While often considered by many to have been an "all white" group, in reality, Abolitionists in the 1800s were composed of whites and "free blacks" who felt that slavery should be abolished. Efforts from both free blacks and white Abolitionists proved to be extremely effective when the attention was directed to the inhumanity of slavery. Toward the end of the century, Abolitionists united to form many antislavery societies. These societies gathered signed petitions with thousands of signatures and sent to Congress, held meetings, organized public conferences, boycotted products made with slave labor, printed literature, and gave countless speeches for their cause. On occasion, some Abolitionists promoted violence as a means for bringing slavery to an end. Originally, many black and white Abolitionists worked together, but eventually their methods and beliefs became more separated. While the white Abolitionists focused directed only on slavery, their black counterparts tended to have the same demands, but also pushed for racial equality and justice. Although, free blacks had fewer constraints then their slave counterparts, the opportunities, complaints, successes, and limitations were still not that of the American Whites of the nineteenth century.
Opportunities and Successes
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Free blacks of the North had many more opportunities than that of the Northern slaves and free blacks of the South. Although still considered second-class citizens, they did have the opportunity to work for pay in the rural areas as laborers and in the cities and towns as day laborers, domestic servants or many other menial jobs. With the shortage of skilled workers in the southern cities of the north, opportunities were created for black workers and they became the backbone of the urban workforce. In the states of Vermont and Maine free blacks had the right to vote, in the state of Massachusetts they could testify in court against whites. Also, throughout the North they had the opportunity to form schools, mutual-benefit organizations and fellowship groups often with the title of "Free African Society". Because of the white Protestants discrimination against blacks, free blacks formed their own religious denomination known as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Free blacks viewed themselves as united with the entire black population and saw themselves as one people. However, in both Charleston and New Orleans a few free blacks owned slaves. Successes only came to the privileged few among the free blacks. Among the successful were Benjamin Banneker and Joshua Johnson. Benjamin Banneker who was a skilled mathematician and surveyor published an almanac and helped lay out the new national capitol in the District of Columbia. Joshua Johnson, a skilled painter, was known for his portraiture and acquired a small fortune with his business entrepreneurship. (Henretta,Brody,Dumenil, 2006 page 272-275).
Slaves during this period had very few if any opportunities by today's standards. By forming strong communities and homogeneous families, slaves tried to create a sense of order in the harsh and violent world of slavery. Throughout the "black belt" slaves would manipulate the masters' power by faking illness and losing or breaking tools. Some slaves challenged the owners by insisting that they only be sold in families. Because of this type of resistance, slave owners constantly worried about slave uprisings. By the mid nineteenth century most slaves were predominantly American-born, and both owners and slaves devised rules and rituals to reduce the day-to-day violence. (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil, 2006 page 386).
Complaints and Limitations
For both "free blacks" and slaves, the complaints and limitations were unlimited. These African-Americans were less than human in much of society's eyes. The examples of complaints and limitations are Dred Scot v. Standford, Fugitive Slave Act, Relishing Freedom and Black Codes.
In the Supreme Court case of Dred Scot v. Standford, Scott had brought suit claiming that even though he was an enslaved African American he should be given his freedom from his owner, John Scott, based upon his residence for a period of time in a "free state". The case ended up at the Supreme Court where the Court upheld the law in a seven to nine decision championed by Supreme Court Justice Buchanan. While the Court agreed that Scott remained a slave, there was not a clear legal decision in the overall opinion. As a result of the ambiguity, each Justice wrote their opinion. Abolitionists were appalled at the Chief Justice, Roger Taney's opinion. Chief Justice Taney concluded that slaves were property and therefore slave owners would be covered under the Fifth Amendment requiring "due process" of the law before taking of property. In effect, his opinion stated that not only were slaves property but also slave owners could take their slaves to "free states and territories" and own them in those "free states." Ultimately, this opinion rendered the Northwest Ordinance and Missouri Compromise as well as the Republicans' anti-slave issue unconstitutional. That Supreme Court decision set the stage for a show- down between Abolitionist and slave owners. The nation now had clear-cut, fiercely, emotionally charged, opposite beliefs concerning a growing issue. (Henretta,Brody,Dumenil, 2006 page 403-405).
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The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, allowed federal officers to enter "free soil" states and capture for return, runaway slaves. Obviously, the presence of "slave catchers" and the sight of slaves being hunted like animals by federal magistrates in northern states ignited strong emotions of the Abolitionists. Often sympathetic Abolitionist assisted runaway slaves escape from slave catchers. Eventually simply helping the slaves gave way to violence between those helping runaway slaves and those trying to capture them. Indicative of the northern sympathy to slaves, and in reaction to one of the most notorious confrontations, a Pennsylvania jury acquitted one defendant and the government dropped charges against the remaining forty people accused of killing two slave catchers during a gun battle in a Quaker village in Christiana, Pennsylvania. Emotions intensified with the publishing of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Sympathy for the slaves spread with its publication making the Fugitive Slave Act nearly void in enforcement in the northern states. (Henretta,Brody,Dumenil, 2006 page 399-400).
Relishing Freedom is a letter written by a former slave to his former master giving what is believed to be his true feelings.
Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865
To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee
I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday- School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we overhear others saying, "The colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master. Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free- papers in 1864 from the Provost- Marshal- General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us justly and kindly- - and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty- two years and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages has been kept back and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, esq, Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any pay day for the Negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
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In answering this letter please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up and both good- looking girls. You know how it was with Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die if it comes to that than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood, the great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits. <>P.S. -- Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
(Henretta,Brody,Dumenil, 2006 page 447).
After the Civil War the South lay in ruins but the beliefs had held fast. With the newly seated legislatures the move to restore slavery in everything but name resulted in laws being enacted know as "Black Codes". These were designed to drive the newly freed slaves back to the plantations. The new government was mostly formed by former southern Unionists, but when it came to racial matters one could not distinguish from the Confederates. Black Codes left the newly freed slaves with little freedom. The freedom to choose an occupation was regulated; many Southerners believed blacks were fated to work as agricultural laborers and domestics. In South Carolina, for example, a special license and certificate from a local judge attesting to a freedman's skill had to be obtained in order to pursue work in any occupation other than in agriculture or domestic work. This regulation guaranteed a workforce.
The Codes also discouraged self-sufficiency and prevented African Americans from raising their own crops. In parts of Mississippi, they were restricted from renting or leasing any land and black ownership was left up to the approval of local authorities. Many codes prohibited blacks from entering towns without permission. In Opelousas, Louisiana, blacks had to have permission from their employer to enter the town thus requiring a note with the detail of the visit including length of stay. Any black found without a note after ten o'clock at night was subject to imprisonment. In other parts of Louisiana, local ordinances made it almost impossible for blacks to live within the towns or cities. Residency was only possible if a white employer agreed to take responsibility for his employee's conduct.
The creators of the codes did not try to hide the racial bias and prejudice. In 1866, Black Codes were suspended by federal officials after they determined that the codes were too harsh. They believed that blacks should be subject to the same penalties and regulations as whites. Although these early codes were put to an end, new codes that were less harsh were put into law by several state legislatures after 1866. http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/blackcodes/a/blackcodes1865.htm