To listen to Episode 9, click here to visit the show page.
This article supplements the History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. To access the entire series visit Slate.com/Academy.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jamelle Bouie: Welcome to Episode 9 of the History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy. I’m Jamelle Bouie.
Rebecca Onion: And I’m Rebecca Onion. On our last episode, we looked at the decade of the 1850s. We took a look at what happened to enslaved people who managed to escape, and about some of the ways that conflict over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 exacerbated tensions between slave states and free states.
Bouie: We know those tensions boiled over into war just a few years later, and there have been thousands of books—countless books—written on that war in the years since, most of them focused on the military and political dynamics of the conflict.
But on today’s podcast, the final of our series, we’re going to keep our focus on the people who were at the center of this conflict: the four million people who had lived up until this point in bondage. What did the end of slavery mean for them, and how did they begin the enormous task of putting their lives together as a free people?
Onion: As we do with each episode of our series, we’ll begin by considering the life of a single person.
Today, that person is a woman named Rose Herera.
* * *
Rose Herera was born in the parish of Pointe Coupee, Louisiana in 1835. Though she lived through the abolition of American slavery, Rose’s personal struggle for freedom had only just begun when emancipation made her a free women.
Described as a “good washer and ironer” in an advertisement for her sale, Rose was purchased by New Orleans dentist James de Hart around 1861. She married a free black man, George Herera, and the couple had five children together.
At the end of 1862—half a year after the Union Army entered New Orleans—James de Hart and his wife, Mary, could see the writing on the wall. They began pressuring Rose to go with them to Havana, Cuba, where slavery still prevailed. After getting in a domestic spat with a De Hart relative, Rose was put in prison. While there, the de Harts fled to Cuba and took three of Rose’s children with them.
After the war was over, Rose Herera began a legal campaign to get her family back. When Mary de Hart returned to New Orleans without the kids, she was jailed and charged with kidnapping. A court eventually ruled that Mary de Hart could return to Cuba on the condition that Rose’s children be returned to America. The family was reunited in March, 1866, with the sad exception of George, who died before the children were returned.
* * *
Bouie: It seemed like Rose’s story is somehow emblematic of what a lot of enslaved people and formerly enslaved people were going through in this period of emancipation.
Onion: That’s why I wanted to talk more about her and this kind of story today.
Because I think there’s this misconception that you might have from an outline picture of history, that the Emancipation Proclamation made everybody free at once, and it was sort of a clean surgical cut.
But from the history that we’re looking at today, it becomes clear that emancipation was really uneven, and confusing and dangerous.
Bouie: You could almost say it came in fits and starts, right?
You have in the very beginning enslaved people escaping and eventually the Union Army having to form what’s called contraband camps to deal with this influx of people who are basically refugees from slavery. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are large chunks of the South which are so remote that people don’t know that emancipation has come.
There was an aspect of the Emancipation Proclamation, too, that I never really fully grasped, which is that parts of the South were exempted from it. So that if you were nominally loyal to the Union, you could continue to hold slaves. Or there were places where it was more politically expedient for the Emancipation Proclamation not to reach at that time.
There’s a number of situations in 1862 where a general will declare freedom for the people who are behind his lines, and then the president will have to say, “Actually, that’s not true. We’re not doing that.” Then there were movements for compensating emancipation or gradual emancipation. Then there were movements to allow freedom for people who will enlist in the Union Army.
Then finally, in January 1863 of course, there’s the actual Emancipation Proclamation.
Bouie: Even when the Emancipation Proclamation eventually came down in Jan. 1863, it didn’t apply to the entire South. It didn’t apply to the entire country.
I think the best way to understand it is as a joint political/military measure on one end. It did not apply to the border states—places like Kentucky, and Maryland, and Missouri—where there were still people holding slaves.
There were large chunks of the public who were sympathetic to the Confederacy. And Lincoln really wanted just to keep them in the fold and avoid that kind of political and military loss.
It basically didn’t apply to Union-held areas of the South. New Orleans was sort of exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation. There are cases of enslaved people escaping to Union encampments just outside New Orleans and saying things like, “Well, my master is a rebel. So, you have to let me in.”
It applied to Confederate-held areas of the South, and acted as an implicit encouragement to enslaved people to leave. To escape, to do what they can, and in that way undermine the Southern war effort, which was heavily dependent on enslaved people for labor and other kind of parts of the war regime.
Onion: You’re fighting with your feet, in a way.
Then often, of course, in many cases fighting afterwards.
Bouie: Yes, that’s right.
Onion: So, you mentioned that New Orleans was in a particularly strange position. New Orleans fell to the Union Army in late April 1862, which is really early in the war.
Bouie: That’s right.
Onion: Our first interview today is with Adam Rothman, who’s a historian at Georgetown University. He’s written a book about Rose Herera’s efforts to put her family back together. The book is also about what it was like in New Orleans in those strange years when everything was in limbo.
Adam Rothman: It is a bizarre situation where the Emancipation Proclamation basically applies to all the territory that the Union does not actually control.
So, as the Union Army marches forward it becomes an army of liberation, but in the places that were exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, like New Orleans—it's just a whole different kettle of fish.
Rebecca Onion: How did the enslaved people in New Orleans react to this? They knew what was going on, right?
Rothman: They react in a variety of ways. The most overt is that they flee to the Union Army.
At the various Union Army encampments in and around New Orleans, enslaved people just start showing up and saying, “My master’s a rebel. I want to work for you. I want to fight for the Union.” And this is men, women, and children showing up at the Union Army lines.
The Union Army officers have to figure out what to do with them, and there are actually battles—not battles, but arguments—among Union officials about what to do with these fugitive slaves. Should they be returned to their owners? Which owners should they be returned to? If they are not going to be returned to their owners, what is to be done with them?
It's just a really foggy situation.
The conventional wisdom is that the Union Army occupied New Orleans. But I like to say that the slaves actually occupied the Union Army.
Onion: [laughs] Yeah.
Rothman: They presented themselves as a problem—they presented slavery as a problem—and they forced Union soldiers and officers, and ultimately politicians, to figure out what to do with them.
Onion: In some ways it’s disappointing to realize how qualified the Emancipation Proclamation really was.
That there were whole areas that were exempt from it, that these areas were places that Lincoln was concerned to keep on his side.
How do you feel when you think about this part of the history?
Bouie: I think the temptation is to use this as evidence that Lincoln was not actually committed to emancipation.
Whenever I talk about Lincoln, there’s inevitably someone who cites the Horace Greeley letter, who tries to make the case that Lincoln was at best a fair-weather friend of emancipation and at worst actively opposed. I think that is wrong.
I think the Emancipation Proclamation is actually evidence of why that is wrong. To my mind, in my reading, the Emancipation Proclamation seems to be primarily a political document.
As a political document, it is trying to do a couple things at once.
It’s trying to protect Union interests in border states. It’s trying to undermine the Confederacy. It’s trying to galvanize the Northern public and the international public for the Union cause. It’s trying to do this without overstepping Lincoln’s constitutional authority—throughout the war and throughout his presidency, Lincoln’s very attuned to the limits of his authority under the Constitution.
The Emancipation Proclamation accomplishes all of that. The fact that it’s even called the Emancipation Proclamation is a political decision. There’s no reason for it to be called that. It could have been called: “A general order to free slaves in the states under rebellion.” It’s specifically called the Emancipation—a charged, politically heated word— Proclamation, from the president of the United States.
If you think about it in those terms, imagine the enslaved person or the family in the Florida panhandle or South Carolina who hears about this. They don’t know about the exemptions. The exemptions are really for a different audience. They hear the Emancipation Proclamation, and regardless of whether they are legally able to leave, they try to do it. In calling it that, it fundamentally changes the character of the war.
I think Lincoln was aware of this. I think this was the point.
Yes, there are these exemptions. And yes, it is the case that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves. It only—I’m using air quotes here—“freed” slaves in places where the Union had no territorial control. But the fact of it being called the Emancipation Proclamation is highly significant for all of those symbolic reasons. I don’t think that’s an accident.
I think whenever we’re thinking or talking about Lincoln, it is incredibly important to understand that he is probably one of the most masterful politicians that ever occupied the Oval Office.
Onion: It’s really interesting to think about the relationship between a proclamation coming from a president and what goes on in an enslaved person’s daily life.
If they’re still living in a place where slavery is sort of nominally happening, there is a sort of heartening effect or an exciting effect of this proclamation.
Adam told us a little bit about the way that he found evidence of how that dynamic evolved in New Orleans while the Union army was there.
Rothman: I think we have a tendency to think of wartime emancipation as something that was fought out principally on battlefields and in contraband camps behind Union Army lines. But it was also fought on plantations and in households where the Union Army was not a direct presence.
One of the things I found was the diary of a Confederate woman named Ann Wilkinson Penrose, who kept a daily account of life in New Orleans under Union rule. It's a bitter, raging journal. She’s just upset about everything.
But one of the things she’s increasingly upset about is the refusal of her household servants, as she called them—they’re really slaves—to work in the ways that she was used to.
And these sorts of episodes were so uncommon before the Union army comes in and just disrupts the whole balance of power between masters and slaves.
Narrator: [reading] “I rose and went into the kitchen to speak to Becky. She was leaning down with her back towards me as I entered. I could not resist giving her a good hard slap on the shoulder—which by-the-by hurt my hand, I have no doubt, more than it did her.
At the same time, I asked how she dared to send in such bread and cakes, and she started up, looked furiously at me, and exclaimed, ‘Don’t you do that again. Let it be the last time, or I’ll just march out of this yard.’” [From Beyond Freedom’s Reach, by Adam Rothman]
Bouie: What’s so great about that reading, it’s just that last line: “Don’t you do that again. Let it be the last time, or I’ll just march out of that yard.” It’s so bold, and to my mind, very funny—very comical.
But it seems like it does carry this undercurrent of danger even still.
Onion: Yeah. I mean, you think to yourself, oh, Becky has probably been waiting to say this for years. This has been boiling. You want to jump up and cheer. But as Rothman reminded us, people like Becky still were existing within a perilous set of circumstances.
Rothman: At the same time as there is this new sense of confidence, this new sense of empowerment on the part of enslaved people, it’s a very dangerous time.
Because slaveholders are not yet defeated. In New Orleans in 1862 and 1863, they still have the hope of coming back into power, a belief that the Confederacy will somehow, someday still prevail, and when it does they’ll get the whip hand back. They will push their enslaved people back down into slavery. I think that's a real possibility for much of the war, and I think it contributes to the mayhem and violence of the process of emancipation.
So we shouldn't forget, while we enjoy these stories of resistance and relief, that simultaneously there is a whole world of pain and violence still out there, still boiling.
And that's part of the mayhem of the period.
Onion: So, getting back to the biography of Rose Herera that we started with.
It’s notable and interesting that the slaveholder took her kids to Havana, Cuba.
Bouie: Yes. The decision to take the kids to Havana is not an accident.
One of the interesting, yet incredibly alarming facts of slaveholder society in the 1850s was a growing push to try to expand their slaveholding empire further south into other regions.
They couldn’t go north, they couldn’t go west. They could just go further south.
Cuba was a target because slavery still existed there, but there were other Southern slaveholders who thought they could expand the institution even further south in places like Nicaragua, even Mexico. There were a group of men called filibusters—a term that has no real relationship to the term we use for unlimited debate in the Senate.
In this usage, a filibuster is someone who goes to stir up revolution, a mercenary type. In the Southern press at the time, there were writers like George Fitzhugh, a noted partisan of slavery who encouraged this kind of thing. One of the most famous filibusters we know of is William Walker, who ends up failing in his attempt and comes back to the United States. But the point is that there was a real push to further expand slavery as much as was possible.
You could call this the radicalization of slaveholding society. It was one of the things that pushed the country towards war.
Onion: Yeah. It sounds almost fantastical—it’s ideological and so extreme to our ears.
Of course, the fact that there are actually historical examples of people actually trying to carry out this ideology kind of changes the tenor of the discussion when you talk about what would have happened in the United States if the Civil War had not been fought.
Would we have ever abolished slavery peacefully?
We asked Adam Rothman to engage in some counterfactual speculation with us.
Bouie: Right. I think “asked” might be a polite term. We kind of badgered him into the counterfactual discussion.
Rothman: There used to be an idea that slavery was just going to die a natural death in the 19th century through the pressures of the invisible hand.
Bouie: I think that's still a common understanding.
Rothman: Yeah, that's false. It's completely false.
There are many ways that slavery was able to find a thriving niche for itself in the new industrial order of the 19th century, both through the expansion of cotton and technological innovation in the oldest of the plantation economies—that of sugar.
I think one of the reasons why emancipation during the Civil War was so crucial is precisely because slavery was not ever going to die a natural death.
Bouie: Absent emancipation, slavery could have just chugged along in the United States indefinitely?
Rothman: It could have chugged along indefinitely.
Even the visions of a gradual emancipation that were floated before the Civil War, the kinds of visions that even Lincoln subscribed to, really didn’t imagine the final abolition of slavery until the end of the 1800s.
Rothman: So think about that possibility. Not only as a question of whether or not and when slavery would have been abolished, but how different the social and political order of the United States would have been if slavery had slowly morphed into some other kind of quasi-feudal relationship in the heart of a liberal democracy.
There are a lot of “what-ifs,” but none of them are good.
Bouie: Setting aside the alternate history for a moment, if we go back to real history, there was a real fear that this state of freedom wasn’t permanent. Things were uncertain and very much in flux.
Onion: That’s another reason the Rose Herera story stands in for a lot of the uncertainty here.
Her kids actually were kidnapped and taken away down into Cuba. There were rumors after the end of the war, of recently freed people being kidnapped and sold down to Cuba, Brazil, or some place in South America. The specter of the continuing slavery in the southern part of the hemisphere is very real to people, places where you could still be grabbed and sold down to.
Adam Rothman told us that these fears were so prevalent that in 1886, the Senate actually investigated and issued a report on this question of kidnappings. Although it’s hard to find concrete evidence about the veracity of some these reports, the fears that people had came from the precarity they felt, especially during the war.
Bouie: That’s right. There are definite instances of mass kidnappings during the war.
One of the myths about the Civil War is that Robert E. Lee and the army of Northern Virginia were fighting for their homes and their own freedom. In fact, during the Gettysburg campaign, Robert E. Lee’s army in Northern Virginia embarked on kidnapping campaigns to take blacks—free blacks—and sell them down south into slavery, or send them down south into slavery.
Enslaved people heard of these things, and they caused quite a bit of fear.
Rothman: You have to remember that the Civil War was a closely fought war, and it wasn’t one in which the Union Army kept pushing forward. There were times that they retreated. There were times that they were defeated. There were times that the Confederacy gained back ground that they had lost.
Whenever they did, the newly freed people in those regions were in for trouble because Confederates seized them. Sometimes they killed them. Sometimes they sold them back into slavery. There are many examples of that sort of thing. It hasn’t quite made it into the history books yet, but there's a lot of evidence that stuff like that took place.
The rumors of kidnappings after the war is very much an extension of that experience of kidnapping before and during the war.
So this was part of the experience of black people in the United States. We always think of people moving from slavery to freedom, and we don’t often think about people moving from freedom back into slavery, or careening between those two conditions.
I think we’ve been taken in by this idea that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. Sometimes, it bends backwards. And I think that happened during the war.
War is mayhem. It's havoc. If we enter into the experience of enslaved and newly free people during the war and see it through their eyes, we would see it as a much more chaotic, much more confusing, an incredibly hopeful but incredibly fearful moment.
Bouie: The arc of the universe is squiggly.
Rothman: Yes, the arc of the universe is squiggly.
Onion: The arc of the universe is not an arc!
Rothman: [laughs] No.
Bouie: To continue along with that big picture thinking, I do want to make a couple quick points about what it meant for emancipation to come when it did.
First, in 1860 and 1865 there are legitimate questions about whether a democratic society can survive, exist, and endure. Just ten years earlier, there were failed revolutions in Europe. Democracy is kind of on the wane in countries where it existed. So the successful conclusion of the American Civil War is actually a very big deal in terms of the spread of democratic governance.
Onion: Yeah, and we were late to abolish slavery, but after we did, Cuba and Brazil followed suit.
Bouie: Right. It’s hard to imagine a United States that persists as a liberal democracy but is also a large slave society. Eventually something would have had to give.
If we had never had a war about it, it’s hard to say what would have happened. My hunch is that the United States, or at least large parts of it, would look something like South Africa, except way worse. South African apartheid.
Another thing to keep in mind is that—I’ll be careful about our language here—there’s no question that in the 21st century, there are people who are enslaved. There is slavery in countries like Mauritania. There are lots of discrete instances and examples of human bondage. But with that said, the emancipation in the United States effectively ended the global economic institution that was slavery.
It no longer exists, and that is a huge thing. When we say slavery has ended, I think that’s generally what we mean.
That this transatlantic, deeply embedded institution of bondage that connected the United States to South America, to Europe, to European colonies elsewhere, had come to an end.
Onion: Right. A thing that was at least partly the foundation of everyone’s wealth. And now it’s gone.
Bouie: Right. That’s no small thing.
In our conversation with Adam, he really gets to the fact that—even with all the caveats, everything that came after emancipation, and all the failures in the United States to really make good on the promise of emancipation—that we really should not discount how genuinely important this was, for enslaved people, for the United States as a country, and—to sound a bit prosaic about it—the cause of human freedom.
Even the very fact that Rose Herera was able to work through the courts in the later part of the 1860s, and was able to retrieve her children, was revolutionary. We talked a little about the way that the trial went for her, the way that people were called as witnesses to say those children seemed happy with the slaveholder. They seemed like they were being taken good care of—a standard paternalist line, which at its heart has the implication that black people can’t possibly be good parents.
Rose was able to battle through that and get them back. That’s the effect of emancipation within an individual life.
* * *
Onion: This is The History of American Slavery, at Slate Academy. I’m Rebecca Onion.
Bouie: And I’m Jamelle Bouie. We’re talking today about how formerly enslaved people attempted to put their families back together in the years following emancipation.
Onion: Just as Rose Herera spent the years after the war trying really hard to get her children back from Cuba, many other people found themselves in the position of trying to figure out where their far flung families were.
Bouie: It’s difficult to tell these stories, just because of the sheer lack of documentary evidence.
Remember, enslaved people did not have records with them. Many of them did not know how to read or write. What we rely on to build these narratives and find these stories are what we have from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was established towards the end of the Civil War to begin dealing with the huge population of formerly enslaved people who now had to make their way in a war-torn South.
Onion: The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau have actually have been released online recently. And they’re good sources for tracing what happened to some families and people trying to find their loved ones.
But there’s a lot of stories that have gotten lost. In a recent book entitled Help Me to Find My People, historian Heather Williams, who we talked to in episode four when we talked about family separation, documents the stories of people doing everything in their power to find their husbands, wives, children, and parents who had been taken from them in one way or another.
We had the chance to talk to Professor Williams again at the end of our podcast series. We asked her how people tried to rectify the family separations that had occured during slavery.
Heather Williams: If you were in Virginia, if you were a mother in Virginia whose child had been purchased by a trader, you had no idea where your child had ended up. Sometimes people had some sense of it, but very often when people started the search, they just weren’t sure.
Nobody had kept records. Individual traders would have records, so, their letters that a slave trader is writing back to one of his partners. Or even one where he’s writing back to his wife, and he lists the eight people he had sold. He names them, but it’s just a first name. That’s not an official record. There was no directory. There was no listing of where people had been taken to. So, you start out having a sense that the particular trader who had purchased your child in the market in Richmond or from the plantation in Richmond did business in New Orleans.
I see people who were writing to the Freedmen’s Bureau, a government office that was established by the federal government. People are using them as a kind of search bureau. Somebody in Virginia might write to the Freedmen’s Bureau in New Orleans and say, “The trader took my child and this is the trader’s name. Can you tell me what happened to my son?” But most times, a letter like that would have just gone into the garbage or into a file.
Onion: One thing that I try to remember when hearing about these stories is just how much geographic distance slavery had put between some people.
You could have someone who started out in Virginia, had a family in Virginia, and then got sold way south. You could have someone who was way south, and then during the war, the slaveholder took them to Texas to try to stay away from the army. Any number of situations like that, in a time when there’s not really fast transportation, among people who had no money. The geographic distance becomes unimaginable.
Virginia, for example, is a slave exporting state. If you are enslaved in the Tidewater and your child gets sold away, they could be sold away literally anywhere. They could be sold away in North Carolina. They could be in Florida. They could be in Mississippi and Louisiana. Given those distances and not just the lack of fast travel, but the lack of rapid communication of any kind, they’re effectively dead, for all intents and purposes.
When someone is sold away across those distances, they might as well have died. I recall reading letters and slave narratives—people talking about it in exactly those terms, of feeling as if their family members had died once they were sold away. You can imagine, then, the jubilation of being reunited. Because it really is like someone coming back from the dead.
Onion: Yeah, it’s amazing to think about those kinds of journeys, about what it took to get reunited. The amount of networking and thinking and researching that you’d have to do. Some of the stories that Dr. Williams found were about people who made the decision to try to go back to where they had been sold. That was their strategy for trying to be reunited.
Williams: Somebody from Arkansas goes back to Virginia to find her mother and her sister. She gets there, but then she’s run out of money. She wants to get back to Arkansas with her mother and sister, but she has no funds.
So she goes to the Freedmen’s Bureau and the agent was very sympathetic. He tried to get approval to give her money for transportation, but his higher-ups said, “No, let her just stay in Virginia.”
And she says, “But I have a husband and children in Arkansas, and we’re doing very well there. I want to take my mother and my sister there.” You can see the letters going back and forth, and eventually she finds a way. She was obviously quite resourceful, and she found money to get back to Arkansas.
Transportation is an issue, and it’s through these requests that you get to see what the people were doing. They’re making these efforts, but it’s really up to the discretion of the Freedmen’s Bureau whether you’ll get the support.
I think that if you were elderly you were more likely to find support for getting back to family. Because the government didn’t want you to be dependent on the government. So, if you’re old and you can’t work, then maybe the government is going to have to give you food rations. They don’t want that, so they’ll help pay for you to get back to a family that can support you.
It was really tough. Some people just walked for hundreds of miles trying to get back to the place where they had left family. And of course, sometimes you get there and the family is not there.
That’s something people had found during slavery when they escaped. You go back thinking your mother and your siblings are where you left them, and they’re not there.
Bouie: Listening to Professor Williams and reading and thinking about these stories, my first thought—and this might be just because I’m me—is that I am shocked that no one has tried to make a film out of any of this. It seems sort of readymade for a cinematic depiction.
Either of the Lee Daniels smaltzy type, like The Butler. Or, my preference would be for something a bit more—I guess the word I’m looking for is bleak, or dire. A movie where a formerly enslaved person traverses the South, not just to find their relatives but to get revenge. That’s more my style.
But either way, this all seems very ripe for cinema, just because these are such powerful stories. They’re stories that happened right here in the United States, in places that you can go visit right now.
Onion: I think you should write a screenplay, Jamelle.
Bouie: Once I get all of my other screenplay ideas out the way, maybe I’ll try to tackle this one.
Onion: Put it on your list anyway!
So, something that Dr. Williams was talking about is this obscure calculus that went into the government’s decisions to help or not help people try to figure out how to get back to their families. We asked her whether the decisions to help people or not—whether the Freedmen’s Bureau actually had a rubric for what to do in these cases.
Williams: As far as I can tell, it was completely discretionary.
If you’re a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in a particular community, you are being called on for all kinds of things. They’re acting as courts, in some cases. They’re deciding when owners want to keep former slaves working for them without pay—they’re being consulted for that. They’re trying to really push freed people into signing contracts to continue to work for former owners or for other plantations.
They were doing a lot of things. Somebody might be moved by a particular letter and might take the time to go and try to get some information about the person the family was searching for.
But then you also see some letters from Freedmen’s Bureau agents in response to requests for transportation. For example, why don’t they just stay where they are? Or, this is a nuisance. Or, they should not become dependent on the government.
You had labored in slavery without pay for your lifetime and your ancestors before that, but in this moment of emancipation even asking for a few dollars to take a train was seen as, if we do that, we’ll be encouraging dependency. We cannot have people dependent on the federal government, so, no, we’re not going to help.
Bouie: Two things stick out here for me.
The first is that even immediately after the end of slavery, when you have people who really do need some sort of material help just to get up on their feet and be self-sufficient, you have these worries about dependency, which I think are very much tied to racial ideas about black Americans—that these people are helpless and cannot fend for themselves.
The other thing, and this I think more of a 30,000 feet view of things, is how the Freedmen’s Bureau feels very modern in terms of the kind of services and the kind of thing it was trying to do. That hadn’t really happened before in American society, and certainly not as a function of government. You can imagine a large humanitarian agency in the wake of a war—coming out of the First World War, the Second World War. It makes sense that it would come out of the Civil War.
It feels both very appropriate and a bit out of place, if you see what I’m saying.
Onion: I mean, it seems so extremely ad hoc. Both powerful and ad hoc in some ways.
Onion: I think maybe that’s sort of the feeling that you get from it, is that someone needed to step in. Something needed to happen. So many people have all these human needs and are in this really chaotic place. But at the same time—
Bouie: There’s no model for it.
Onion: Yeah. There is no model for it, and the Freedmen’s Bureau fascinates me for that reason. I think it’s so interesting.
Bouie: Because there’s all this chaos and because the Freedmen’s Bureau is not super interested in being a source of unlimited or even generous help, what’s interesting is that—as is often the case, I think, in the story of American slavery—it is the enslaved people themselves, or in this case the formerly enslaved people, who are working to reunite themselves and bring some order to their own lives.
Onion: That’s the source of another amazing set of sources that Dr. Williams used in her book.
Williams: One of the really fantastic sources from this time period are these information wanted ads. The ads that people placed in newspapers after the end of the Civil War. So, the war ends in April, and by October you have people—so, before the 13th Amendment—you have people establishing newspapers, black newspapers.
Then people start to advertise in these newspapers looking for family members. The ads might be three or four lines, five lines. But the information they would put in is the name of the person you’re looking for—the name of the people. Because, for example, there’s a mother in Raleigh who has lost nine children and she names each of them. Very important information is who they had belonged to. In a family, people may have belonged to two or three people, or four people. So, they want to list the name of the slave owners, and the reason for that is because these would have been, for the most part, white men in a community whose names would mean something more than, “My mother’s name was Betty.” Even if you give a last name for the former slave, that name may have changed.
So, you want to give the name of the owner. And then, also the name of a slave trader, if a trader had been involved in the sale. You might know of multiple owners. A mother might know that her daughter had been sold and taken to Texas.
So, they’re listing the places where the person had been and they’re listing the names of the white men who had been involved in the transactions.
Narrator: [reading] Mr. Editor—
I desire some information about my mother.
The last time I saw her I was in Alexandria, Virginia, about the year 1852 or 1853. Her name was Hannah. She belonged to Lawyer Tibbs, who sold her when I was quite young to a trader named Bruthing. Lather Tibbs lived in Leesburg, Virginia when he sold mother to Bruthing, and afterwards swapped me to Bruthing for another boy. Bruthing put me in jail, and I cried, so he told me if I would hush he would bring my mother there next morning, which he did; but I was so young mother hardly knew me, so Bruthing stood four or five boys in a line and asked her which one of them was her boy. She stood a few moments and then said I was the boy. Mother then brought me some cake and candy, and that was the last time I saw her. I now go by the name of Henry Tibbs. I remember the names of the two Tibbs’ sons, Abner and Kennedy. Bruthing brought me to New Orleans, Louisiana, and sold me to a man named M. Pickett.
If mother is found please address me at Deasonville, Yazoo County, Mississippi, in care of Reverend James Allen.
—Henry Tibbs, Southwestern Christian Advocate, December 11, 1879 [Read this and other ads in this July 13 Vault post.]
Onion: The thing about that ad to me, besides the fact that it has a really sad story in it, is that the last time that Henry Tibbs saw his mother was in 1853, and he’s placing the ad in 1879. A bunch of years have already passed, and he’s got all this information that he’s treasuring or he’s keeping. He’s trying to figure out how to make these pieces that he has fit together in a way that will bring her back to him.
Bouie: Right. As we’ve said, this is a story that’s replicating itself across the South.
This kind of story probably has been going on since the end of the Civil War into the present. You had so many families that were separated, so many people wrenched away from their relations, that maybe the direct people never found each other—the parents and the children, the siblings, the spouses—but the next generation forward may have run into someone.
Even today, there are plenty of stories about people discovering or meeting with families of enslavers and enslaved. With genealogical research especially, you’re finding people reuniting with family members or branches of their family that were separated in the wake of slavery and the Civil War. The Civil War and this period of American history isn’t really that far away in terms of sort of human lifespans.
I think the Louie C.K. joke is that it’s two 75 year old women living back to back. In that time span, families can still find each other 100 years later.
Onion: I’m hoping that the more documents like this go online—either the separation ads or the Freedmen’s Bureau ads—the more effort is put into digitizing this stuff, the easier that will become.
Of course, we also know that some stuff just never got written down. No matter how much digitization we do, in some cases those reunions will be hard to bring about.
We wanted to know from Dr. Williams how many of these ads might have led to successful reunions. Of course, she doesn't really know that numerically, but she let us know that she was able to find a few success stories in the documentary record.
Williams: There’s one case where there’s a letter written by a man named Tate.
It was written in 1863. So, it was written after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, but this had no effect on his freedom or his wife’s freedom because the Emancipation Proclamation did not free most enslaved people. So, he and his wife belonged to two different owners. Her owner had taken her away. I think they lived in Georgia. So, she was still in Georgia, but hundreds of miles away.
He was dictating a letter. The slave owner’s wife actually wrote the letter for him. He says, “This is probably my last letter because master says it makes no sense for me to keep writing to you. He will not let me come and live near where you are because your owner took you away. That’s not his responsibility, and furthermore, he says that I should find another woman—that there are all these other women here who would be interested in me.”
So, he sends his love to his wife and to his two children. He names the children. He never names his wife. He says, my dear wife. But he pledges his love to her, and he says, “I’m not interested in any of these other women. But if anything should happen, I’ll let you know first.” He kind of goes back and forth on this.
So, this is 1863. And I was able to find him in the 1870 census as a free person living in a household with a woman and with three children, and two of the children have the names of the children he had mentioned in that letter.
Bouie: That’s really great.
Back when we were first brainstorming this project, we were working hard to figure out how to organize everything. American slavery and slavery in the Western hemisphere writ large is a massive topic.
People make entire academic careers by focusing on small slices of it. How are we going to tell this story, in nine episodes no less, without overlooking something?
I think it was your idea, Rebecca, to focus on these individual lives instead of trying to tackle it broad theme by broad theme.
I mention that because I think this last clip, and this episode in particular, really highlights how much the history of American slavery is a history of these individual lives, these families, these communities, and their struggle to bring some sense of order, coherence, and light to their lives in the midst of this very terrible system.
Onion: I believed it when I proposed this way of doing it.
I think at the end of the experience of doing this whole inaugural Slate Academy, especially for this topic, I like looking at as much information about people’s lives as we have. There’s so many sort of big, sweeping things that happened during the period that affected people’s lives.
From the perspective of the white people living at the time, those people—the enslaved people—didn’t matter or were outside of history in some way. Or they were the matter that was building history, or the hands that were building history, but weren’t thinking about it or weren’t affected by it. That’s part of the racism that allowed slavery to happen.
So, for me, looking at as much information as we have—which is not very much about some people—about how people reacted to what was going on around them, made decisions, changed the way that they were living, or tried to fix things for themselves in whatever way that might be, for me, that’s a way of saying, well, they were part of history. They were there, and they were affected by things, and they were trying to do whatever they could to change things.
Bouie: What’s remarkable to me is how much these stories and these places still resonate 150 years later.
To finish off the series, we did an event involving a whole host of scholars around slavery or about slavery. One of the people who participated, what he does—as partially a job, partially a vocation, partially a hobby—is bring people to sleep and to stay in what’s left of the cabins of enslaved people on former plantations. To me, that’s just an incredibly powerful thing because what it does is it begins to help you inhabit the lives of these people.
I think I said at the beginning of this series, I’ve long had an interest, an academic interest, in American slavery. But I had never thought so much about individual lives, people’s lives, as I have during this project.
I’m grateful for it. It’s given me a new way of not only just approaching this history, but history in general.
Onion: I love hearing that. As a cultural historian, that’s always my reflex in some way. I’m always interested in everyday life. I’m interested in the way that large political movements affect what happens in a kitchen or what happens in a bedroom.
One of the amazing things about doing this series is the amount of scholarship that people have been able to produce that actually looks at those intimate relationships, emotional relationships, family relationships—the way people are around each other every day. There’s an argument to be made that that stuff is gone because it wasn’t recorded. But there are a lot of really good books: Stephanie Camp’s book that I really loved, Thavolia Glymph’s book, Annette Gordon-Reed’s book. These are all writers who are trying to say, okay, so, we don’t have that much information, but we do have some stuff that we can think about as a way to reconstruct, on an emotional level, the way people reacted to being enslaved.
That, to me, is what has the potential to transform the way that people think about the history of slavery. Because it’s so exhausting in some way to think about. When you get down to it on this human level, I think it’s paradoxically easier in some way.
Bouie: I think that’s right. I think getting down to the human level also helps dispel some of the myths and the misdirections that emerge in any public conversation about slavery. We published a piece for Slate on many of these misdirections.
I think the common threads to all of these is an attempt to completely abstract out the people involved. It’s easy to dismiss mass suffering, it’s easy to look for some way out if this is all just an abstraction. I think it’s much more difficult when you’re thinking of the enslaved as actual people like you and me. People who had aspirations. People who had loves.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, which is written as a letter to his son, there’s a great passage where he describes an enslaved person as someone who liked the particular way light fell on the grass. They were people just like you and I. Remembering that and taking that seriously doesn’t just make for better history, but I think it provides the empathy that allows us to resist this temptation to obfuscate or avoid the reality of the institution and the people who inhabited it.
* * *
Onion: And with that, that’s the end of this first Slate Academy. We really want to thank you listeners for sticking with us through this experimental project. We also want to hear what kinds of topics you’d like to hear Slate explore in the academy format in the future—here’s a link to a survey.
I’m Rebecca Onion.
Bouie: I’m Jamelle Bouie. And thank you so much for listening.