In Search of Freedom: African Americans After the Civil War

African American Heritage | History

Courtesy UVA Special Collections
Courtesy UVA Special Collections

Courtesy UVA Special Collections
Courtesy UVA Special Collections

With Encyclopedia Virginia’s Brendan Wolfe

Virginia’s first enslaved Africans—“20. and odd Negroes,” as John Rolfe famously put it—arrived in 1619. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the federal census counted more than 490,000 slaves, the largest such population in the United States. And yet, five years later, they were all free.

‘‘The social upheaval that followed is hard to imagine,” says Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia (EV), an online project of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. “An institution that took hundreds of years to build was gone in the blink of an eye.”

So how exactly did these half-million men, women, and children gain their freedom? And what happened to them once they were free? For the last three years, EV, in partnership with the Library of Virginia, has explored these questions with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“One of the amazing things is how much we don’t know,” Wolfe says. “I mean, it seems like every last thing during the Civil War was documented. But African American men like Miles Connor, say, or Caesar Perkins, both members of the House of Delegates in the 1870s—we have no idea how they became free. Something as fundamental as that and we don’t have the records.”

According to Wolfe, what the encyclopedia does have is a new and rich history of the African American experience in Virginia during the Reconstruction years. Entries on the abolition of slavery and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments explain in some detail the transition from slavery to freedom. Biographies of Connor, Perkins, and their colleagues put names and in some cases even faces to the experiences of newly freed slaves, some of whom became politically active.

It seems like every last thing during the Civil War was documented. But African American men like Miles Connor, say, or Caesar Perkins, both members of the House of Delegates in the 1870s— we have no idea how they became free.

“Many whites retreated from politics in the immediate postwar years,” Wolfe explains, “leaving a vacuum eagerly filled by African American men, some of them former slaves. Some were only recently literate even.”

They joined the Republican Party mostly and later the biracial Readjuster Party, led by the former Confederate general William Mahone. Eventually, however, white conservatives organized in opposition, passing legislation that limited the African American vote. By 1902 Virginia, a state that thirty years earlier had swung for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election, was firmly back under white control.

Political involvement is not the whole story, of course. Wolfe points to entries on African American churches and freedmen’s education as helping to fill in the social context of the time.

“It’s spring, and with the sesquicentennial we’re thinking about events like Lee’s surrender at Appomattox,” Wolfe says. “We’re thinking about the end of the war, which is fine. But it’s easy to forget that 150 years ago, something else was just beginning.”

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