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To what extent did the lives of African Americans change following the Emancipation Proclamation
“I felt like a bird out of a cage. Amen. Amen. Amen. I could hardly ask to feel any better than I did that day…. The week passed off in a blaze of glory”
Houston H. Holloway, former slave, on the emancipation proclamation in 1865
“I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.
Attributed to Harriet Tubman, on the emancipation proclamation in 1865
There have been many significant events that have happened in the history of America: from the first European settlement in North America in 1565, to the Seven Years’ war and to the American Revolutionary war in 1775. But few would rival the rippling effects the end of the Civil War inflicted on America. After years of agony, humiliation and psychological pain inflicted by the white Americans on the helpless African Americans who were made to be slaves, the centuries in which they had to endure this pain admirably, seemed to have finally ended towards the end of the Civil War. That is, Lincoln’s controversial decision to proceed with the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that stated that “all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, …. Shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.” The initial impact that drew from this major turning point in the war was stark, not due to the change in the sanctity of life for African American slaves themselves, but on the outcome on the war. Upon this declaration, there was an increase in slaves escaping from their white owners in the South, enlisting and strengthening the Union army but at the same time, weakening the Confederacy, whose economy largely relied on the use of slaves but to also, dissuade potential European imperial powers from supporting the Confederacy. Whether or not it was Lincoln’s priorities to abolish slavery before the Civil war does not matter, but rather it was inevitable that there would be a transitioning period, a period now known as the Reconstruction era (1863-1877) in modern times. The Emancipation Proclamation turned the war from a political war, where by Lincoln’s main priority was the preservation of the Union, to a moral war, inducing revised, existing perceptions and widely held beliefs from the white Americans, about whether their mistreatment of former African Americans were justifiable or not.
As the war came to a definitive end, the introduction of the Emancipation Proclamation
breathed new life into the freedmen, who finally had this unveiling that left them in an open playing field. But what is most interesting are the events that followed after the Emancipation Proclamation, particularly the Reconstruction Era, where former African Americans were looking many answers to different problems such as integration but a commonality between virtually all former African American slaves was the solution to to an extremely, difficult philosophical question. What is freedom? And more importantly, what freedom would compensate about a century’s worth of humiliation, torture, suffering the prideful black community had to endure?
Although the expectation among many slave abolitionists at the time was the longing for a clear future, in reality the Emancipation Proclamation transformed a war of armies into a conflict of societies, with slavery at the heart of it all. Former slaves were legally set free, but a lack of identity and a sense of direction led to a stagnant progression that was dreamed of, but never acted on, with society as a whole, unable to replicate the same ambition and desire shown by these former slaves. It is important to state that this brief yet hugely significant era must be acknowledged and remembered as the potential dangers of not learning the changes that followed the Emancipation Proclamation, especially in the lives of African American slaves would inevitably divide racial groups even further and isolate ourselves from fully understanding the significance of slavery. But also, perhaps emotionally, dismissing slavery as something that occurred as a outlier to humanity’s advancement would be brutal and sickening to those who sacrificed themselves and who died as martyrs such as John Brown, where if mankind does pursue this method of thinking, they would have died in vain, failing to accomplish their dreams to spark conversations and the coexisting between racial groups.
My thesis to the question, “To what extent did the lives of African Americans change following the Emancipation Proclamation?”, is that following the Emancipation Proclamation, although conditions harbored similar treatments to slavery, there was the repairing of dignity among former African American slaves and the birth of a well-developed black community build on pride, strength and will that was adamant on becoming viewed as an equal to their once white masters. One thing to note is that although the Emancipation proclamation did not impact cultural factors directly, merely the idea of freedom emitted from it, was an underlying trigger that sought to repair a diminished identity among African Americans ever since they were slaves.
An assumption that will be made in this essay is that any changes in the lives of African Americans lives were constant and general as it is important to acknowledge that changes to African American lives varied differently from state to state and there is simply not enough time to examine all changes in all states but rather the most evident ones that occurred in America.
The meaning of Freedom:
Perhaps the most dramatic difference between pre-emancipation proclamation and after emancipation proclamation is the introduction of the idea of freedom. But before proceeding it must be made clear as what the definition of freedom is. The problem is that defining such an ambiguous concept with a definitive outline would be extremely inaccurate, and through historical events and the natural order of time, definitions and terminologies stand to be altered and assigned an alternative value. The most sensible and intuitive approach to take in this scenario is to define what freedom meant during the Reconstruction Era, but particularly to the former African American slaves.
For many, the definition of freedom was to be presented with a fair opportunity to reunite with family lost through years of slavery, either by selling or escaping, to ensure their children had education to gain a deeper insight into life and develop as an individual and this should come to no surprise but to be abstained from ever experiencing violence and sexual exploitation that was an overwhelming presence in the institution of slavery and to also be able to secure occupations that could provide for one’s family.2 This, it turns out, is an effective definition and concept of freedom. Unfortunately, even with the most ambiguous term such as freedom, will have limitations. An example of this would be that freedom does not protect itself from racial hatred, unequal opportunities or a factor that escalated even further than the reconstruction era, discrimination which continued towards the tail end of the 20th century. The realization of this newly found freedom that a former slave possessed was incredible, with a wide array of opportunities on offer such as controlling one’s occupation but unfortunately, they faced an equal amount of problems that came with freedom. An analogy of this complicated, frustrating dilemma would be if one offered them
to unleash their sealed wings and fly only to find out that there is a wider cage representing itself as an obstacle, one that cannot be escaped even with the power of freedom. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that as much as freedom had its advantages, there were also disadvantages that was arguably worse than the advantages.
The power of Education:
Few factors were more essential than the enlistment into the army, which was fortunately recognised by the former African American slaves as the key to understanding life and more importantly how to better use their freedom, with the admittance that to fulfil the desire to be placed on equal footing with their fellow white Americans, they must first undergo the same educational procedures as the white Americans had experienced. The opportunity of education first arose through enlistment in the army where 180,000 blacks served in the Union Army, providing further evidence that the Emancipation proclamation would be a success. Although former African American slaves were still subjected to abuse, the army gave former slaves a dignified sense of purpose, knowing that their actions could contribute in determining the Civil War. In the army, former slaves learnt how to read and write in the army from teachers employed by the Northern aid societies or in classrooms and literary clubs established and funded by the soldiers themselves. The importance of education was heightened further when many black soldiers would come from the army to become black political leaders of Reconstruction, including dozens of delegates to state constitutional conventions, sixty legislators, three lieutenant governors and four congressman. Soon, many African Americans understood that for their community to progress as far from slavery as possible, they must obtain knowledge that had been accessible to white Americans. But for them, the accessibility of education was largely restricted bar a few blacks who were taught by the minority of white masters who felt sympathetic to them. Lives of African Americans changed immediately after the civil war when they were exposed to the creation of schools. One of the ways that this was achieved was through the Freedmen’s bureau. The Freedmen’s bureau was created in 1865 by President Abraham Lincoln, where one of the many ways that it aimed to aid former slaves was through the exposure of education to them. However, the involvement of blacks themselves could not be understated, as many schools were created by themselves. This involved a long and gruelling process where they would pool they resources which were meagre at the time, to hire teachers and they would create schools by finding buildings, building buildings, or using abandoned buildings, to create schools. In this schools, it was not just children who went to these schools, but adults and elderly people who seeked education to understand experiences they have gone through and to expand their knowledges as well. Blacks understood that education was essential in becoming American Citizens and learning to read, as they now could acquire skills to combat racism that had oppressed them for centuries through law and other means. Overall, lives of African Americans changed massively in terms of education as they could now access education, helping expand their knowledges and to have an opportunity to help combat the racism that oppressed them by fighting laws and policies through courts. But perhaps more generally, education was the gateway for the average African American to integrate themselves to mainstream society and to achieve the American dream that their ancestors and themselves had been barred from for centuries. Thus, education changed African Americans lives for the better following the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Birth of A black Community and Identity:
Before the Civil war, free blacks usually situated in the North managed to successfully create schools, churches and mutual benefit societies whilst slaves had built a culture that was heavily centred on the influence of the church and family. Following the Emancipation proclamation, blacks were determined to maintain a strong foundation for fellow African Americans as they had agonisingly seen the dismantling of their families during the long hard century of slavery whereby white masters would auction of members of family across America largely for profit, but some, to make sure that any sound attempt for desertations were dramatically reduced. Fortunately, with freedom now accessible, at least by law, these institutions were consolidated, expanded and liberated from white supervision, along with the added incentive to create political organizations that vowed to fight for black power. These main institutions were now focal points of the lives of African Americans. Such was the urgency to create black communities absent from white supervision, many black families would take in black orphans that were not related to them in any means, just to mitigate the risk of having them experience a life under white parents, who would undoubtably had psychologically inflicted inferiority during their childhoods, to such a magnitude that it would be difficult to reverse the scarring of pain. This showed that Black African Americans were determined to not let control out of their hands, and by helping and absorbing in troubled or misfortunate black African Americans into their societies, then it would perhaps be easier to instill solid foundations and a roadmap to a consistent and enriching yet fulfilling life, in contrast to the often demoralising, humiliating punishment they had to endure as slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation was announced. The result of the formation of these separate yet overflowing societies that interlinked with each other was significant, as it built through the once troubled former African American slaves a sense of pride, a pride of their identity and their race, something never before seen or accounted for. This was because of the many years of psychological pain they had suffered under the tutelage of white masters, who led them to believe that they were not on equal footing with the white Americans. In fact, freedmen became so independent, so independent that one incident from a black maid saying, “if she wants dinner, she can cook for herself” that hatred and growing resentment towards the black African Americans were beginning to brew, with a rise violent acts, not helped by the notion that black African Americans were attempting to cease control over their own freedom from their former masters. Violent acts included assaulting and murdering freedmen who attempted to leave their plantations, disputing contract settlements, not laboring or working at the desired manner demanded by their employers, attempting to buy or rent land and resisting whippings. These sort of violent acts fuelled the social attitudes expressed by the white Americans, who arguably felt threatened that they were losing control over these former slaves and perhaps felt that change was proceeding to quickly for their liking. These sort of violent acts quickly became the normality of everyday life, with one incidence that may have been insignificant during the Reconstruction era, but underlines the growing mistreatment that Black African Americans had experienced. In 1869, a black North Carolinian who went by the name of A. D. Lewis narrated a graphical incident during which a white American demanded that her child open a gate for him. But seeing that there were white children closer to the gate, she told him that the white children would open the gate for him. But violent behaviour towards African Americans was illustrated here when the white man “walked nearly hundred yards and double [sic] his fist and strike [sic] [her] in the face three times”. Similar accounts identical to this typified the harsh consequences that came with empowering mentally fragile African Americans but the birth of a modern black community, due to the stabilisation of troubled families, asserting control of their churches, expanding their schools, the act of pursuing economic independence and the making of a political culture through the introduction of several political members such as Hiram R. Revels who became the first African American to serve in the United States Senate for Mississipi. Although these institutions were built as a result of slavery and much of the focus was on the experiences of slavery, as a profound consequence of the Emancipation Proclamation, these institutions laid out a template for Black African Americans to identity their innate social, economic and political nature.
The Problem of Slavery:
Much of the focus following the Emancipation proclamation was how America would function without the presence and toolery presented by the use of slavery, especially the Southern side of America. As much of the south’s economy relied on the utilisation of slavery, many sought to revert to a template that was identical to slavery but in some areas, qualified to be categorised, by definition as free labor. This is seen from Banks, who was tasked with enquiring to the Black African Americans as to what the Black African American wanted, common responses were for their families to be respected, education for their children, the end of corporal punishment, and payment of reasonable wages.  With this information, Banks issued a regulation for 1863, which consisted of the obligation that former slaves must “avoid vagrancy and idleness and enter yearly contracts with their planters, for either five percent of proceeds of years crops or a wage of $3.00 per month, plus food, shelter and medical care. However, once hired, blacks were forbidden to leave plantations without permission of their employers.” Upon the proposal of these regulations, many oppositions echoed remarks that concluded that these regulations bored a striking resemblance to slavery, however Banks insisted that it dutifully fulfilled all of the Blacks’ wishes as stated above and stated that this was merely a transitioning phase away from slavery. Whether or not this was indeed the intention, what is clear is that working conditions were similar as in slavery and in this aspect, nothing changed for Black African Americans as although they had choice as to where they could work, the harsh reality was that this was not the case, as many African Americans were poor and once entering a yearly contract with planters, they had to work to the satisfaction of planters, creating an atmosphere that resembled as those in the days of slavery. This scenario was arguably what former African Americans dreaded and wanted to avoid the most, even more than the matter of obtaining freedom. Slavery was resented by freedmen and was a sensitive issue when it came with discussing what next following the abolishment of slavery. Such was the fear of the subject of slavery that a Scottish minister was shocked to hear a former slave complain of past mistreatment, despite never having been whipped before. When having asked how the man had possibly been cruelly treated then?, the former slave responded by saying that, “[he] was kept in slavery.” Here, it is clear that slavery went beyond the physical brutality experienced by slaves, but rather the psychological pain that came with it, took black African Americans in a state of hell and purgatory, suffering not due to their sinful actions but rather because of what race they had been born into. Although Black African Americans were determined to not revert to slavery ever again, poverty left them no choice but to work in a system of sharecropping.
Sharecropping was the response of the South to their loss of slavery and a way to restore economic prosperity that had once existed before the civil war. It was a way for poor families, both white and black to earn a living from land owned by someone else, usually the landlord. The landlord would provide conventional resources such as land, housing, tools and seed and a local merchant provided food and supplies on credit. During the harvest, the sharecropper would receive a share of the crop’s profit, usually from one-third to a half, whilst the rest would go to the landlord. However, the cropper’s profit of one-third to half, would also go towards the Merchant in order to pay of the cropper’s debt. It is important to highlight that the importance of the landlord cannot be understated as they often dictated decisions on the crop mix, and sharecroppers were often in agreements to sell their crops back to the landowner, leaving them vulnerable to manipulated prices. This enabled the landowner to benefit hugely as they could pay relatively small fees and sell the crops of the croppers for a higher price. In addition to this, landowners, could apply pressure to their croppers by threatening to not renew the lease at the end of the next season, leaving croppers with no job and thus, no way of supporting their families. In the end, sharecropping proved economically problematic, as the majority of wealth went to the landowners, who increased their economic control. This new method helped the South to revert back to a model of slavery, or as close to it, but it also enforced the idea that tenants would have to work harder as if not, then the consequences would be stark. The lives of African Americans, at least in terms of the working conditions, failed to change for the better, as although they had the freedom to dictate where they could work, the reality was that they were too poor and in order for them to support their family, they would have to work for landowners and planters who showed no concern for their wellbeing, but for the economic profits that they were making. What made sharecropping worse was that landowners would strategically manipulate contracts so that sharecroppers were always in debt, having to borrow money from landowners in order to support their families, and this was as a result of the lack of aid from the government who were too conservation in their approach, struggling to find a way to satisfy all parties, the North, the South and former slaves. In summary, sharecropping was without a doubt, a system that was put in place to exploit vulnerable workers without using forced labour, thus complying with government guidances.
Faith in Government:
An aspect that former slaves were let down in was their faith in the government to proceed with their promises. After the emancipation proclamantion, many slaves emphasised that to achieve freedom one must have the ownership of land. Initially, the federal government had promised those who had worked on land, “40 acres and a mule.” This policy stated that those who met the previously stated criteria, would be given 40 acres and a mule, which was necessary for agricultural prosperity. This was met with large approval as many had believed that after centuries of being held in slavery, they have deserved their fair share of land. To the extent that one black from Alabama stated that the “the property which [the planters] hold was nearly all earned by the sweat of our brows.” However, Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, reversed this policy as the federal and state policy during the reconstruction era emphasised wage labour, not land ownership. Although whether or not obtaining land would have achieved freedom for former slaves, these promises that were promised yet broken caused momentum for change to lessen and also empowered white landowners and planters who had once taken advantage of these slaves. Over the course of the reconstruction era, the government’s failure to properly enforce black civil rights in law and to promote black economic independence led to the demise of the reconstruction era. An era which promised so much yet failure to capitalise saw it come to a brutal end. This could be explained by the federal government’s inability to resolve the racial and political tensions that the deeply disjointed nation faced and rather than facing and ending white supremacy in the south, instead the federal government chose to attempt to satisfy the Southern Democrats, in hope of limiting racial tensions and hoping it to distinguish over time.
Following the Emancipation proclamation, several events instilled a sense of pride among the mentally scarred black African Americans and the birth of a modern black community that was built on education, chuches, and the rising political figures that were determined to bring blacks on equal footing with their fellow whites, but perhaps unfortunate, the working conditions for the black African Americans were almost identical to those back in slavery as many still lived in poverty, coupled with the insistence of white landowners and planters to continue to prioritize making economic profits rather than looking after workers’ wellbeing. Overall, accessible freedom led black African Americans to strengthen their communities but elsewhere, racial tensions led to violent acts against the former slaves, and the lack of enforced action by the government in backing up their stance but rather to make compromises prompted opportunities for white supremacists to seize upon and stall for what should have been the promotion of equal rights for blacks, led this era, to become a missed golden opportunity in erasing a racial divide that had been stemmed from centuries of racial conflict, but black African Americans had laid out the basic foundations, and a journey was constructed for future political figures and black members to pursue ambitiously the same rights as whites and a world where the two races could coexist.
- Bunch, Lonnie G. “Emancipation Evoked Mix of Emotions for Freed Slaves.” The Washington Post. September 07, 2012. Accessed May 08, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/emancipation-evoked-mix-of-emotions-for-freed-slaves/2012/09/07/57ad5184-f15a-11e1-892d-bc92fee603a7_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.439b4e2ee402.
- Editors, History.com. “Sharecropping.” History.com. June 24, 2010. Accessed May 06, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sharecropping.
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 . James Oliver, Horton. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2009), 78.
 . Bunch, Lonnie G. “Emancipation Evoked Mix of Emotions for Freed Slaves.” The Washington Post. September 07, 2012. Accessed May 08, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/emancipation-evoked-mix-of-emotions-for-freed-slaves/2012/09/07/57ad5184-f15a-11e1-892d-bc92fee603a7_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.439b4e2ee402.
 . Editors, History.com. “Emancipation Proclamation.” (History.com. October 29, 2009). Accessed May 07, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/emancipation-proclamation.
 Editors, History.com. “Reconstruction.” History.com. October 29, 2009. Accessed May 18, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/reconstruction
 . Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015.
 Editors, History.com. “Freedmen’s Bureau.” History.com. June 01, 2010. Accessed May 06, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/freedmens-bureau.
 “Schools and Education During Reconstruction.” PBS. Accessed May 18, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/reconstruction-schools-and-education-during-reconstruction/.
 . Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015.
 . Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015.
 Editors, History.com. “Sharecropping.” History.com. June 24, 2010. Accessed May 06, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sharecropping.
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