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The Freedmen’s Bureau  

Joseph P. Reidy

On March 3, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law a bill creating the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress granted the bureau control over affairs relating to the formerly enslaved people in the Confederate States and also charged it with administering relief to war refugees and managing the confiscated and abandoned land in federal possession. In theory, its agents would transform the habits and beliefs associated with slavery into those that prevailed in the free states of the North. Practical challenges abounded, and the original view that the intervention would be brief proved to be naïve. Complicating matters, Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, viewed the bureau as a bone of contention in his dispute with Congressional Republicans over which branch of government would control Reconstruction, the process of returning the seceded states to full standing in national affairs. Overriding Johnson’s vetoes, Congress extended the bureau’s mandate, first to 1868 and eventually to 1872. From the beginning, Southern critics accused the bureau of creating labor strife and stirring hatred between the races, a characterization that formed a central plank in later Lost Cause mythology regarding the evils of Reconstruction. Only decades into the 20th century did historians succeed in rehabilitating the reputation of this pioneering federal agency and its important contributions to restoring stability to the Southern economy and assisting formerly enslaved Southerners in asserting their rights as free and equal citizens of the republic.

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Female Slaveholders in British America  

Christine Walker

Women actively contributed to the expansion of chattel slavery in British America. During the colonial era, female inhabitants living in every region claimed by Britain, from the northernmost colonies to the southernmost islands in the Caribbean, held other people in bondage. As enslavers, women exercised their authority over captives in various capacities. Female slaveholders treated enslaved people as personal property that could be bought, sold, or rented out in the marketplace. They commanded enslaved people to perform diverse types of labor. Some worked in households as servants, cooks, and laundresses, while others labored in taverns, shops, fields, and on waterways. Women also bequeathed captives to descendants, often preferring to transfer enslaved people along female lines. Inheritance became an important mechanism for women to maintain control of, and benefit from, slaveholding. Finally, women exercised their authority by subjecting enslaved people to a spectrum of abuses ranging from corporeal punishment, imprisonment, and transportation, to starvation and execution. Early modern gender inequalities intensified women’s participation in slavery, offering them an alternative form of support, profit, and command. By offsetting the economic, legal, and social limitations imposed by patriarchal societies, slaveholding thus empowered women.

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Motherhood in Early America  

Nora Doyle

Women’s lives in British North America and the early United States were fundamentally shaped by the experiences of childbearing and childrearing and by the ideologies of motherhood that emerged from a range of cultural contexts. Most women in this period became mothers, either through choice or coercion, but their experiences of childbearing and motherhood differed sharply depending on their cultural background, social status, and experience of freedom or bondage. The history of motherhood was marked by significant continuities as well as change over time. For most women, motherhood was fundamentally defined by the physical rigors of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, and these experiences remained central across generations. Motherhood comprised a range of roles, activities, and areas of expertise, and as a result many women enjoyed considerable authority as mothers within their families and communities; this too remained constant. Changes to childbearing, motherhood, and maternal ideology occurred gradually and unevenly and affected women from different backgrounds in distinct ways. The incursions of European settler colonialism and the later expansion of the new United States, for instance, brought growing instability to Native American communities and threatened to undermine Native women’s power as mothers, though they formulated strategic responses to preserve their authority. The second half of the 18th century saw changes to women’s experiences and to feminine ideology in Anglo-American society. Middle-class and elite White women precipitated a fertility revolution that resulted in steadily declining family size; in contrast, enslaved women of African descent generally experienced increasing rates of fertility in the 18th century, and their childbearing experiences were shaped by the commodification of their reproductive labor. At the same time, a gradual transition began in the realm of childbirth as some middle-class and elite white women called on male physicians to manage their births. Meanwhile, this same era also saw a significant ideological shift as motherhood gained new significance in Anglo-American culture, making the image of the ideal white mother the most potent symbol of feminine virtue and influence.

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Slave Conspiracies in the British Colonies  

James F. Dator

Slave conspiracies in the British colonies developed alongside the institution of slavery. They were terrifying events for colonists and enslaved people alike. For historians, they are complicated events to study because white British authorities left behind an archival record written from the perspective of the ruling class, which usually comprised slaveholders who were anxious to maintain their power and interpreted alleged plots in ways that accorded with their racialized view of the world. Nonetheless, studying these conspiracies tells us a considerable amount about the social climate of the period. Thus, studying them illuminates not only the emotions of fear and terror that haunted these societies but also the role that culture, economy, and political values played in their development.

Article

Baltimore  

David Schley

Baltimore, Maryland, rose to prominence in the late 18th century as a hub for the Atlantic wheat trade. A slave city in a slave state, Baltimore was home to the largest free Black community in antebellum America. Nineteenth-century Baltimore saw trend-setting experiments in railroading as well as frequent episodes of collective violence that left the city with the nickname, “mobtown”; one such riot, in 1861, led to the first bloodshed of the Civil War. After the war, Baltimore’s African American community waged organized campaigns to realize civil rights. Residential segregation—both de jure and de facto—posed a particular challenge. Initiatives in Baltimore such as a short-lived segregation ordinance and racial covenants in property deeds helped establish associations between race and property values that shaped federal housing policy during the New Deal. The African American population grew during World War II and strained against the limited housing available to them, prompting protests, often effective, against segregation. Nonetheless, suburbanization, deindustrialization, and redlining have left the city with challenging legacies to confront.

Article

The Underground Railroad  

Diane Miller

Africans and their descendants enslaved in the western hemisphere resisted their status in several ways. One of the most consequential methods was self-liberation. While many date the Underground Railroad as starting in the 1830s, when railroad terminology became common, enslaved people began escaping from the earliest colonial period. Allies assisted in journeys to freedom, but the Underground Railroad is centered around the enslaved people who resisted their status and asserted their humanity. Fugitives exhibited creativity, determination, courage, and fortitude in their bids for freedom. Together with their allies—white, Black, and Native American—they represented a grassroots resistance movement in which people united across racial, gender, religious, and class lines in hopes of promoting social change. While some participation was serendipitous and fleeting, the Underground Railroad operated through local and regional networks built on trusted circles of extended families and faith communities. These networks ebbed and flowed over time and space. At its root, the Underground Railroad was both a migration story and a resistance movement. African Americans were key participants in this work as self-liberators and as operators helping others to freedom. Their quest for freedom extended to all parts of what became the United States and internationally to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean nations, and beyond.

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Middle and Final Passages in the Atlantic Slave Trade  

Sean M. Kelley

By current estimates, more than 450,000 Africans arrived in North America as captives. While the dreaded “Middle Passage” has justifiably commanded public and scholarly attention, the men, women, and children who arrived in North America aboard slave ships actually experienced multiple passages. Virtually all were born free and subsequently enslaved, enduring intra-African journeys of various lengths before arriving at the coast for sale to Europeans. Then, after an Atlantic crossing averaging two months, American planters and merchants transported them by land and sea to their eventual destinations. Although the fundamentals were similar across time, the particular circumstances and hence the journeys themselves varied greatly. Before 1800, most captives wound up working on plantations near the Atlantic coast. After 1800, as the cotton boom took hold, it was much more common for Africans to journey far into the American continental interior. More than 95 percent of all Africans arrived between 1700 and 1807, the vast majority in the Chesapeake and Charleston. This influx allowed specific African ethnocultural groups to form clusters and speech communities, although these waned when the foreign slave trade became illegal in 1808. An illegal slave trade persisted up to the Civil War, but it was much smaller than the pre-1808 trade. It differed also in its reliance on the Caribbean as a transshipment point for captives, rather than on Africa.

Article

United States Colored Troops  

Holly Pinheiro

The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were a collection of racially segregated, as mandated by the US War Department, Black US Army military units that served during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Their collective military service is widely known for playing critical roles in ending slavery, protecting freedpeople, defeating the Confederate military, enforcing multiple US government policies, and reframing gender ideology while making explicit demands for more racially inclusive conceptions of citizenship. Black men, from a wide range of backgrounds and ages, comprised the 179,000 individuals that served in a USCT regiment. For instance, some soldiers were formerly bondsmen from Confederate states, while others (who were freeborn) came from free states and even internationally (including Canada). USCT regiments were never solely male-exclusive domains. Numerous Black women supported the US war effort, in and outside of the military spaces, in many ways. For example, Susie King Taylor served as a laundress and nurse in the Thirty-Third United States Colored Infantry. Thus, Black women are important figures in understanding Black Civil War–era military service. Ultimately, USCT regiments, and their supporters, fought for racial and social justice (during and long after USCT soldiering ended). Their service also provided avenues for prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, William Still, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who used Black military service to make clear demands for slavery and racial discrimination to end. Meanwhile, various Black communities (especially Black women) lobbied to protect their civil rights (while attempting to support USCT soldiers’ training). Additionally, the families of USCT soldiers vocalized to the Bureau of Pensions (a branch of the US government) to remember their collective wartime sacrifices through Civil War pensions. Their collective actions highlight that the history of USCT regiments requires an understanding of Black families and communities whose lived experiences remain relevant today.

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Atlantic History  

Alison Games

The field of Atlantic history analyzes the Atlantic Ocean and its four adjoining continents as a single unit of historical analysis. The field is a style of inquiry as much as it is a study of a geographic region. It is an approach that emphasizes connections and circulations, and its practitioners tend to de-emphasize political borders in their interest in exploring the experiences of people whose lives were transformed by their location within this large region. The field’s focus is the period from c. 1450 to 1900, but important debates about periodization reflect the challenges of writing a history that has no single geographic vantage point yet strives to be as inclusive as possible. The history of the United States intersects with Atlantic history in multiple ways, although the fields are neither parallel nor coterminous. Assessing the topics of slavery and citizenship, as they developed in the United States and around the Atlantic, demonstrate the potential advantages of this broader perspective on US history. Although the field emphasizes the early modern era, legacies of Atlantic history pervade the modern world, and individuals and institutions continue to struggle to understand all of the ways these legacies shape legal, social, economic, cultural, and political practices in the first decades of the 21st century.

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Early American Slave Law  

Sally Hadden

Slave law in early America may be found in the formal written laws created in metropolitan places such as Paris or Madrid as well as locally within English colonies such as Barbados or South Carolina. These written laws constitute only one portion of the known law governing slave behavior, for individual masters created their own rules to restrict enslaved persons. These master-made rules of conduct almost never appear in print and were conveyed most often through oral transmission. Such vernacular laws provide another element of the limitations all enslaved people experienced in the colonial period. Those without literacy, including Native Americans or illiterate settlers, nonetheless had rules to limit slave behavior, even if they remained unwritten. Customary law, Bible precepts, and Islamic law all provided bases for understanding the rules that bound unfree persons. Most colonial law mandated barbaric punishments for slave crime, though these were sometimes commuted to banishment. Spanish and French codes and local ordinances did not always agree on how slaves should be treated. The numerous laws found in English colonies, sometimes wrongly denominated as codes, spread widely as individuals migrated; the number and variety of such laws makes comprehensive transimperial comparisons challenging. Laws might occasionally ban keeping slaves or trading in them, but most such laws were ignored. Slave courts typically operated in arbitrary, capricious ways that assumed slave guilt and accepted weak evidence to prove it. Runaways might, if they joined strong maroon communities (bands of runaways living together), end up enforcing the laws against slave flight, much as slave catchers and slave patrols did. Laws to prevent manumission by a master frequently required the posting of bonds to prevent those freed from becoming a financial burden on their communities. Later manumission laws often mandated the physical departure of those freed, creating emotional turmoil for the newly emancipated.