and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctors visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to.…" The colonel refused the offer.
Consider the following …
- Why were some African Americans not free the moment the Civil War ended?
- How did some African Americans search for lost relatives after the war? How do those methods compare with ways of looking for people today?
- What do you think the government should have done with the land that belonged to Confederates before the war: Return it to the former slaveholders, or divide it among the former slaves? Why?
For More Information
Blair, Norvel. "Book for the People!" Documenting the American South: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/blair/frontis.html (accessed on September 15,2004).
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.
Hughes, Louis. Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom. Milwaukee: South Side Printing Company, 1897. Reprint, Montgomery, AL: NewSouth Books, 2002. Also available at Documenting the American South: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. (accessed on September 21, 2004).
McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Reid, Whitelaw. After the War: A Southern Tour. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Also available at Making of America Books. http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;idno=AFJ... (accessed on September 15, 2004).
Smith, John David. Black Voices from Reconstruction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.
Trowbridge, John Townsend. The South: A Tour of Its Battle-fields and Ruined Cities. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Also available at Making of America Books. http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;idno=AFJ... (accessed on September 15, 2004).