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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 I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Emancipation

Empty slave pen, Alexandria, Va., April-June, 1865
Empty slave pen, Alexandria,
Virginia, April-June, 1865
Emancipation, 1864-1865

- "We was free. Just like that, we was free": selections from the WPA narratives, 1930s (PDF)
- "It is my desire to be free," a slave's letter to Lincoln, 1864
- "The slave can now apply the lash," freedmen's retaliation, Virginia, 1864
- "American citizens of African descent," freemen's petition, Tennessee, 1865

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified December 1865

Although Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, freedom did not come for most African Americans until Union victory in April 1865 and, officially, in December 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Since the arrival in 1619 of the first Africans in Jamestown, 246 years had elapsed. "This is a short time for the historical imagination," historian Colin A. Palmer reminds us, "but a long time for the successive generations of black people who lived as chattel."1 "A long time" must describe the months before and after war's end, when thousands of black and white southerners found their lives upended. For many slaves the notification of emancipation, often from their slaveholders or Yankee soldiers, occurred as a footnote to the immediate tumult of war and the demands of two questions—What now? Where now? Addressing these questions would cement the reality of freedom with its peril and promise.
  • "We was free. Just like that, we was free." Felix Haywood describes the singing and cheering that erupted after the announcement of emancipation on his home plantation in Texas. "We knowed freedom was on us, but we didn't know what was to come with it." How enslaved blacks learned of their freedom, and responded to the inconceivable future it offered, is depicted in twenty-five excerpts from the narratives of former slaves compiled by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. How did they interpret freedom? How did they answer "What now? Where now?"

  • "It is my desire to be free." In a brief sixty-four-word letter to President Abraham Lincoln in August 1864, Annie Davis asks if the slaves are free or not, as her slaveholder has forbidden her to leave and visit her family. Living in Maryland, she probably knew of the Emancipation Proclamation and of Union victories in the South. What is the tone of her query?

  • "The slave can now apply the lash." Fighting in Virginia with the U.S. Colored Troops in May 1864, Sgt. George H. Hatton witnessed an astounding reversal of history—"the slave can now apply the lash to the tender flesh of his master." Newly freed women and one man were invited by a Union commander to whip their former slaveholder, captured the day before (an "F.F.V.," i.e., of the "First Families of Virginia"). Hatton describes their retaliation in a letter to the Christian Recorder, the publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and urges Confederates to heed the warning: "Let all who sympathize for the South take this narrative for a mirror."

  • "American citizens of African descent." In January 1865, three months before Lee's surrender, fifty-nine "colored citizens" of Nashville—free and enslaved—presented a petition to the Tennessee state convention of the National Union Party, urging its support for freedom and civil rights for black Americans, all of whom, it appeared, would soon be free through Union victory. "We hold that freedom is the natural right of all men," they declare, echoing the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The petition is representative of numerous calls for racial harmony and equality delivered by African Americans across the South in 1865 and 1866. Compare it with similar petitions (see Supplemental Links).
Combine these readings with those in other sections of this Toolbox relating to emancipation, including ENSLAVEMENT: Runaways, COMMUNITY: Canada, IDENTITY: Slave to Free and EMANCIPATION: Buying Freedom and Civil War I: Slaves. (20 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How did enslaved African Americans anticipate emancipation in the last months of the Civil War?
  2. What opportunities and dangers—promise and peril—did freedom present?
  3. How does Annie Davis's letter to Lincoln encapsulate the anxieties and hopes of enslaved people on the eve of emancipation?
  4. How does Sgt. George S. Hatton describe the whipping of a Union-captured slaveholder by newly freed slaves? How does he respond to witnessing the event? What warning does he add for white southerners?
  5. How do the Nashville petitioners balance deference to white authority with pride in blacks' wartime service and insistence on the justice of their cause? Compare the petition to similar documents from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
On the WPA narratives:
  1. In general, how did enslaved African Americans respond to being emancipated? How did they learn they were free?
  2. What factors influenced their responses and subsequent decisions?
  3. How did slaveholders respond to the emancipation of their slaves?
  4. How did newly freed slaves perceive and adjust to the slaveholders' responses? (This cycle of questions is worth the insight you may gain about the tumultuous year of 1865.)
  5. What impressions do the former slaves recount of the "Yankees"?
  6. In what ways did newly freed slaves understand the concept of "freedom"?
  7. What promise, challenge, and mystery did "freedom" offer?
  8. What misconceptions about emancipation, and freedom, are expressed in the WPA narratives?
  9. In the months after emancipation, how did freed slaves learn what freedom meant for their own lives? (Consider reading the postwar sections of the former slaves' WPA narratives; see Supplemental Links below.)
  10. Create two-person dialogues between WPA interviewees who responded differently to emancipation, e.g., Susa Lagrone and Ezra Adams, Jenny Proctor and Andrew Goodman, Robert Falls and James Southall, Mary Anderson and "Uncle Willis." Perhaps include a third person at the end—former slaveholder, Yankee, Abraham Lincoln, WPA interviewer, former slave's child, Franklin Roosevelt, etc.
  11. Write an overview of the emancipation experience based on these documents. Begin with one of these statements from the WPA narratives.

    - "When I was freed I felt like I was goin' into a new world." Peter Corn
    - "Sech rejoicing an' shoutin', you never he'rd in you' life." Fannie Berry
    - "We soon found out that freedom could make folks proud but it didn't make them rich." Felix Haywood
    - "'Where are you goin?' Don't know. 'What you going to do?' Don't know. . . I begins to think and to know things. And I know then I could make a living for my own self, and I never had to be a slave no more." Robert Falls
    - "I don't remember just when I first regarded myself as "free" as many of the negroes didn't understand just what it was all about." Mary Crane
    - "The Master he says we are all free, but it don't mean we is white. And it don't mean we is equal." George King
    - "Course we ought to be free—you know privilege is worth everything." Susa Lagrone

Framing Questions
  • How did enslaved African Americans construct communities over time? What were their principal characteristics?
  •  What obstacles did slaves confront in constructing communities?
  •  How did white Americans respond to the collective behavior of African Americans?
  •  How was autonomy exercised through community by antebellum African Americans?

WPA narratives: 10
Slave's letter to Lincoln:   1
Freedmen's retaliation:   2
Freemen's petition:   7   [wide margins]

Supplemental Sites

The Making of African American Identity, Vol. II: 1865-1917, from the National Humanities Center Freedmen and Southern Society Project, with sample documents, from the University of Maryland

The Civil War, in African American Odyssey, from the Library of Congress

Emancipation-related documents in History Matters, from George Mason University and the City University of New York (CUNY) Emancipation-related resources in Africans in America (PBS/WGBH), in addition to the Hatton letter WPA Slave Narratives, Library of Congress An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

1 Colin A. Palmer, Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America, Vol. I: 1619-1863 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 2002), p. 284.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
- Photograph labelled "Richmond, Va. Barges with African Americans on the Canal; ruined buildings beyond," April-June 1865, photograph by Alexander Gardner (detail). [LOC note: Photograph from the main eastern theater of war, fallen Richmond, April-June 1865. Photograph shows African American refugees on a boat with household belongings.]
- Photograph labelled "Slave pen, Alexandria, Va.," in collection of photographs of Washington, DC, and vicinity, most taken in April, May, and August 1865, by Mathew Brady and his field staff, A. J. Russell, George Barnard, and Timothy H., O'Sullivan. [LOC note: Interior view of a slave pen, showing the doors of cells where the slaves were held before being sold].

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Buying Freedom   2. Death as Freedom   3. Abolition
4. Liberia   5. Civil War I: Slaves   6. Civil War II: Soldiers
7. Emancipation, 1864-1865   8. The Institution

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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