Part Two: Defining Freedom | Facing History & Ourselves

Part Two: Defining Freedom

Scholars discuss the evolution of the definition of freedom for emancipated slaves after the Civil War.

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  • History


English — US


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Part Two: Defining Freedom


[SINGING] Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom over me. And before I be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free.

Historians are loath to make grand sweeping claims about all of humanity, but I would make one sweeping claim about human beings that transcends time and space and culture and country. It's that all of us want to be free, to have free will, to be able to try to determine your life on its own terms, to be able to live and love freely. And you see this over and over and over and over again in every human society, this desire to be free.

And so that was certainly true of black people in the United States who had been enslaved since before the country even came into existence, who never were able to enjoy the kinds of freedoms that supposedly animated the country from its very birth. The birth of this freedom-loving nation was forged in the crucible of slavery and the enslavement of black people. And so at the moment of emancipation, you have not just the four million people who were enslaved, but every single black person in the United States understood that this moment of emancipation was a moment of liberation for all of them and also a moment of redemption for the country.


My grave and go home to my Lord and be free.

The word freedom is used so often in our culture and in our country, we sometimes forget what it means. But freedom meant something real to people who didn't have it. To enslaved Africans, they had what Robbin Kelley called "freedom dreams." They had a desire to go where they wanted to go, to get the fruits and benefits of their own work, to form their own families, to walk with dignity and breathe easily, to look somebody in the eye as an equal human being, and to have a share in making the world in which they lived.

Up until 1863, for four million enslaved Africans to think that was folly, was foolishness. Nobody thought that that would ever come about, at least whites didn't think it would ever come about, but blacks prepared for it. They planned for it. When one slave ran away, they could have just stayed away, but they then organized to bring their brothers and sisters out of bondage into freedom.

Harriet Tubman ran away to freedom and went back 19 times to slave territory to be a conductor on what we call the Underground Railroad, which wasn't a railroad at all, but it was a network of carts and wagons that brought people to freedom. People who were free, blacks who were free, could have said, well, that's it, I have what I want. But they felt they had an obligation to bring other people to freedom as well. That's a sense of freedom is not just an individual's desire for rights and agency, but a whole people's ability to work together to enjoy the fruits and benefits of life on this earth.


The Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1st, 1863, declared free the slaves not in the entire country, but in most of the Confederacy. The proclamation says, from now on, it will be part of the job of the Union Army to protect the freedom of these people who have been declared free. So to the goal of preserving the Union, the proclamation adds the emancipation of the slaves. And even though there are a lot of slaves exempted, everybody understood that if all those 3.2 million are freed, the slavery of the others are not going to last all that much longer.

And so when the emancipation came, 200,000 blacks ran away from slavery and joined the Union Army. And their guns tipped the balance of power in that fight. Another million stayed behind, and they stopped working. They sabotaged the Confederate economy, because they wouldn't grow the crops that the Confederacy needed in order to support itself. But even more importantly, they flocked to wherever the Union Army was, and they started to work the land together, work it in little plots, share seeds, share tools, share technology, and to create a vision of freedom that wasn't just a dream in their minds anymore. It was something they went out and worked on and built every day.


One of the most remarkable moments of the Civil War occurred in January of '65 after William Sherman's triumphant march through the South in Savannah, Georgia. He meets with a group of freedmen along with the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Sherman and Stanton gather a group of representative men and have a conversation with them about what freedom means. What do they want from this war? And they very clearly say what the Civil War means to them, what the war is being fought about, but also what they would like in the aftermath of the war. Two very important things come out of that conversation. One is land.


African Americans aspired to be land owners, to have a stake in the land that they had toiled on for generations. So the expectation of land ownership was incredibly important in terms of what freedom meant. The second important aspect that comes out of that conversation is autonomy, being left alone, having the right to be left alone.

Finally, in January 1865, the Congress ratifies the 13th Amendment, which irrevocably abolishes slavery throughout the entire nation. The 13th Amendment covers all the slaves, it covers all the states, and it says there can no longer be slavery in the United States. So it's the final act, so to speak, of this process of destroying the institution of slavery.

Obviously this was something that African Americans had dreamed about, had envisioned, had thought about every day of their lives. What that really meant when it happened, when it hit you that you were now free, was a moment of revelation, was a moment of introspection, but also a moment of tremendous possibility.

What happens as a result of this some of it's really concrete, right. You can move. You can leave. You can find your family. You can get married. You can get a job. You can earn a wage. You can save some money. You can provide for your children. You can make ends meet. You can travel. You can do all sorts of things that you couldn't do in a system of slavery. But there's also a more existential way of experiencing freedom, which is just a sense that whatever burden is on you -- on your soul, on your heart, on your head-- has been lifted, and possibilities exist, opportunities exist that can be seized.

But the 13th Amendment does not define freedom at all. In fact, it doesn't use the word freedom. It simply says slavery may not exist in this country. But then it has a second clause, which says Congress has the power to enforce this by appropriate legislation. So that raises the question, what is freedom anyway? What does it mean to be a free person? In what ways can Congress enforce this? And a major part of the debate over Reconstruction is what you might call a debate over the definition of freedom.


Surely African Americans aspired to be seen as full, equal citizens. Frederick Douglass in a famous address he gave, entitled What the Black Man Wants, talked about the importance of getting the right to vote, of being seen as equal citizens, having the rights of equal citizens.


And that was something that really spoke to what a revolutionary transformation, in social relations, in political relations, Reconstruction was. The very idea of black people as equal citizens ran completely against the history and legacy of white supremacy.

I always tell my students that the most important day of the revolution is the day after the revolution, when you have to figure out how to put in place that bold imagination. How do you institutionalize the dreams that have been deferred?

At the very end of the Civil War, in March 1865, Congress established this unprecedented institution, the Freedmen's Bureau, or its full name, the Bureau of Freedmen (former slaves), Refugees (that's whites who were displaced by the war) and Abandoned Lands. This would be a federal agency to oversee the transition from slavery to freedom, to oversee labor contracts, to set up schools, to provide medical care, to try to suppress violence in the South, to set up their own court system, to distribute rations to hungry people, and to settle blacks on land.

Remember the title, "abandoned land" is in that title. The federal government had come into possession of large amounts of land in the South, and there were those who thought the government should allow black people to get hold of some of that land. And the original Freedmen's Bureau Bill seems to suggest this.

The masses of black people, the rural folk, wanted to have their own piece of land and be independent. And in that way you can see there's so many grounds for common identity among the rural people of the South, white and black. Unfortunately, it was divided by racism, because most Southern whites believed that they were better off if African Americans were in a degraded position.

White Southerners wanted to try and replicate the economic and social conditions of slavery as much as possible.

Many people just couldn't quite even deal with it, that this was something the government had never done anything remotely like this. And by the end of 1865, new governments are in place in the South, and they pass laws which really indicate that they are unable to come to terms with the fact that black people are free. They pass what are called the black codes, which are a series of laws restricting the black population. In other words, just trying to get them just back to work on the plantations as a dependent labor force with no political rights, no civil rights, nothing.


[SINGING] Wrap your hair and fall inside with, take my bed, and dream my dreams.

Part Two: Defining Freedom

Please note that this video contains dehumanizing imagery. We have chosen to include it in order to honestly communicate the images that the public saw at the time.

How to Cite This Video

Facing History & Ourselves, “Part Two: Defining Freedom”, video, last updated May 13, 2015.

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