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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Freedom
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Freedom
Text 1. The Moment of Freedom
Text 2. Booker T. Washington
Text 3. W.E.B. Du Bois
Text 4. Charles W. Chesnutt
Text 5. Citizens
Text 6. Reconstruction
Text 7. Migration

Timeline: 1860-1920


  Resource Menu

Newark Museum
Winslow Homer, At the Cabin Door
Winslow Homer, Untitled [known as At the Cabin Door], 1865/66

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What challenges did the newly freed African Americans face immediately after the Civil War?
  •  What did freedom mean to the newly freed?
  •  What resources did recently emancipated African Americans possess as they assumed life as free men and women?
  •  How did African Americans define and exercise power in their first years of freedom?

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  1.  The Moment of Freedom
- George Moses Horton, "Song of Liberty," poem, 1865
- Slave Narratives from the WPA Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938, selections
- Winslow Homer, Untitled [At the Cabin Door], oil on canvas, 1865 and 1866
- Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, marble sculpture, 1867

With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, enslaved persons were declared free. But not until two years later and the defeat of the Confederacy were they truly free, learning the news from Union soldiers, other slaves, or (sometimes months later) their masters. What did free mean? Can I leave the plantation? How will we get food and clothes? How am I different? For the four million newly emancipated persons, the transition from slavery to freedom was a defining moment of their lives—although not always apparent at the time.

Among them was poet George Moses Horton of North Carolina, whose writings had been published for two decades before emancipation. The poem offered here is not great literature, but it does capture the euphoria of liberation. In it freedom re-creates the world, giving "all who live" the chance to start again "as in Eden." Edmonia Lewis, a woman of African American and Native American heritage who had not been enslaved, captures that same euphoria in marble in Forever Free (which she sculpted in Rome, under the influence of classical and Renaissance art). For her figures, looking up in gratitude and triumph, as for Horton's narrator, rejoicing in song, freedom promises a glorious future.

Others were not so sure, as we see in the WPA slave narratives and the Winslow Homer painting. The painting has carried three rather ominous titles—At the Cabin Door, Captured Liberators, and Near Andersonville—the last referring to the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia. Painted after emancipation, the work is layered with irony. Homer seems to ask, What lies beyond the cabin door for the formerly enslaved when they live among those who once captured their liberators? And what do we learn from the former slaves who, although interviewed seventy years after their emancipation, affirm that they "recollect all that like yesterday"? Essential texts for beginning this seminar. 7 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
2.  Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery: An Autobiography, 1901, ch. 1-3
- Ch. 1: "A Slave among Slaves"
- Ch. 2: "Boyhood Days"
- Ch. 3: "The Struggle for an Education"

At the age of 8 or 9, Booker T. Washington joined his fellow slaves on a Virginia plantation to hear their freedom announced by a Union officer. "We had been expecting it," Washington writes. "Freedom was in the air." But as he explains in these chapters, "freedom was a more serious thing than they had expected to find it." Daring to leave the plantation, providing for one's daily needs, deciding on a name, pursuing an education—plus the more elusive task of creating an identity with no sense of one's ancestry—these challenges were daunting, no matter how welcomed. Washington weaves his own experiences with those of the millions of newly emancipated persons who were slave one day, free the next. Valuable to compare with the memories of former slaves interviewed in the 1930s. 20 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
3.  W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, ch. 2: "Of the Dawn of Freedom"

A seminar entitled "The Making of African American Identity, 1865-1917" cannot fail to pair the voices of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Their opposing philosophies of black progress in white America define our understanding of the period. While this pairing isn’t inaccurate, it is incomplete if presented only as the controversy over Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address (see POLITICS). So here we present Du Bois’s "Of the Dawn of Freedom," chapter two of The Souls of Black Folk, to be read with Washington’s chapters on the early years of freedom in Up from Slavery.

Du Bois begins and ends the chapter with the same terse sentence: "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." He reviews the period from 1861 to 1872 as the "dawn of freedom," focusing on the Freedmen’s Bureau, its promise, achievements, and doom. Though he maintains an objective tone to a point, he confesses that it is "doubly difficult to write of this period calmly. so intense was the feeling . . . that swayed and blinded men." An important text to compare with Washington’s memories of this period and to provide a factual overview for this section of the seminar. 14 pages.

Note: Du Bois opens each chapter of Souls with a poetic verse and a fragment of a score of a spiritual (a "sorrow song"). In chapter two, the spiritual is "My Lord, What A Morning," and the verse is stanza eight of James Russell Lowell’s 1844 poem "The Present Crisis," for which the NAACP periodical The Crisis was named when founded in 1910.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
4.  Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Goophered Grapevine," short story, 1887

Black-white relationships after the war became a focal point for the African American writer Charles Chesnutt. Born of free black parents in Ohio, and a teacher of freed slaves in North Carolina, he became adept at writing about race for a white audience ("Grapevine" was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly). To our ears his "dialect stories" sound stereotyped and condescending, but Chesnutt knew his audience and his goals. He pursued "a high, holy purpose," as stated in his journal, to promote "recognition and equality" for black Americans.

The narrator in this story is a white northern businessman contemplating the purchase of an abandoned farmstead in North Carolina after the war. Uncle Julius, a former slave on the farm (who appears in several of Chesnutt's stories as a trickster character), relates the story of the farm's bewitched grapevines and recommends against purchasing the farm. As a good story should do, "Grapevine" presents a seemingly light slice of life to reveal the powerful undercurrents in human interchange—here of the Reconstruction South. 8 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
5.  Citizens
- Equal Suffrage. Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va., to the People of the United States, 1865, excerpts
- Alfred R. Waud, The First Vote, illustration in Harper's Weekly, 16 Nov. 1867

In the months after war's end in April 1865, African Americans met in annual "colored citizens'" conventions across the nation and issued heart-felt "addresses to the people of the United States," affirming their status as citizens and imploring the support of fair-minded white people. From Charleston, Mobile, Nashville, Alexandria, Norfolk, Chicago, Detroit, Sacramento and many other cities came these calls to justice, which were published and circulated. As the Norfolk citizens stated in the address included here, "God grant they may never have to say that they . . . appealed in vain" to the American people.

Through the late 1860s it seemed that this promise might be realized. The three "Civil War Amendments" were ratified in these years—they banned slavery (the 13th in 1865), made the freed slaves citizens of the nation and of their states (the 14th in 1868), and granted them the right to vote (the 15th in 1870, although southern states quickly passed laws to block freedmen's suffrage). Speaking directly to the defeated Confederacy, Congress stated in the 14th Amendment that no state could "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Although these guarantees remained only words until the next century, they molded the promise of citizenship held by freedmen and northerners and rendered in The First Vote, an 1867 illustration published in Harper's Weekly as part of its extensive coverage of the postbellum South. 7 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
6.  Reconstruction
- Henry Blake, interview, WPA Federal Writers' Project, ca. 1937, excerpt on sharecropping
- Freedmen's Bureau, Georgia, Report of assaults with intent to murder, committed upon freed people . . . , 1868
- Winslow Homer, Visit from the Old Mistress, oil on canvas, 1876
- Thomas Anshutz, The Way They Live, oil on canvas, 1879
- "Long John," work song: lyrics and audioclip

Reconstruction brought new forms of bondage to southern blacks. Without education or mobility, and lacking capital or any legal tender at all, many found themselves in the no-win never-get-ahead bondage of sharecropping. A more insidious bondage was that of terror, fostered by the Ku Klux Klan whose white members knew their acts would be met with impunity. Two documents here give a first-person look at these developments. The first is a 1930s interview with a former slave whose memories include Klan intimidation and the trap of sharecropping. "Anything that kept you a slave," he remembers, "because [the man] was always right and you were always wrong." The second is a case-by-case report of the terror inflicted on freed people in one region of Georgia over ten months in 1868—a "catalogue of bloody outrages" as described by one reporter. (In 1871, Congress began investigating Klan violence; witness testimony is available online—see supplemental sites on the link page.) Two paintings by white artists that explore the lives of newly freed blacks are included here—The Way They Live by Thomas Anshutz, and another of Winslow Homer’s many depictions of African Americans, Visit from the Old Mistress. While studying these paintings, listen to the work song "Long John," especially for its drive to escape bondage of any kind. 12 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
7.  Migration
- Benjamin Singleton, Testimony before the U.S. Senate on the "Negro Exodus from the Southern States," 1880, selection
- Norfleet Browne, Letter to the American Colonization Society, 28 Jan. 1880

When Reconstruction ended in 1877 and Union troops left the South, so too did thousands of African Americans who feared living without federal protection from white dominance and terror. So many left that the U.S. Senate held hearings in 1880 to investigate the "Negro Exodus from the Southern States." In this excerpt of testimony we hear the proud voice of black businessman Benjamin Singleton as he recounts how he "woke up the millions right through me!" by creating farming communities in Kansas for the black "Exodusters." The second voice is that of Norfleet Browne, one of thousands of black Americans who emigrated to Liberia after the war. "Africa, dear Africa," he writes, "is the only land that a colored man can say is his." Important texts to expand the geographic and conceptual framework of this section. 6 pages.

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