S1: Welcome to Episode 9 of the History of American Slavery a Slave Academy. I’m Jamelle Bouie.
S2: 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, which was passed in 1850, exacerbated tensions between slave states and free state.
S1: We know of 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, I think, focused on the military and political dynamics of the conflict. But on today’s podcast, which is the final of our series, we’re going to keep our focus on the people who were at the center of this conflict. And that’s 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, as we do with each episode of our series?
S3: We’ll begin by considering the life of a single person today. That person is a woman named Rose Herrera.
S4: Rose Herrera was born in the parish appoint Scoopy, 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 woman. Described as a good washer in EINER and an advertisment for her sale, Rose was purchased by New Orleans dentist James to Hart around 1861. She married a free black man, George Herrera, and the couple had five children together at the end of 1862, half a year after the Union Army entered New Orleans. James to Hart and his wife Mary could see the writing on the wall. They began pressuring Rose to go with him to Havana, Cuba, where slavery still prevailed. After getting in a domestic spat with a DeHart relative, Rose was put in prison. While there, the diehards fled to Cuba and took three of Rose’s children with them. After the war was over. Rose Herrera began a legal campaign to get her family back when Mary DeHart returned to New Orleans without the kids. She was jailed and charged with kidnapping. A court eventually ruled that Mary DeHart could return to Cuba on the condition that Rose’s children be returned to America.
S5: The family was reunited in March 1866 with the sad exception of George, who died before the children were returned.
S6: It seems like Rose’s story is somehow emblematic of kind of what a lot of enslaved people and formerly enslaved people were going through in this period of emancipation.
S7: That’s why I wanted to talk more about her and this kind of story today, because I think there’s this sort of misconception that you might have from sort of like a 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 sort of confusing and dangerous.
S8: You could almost say it came in 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 and even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Right. There are large chunks of the south which are so remote that people don’t know that emancipation to come.
S7: Yeah. And there is a aspect of the Emancipation Proclamation, too, that I never really fully grasp, which is that there are parts of the south that were exempted from it, so that if you are nominally loyal to the union, you could still continue to hold slaves or there are places where it was more politically expedient for the Emancipation Proclamation not to reach at that time. Right. And so there are a number of situations in 1862 where, you know, a general will declare freedom for the people who are behind his lines like anyone who will and left. And then the president want to say, actually, that’s not true. We’re not doing that. And then there is the sort of movements for compensated emancipation or gradual emancipation. And then there are movements to allow freedom for people who will enlist in the Union Army. And then finally, in January 1863, of course, there’s the actual Emancipation Proclamation.
S6: And even when the Emancipation Proclamation eventually came down in January 1863, it didn’t apply to the entire south and part of 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, where there is a large chunk of the public who are sympathetic to the Confederacy. And were Lincoln really wanted just to keep them in the fold and avoid that kind of political and military loss. It didn’t apply to basically union held areas of the south. New Orleans for to be exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation. And there are cases of enslaved people, you know, escaping to union encampments just outside New Orleans and saying things like, well, my master is a rebel. So you have to love me.
S8: You have to let me in. Right. It basically exists applied to Confederate held areas of the South and 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 on enslaved people for labor and other kind of parts of the. Of the war regime.
S7: Yeah. There, in effect, you’re sort of, you know, fighting with your feet and you’re moving yourself from the equation. Right. And then often, of course, in many cases actually fighting afterwards. Yes, that’s right. So you mentioned that New Orleans wasn’t a particularly strange position as it N’awlins was actually fell to the Union Army in late April 1862, which is really early in the war. That’s right. And so the legal situation of the people who were enslaved, there was you know, you’re sort of working in this city where there’s union soldiers all around. Yet you’re still enslaved. And so our first area today is with Adam Rothman, who’s the historian at Georgetown University, and he’s written a book about Rose Ferrara’s efforts to put her family back together. But the book is also sort of in a way about what it was like in New Orleans in those strange years when everything was in limbo.
S9: 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.
S7: So how did the enslave people in neurons or maybe other places like that react to this? They knew it was going on. Right.
S10: They react in a variety of ways. The most overt is that they they flee to the union army. So at the various encampments with the Union Army is in and around New Orleans.
S9: And so people just start showing up and saying, my master is a rebel. I went to work for you. I want to fight for the union. And there’s men, women and children showing up at the Union Army lines. And then the army officers and soldiers basically have to figure out what to do with them. And they’re actually battles, not battles. Arguments among union officials, generals about what to do with these fugitive slaves. Should they be returned to their owners? Which owners should? 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. You know that the conventional wisdom is the Union Army occupied New Orleans. But I like to say that the slaves actually occupied the Union Army. They they presented themselves as a problem as they presented slavery as a problem. And they forced union soldiers and officers and ultimately politicians to figure out what to do with them.
S7: You know, in some ways, it’s kind of disappointing to realize how qualified the Emancipation Proclamation really was, to think about the fact that there were whole areas that were exempt from it and 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? What do you think about that?
S11: You know, I think the temptation is to use this as evidence that Lincoln was done, actually committed to emancipation. And there’s whenever I talk about Lincoln on social media, say there is inevitably someone who is like, well, you know, you say he said the Horace Greeley letter who kind of makes that 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. And I think the Emancipation Proclamation is actually evidence of why that is wrong.
S6: To my mind and in my reading and sort of based when I know the Emancipation Proclamation seems to be primarily a political document and as a political document, it is trying to do a couple things at once. And I think I mentioned some of them earlier. 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 in international public for the union cause. And it’s trying to do this without overstepping Lincoln’s constitutional authority, which throughout the war and throughout his presidency, he’s very much attuned to the limits of his authority under the Constitution. And the Emancipation Proclamation accomplishes all of that. I think another way of putting this is 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 states under rebellion. It could have been called all sorts of things, but it’s specifically called the emancipation, a charged, politically heated word proclamation from the press, United States. And if you think about it in those terms, then what that means is that if you are if you imagine the enslaved person or the family in the Florida Panhandle who hears about this or in South Carolina 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 tried to do it in in calling it that. It fundamentally changes the character of the war. And I think Lincoln was aware of this. I think this was the point. And so, yes, there are these exemptions. And, yes, it is the case that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves. It only you know, 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 those symbolic reasons. And I think that’s not I don’t think that’s an accident. I think the whenever we’re thinking you’re talking about Lincoln, it is incredibly important to understand that he is probably one of the most masterful politicians that ever occupy the Oval Office. And he’s very much, in this case, acting as a politician.
S7: It’s really interesting to think about that sort of like the question of scale in that relationship, the relationship between, you know, a proclamation coming from a president and what goes on in enslaved person, sort of daily life, like if they’re still living in a place where slavery is sort of nominally happening. But there is a sort of like a heartening effect or exciting effect of this proclamation. And Adam, tell us a little bit about the way that he found evidence of the dynamic evolving in New Orleans while the Union Army was there.
S9: 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 was also fought on plantations and in households where the Union Army was not a direct presence. So one of the things that I found in researching Rose Herrera story was the diary of a Confederate woman named and Wilkenson Penrose, who kept a daily account of life in New Orleans under Union Rule. And it’s just a bitter, raging journal. She’s just upset about everything. But one of the things she’s upset about, increasingly upset about is the refusal of her household servants. So she called them they’re really slaves to work in the ways that she was used to. So the diary is full of these vignettes where she asks a woman to bake bread and the woman doesn’t do it properly in her opinion. And she slaps the woman and the woman rises up indignantly and says, don’t ever do that again. In these sorts of these sorts of episodes, which were so uncommon before the Union Army comes in and just disrupts the whole balance of power between mass.
S12: Since slaves, 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 ask 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.
S6: What’s so great about that rating? It’s just the bad last line. Don’t you do that again? Let it be the last time our oldest marched out of that yard. It’s so it’s so bold. And to my mind, very funny, very, almost comical, but it seems like it does carry this undercurrent of danger even still.
S7: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s really there’s this way that these conflicts are sort of erupting and, you know, and you think to yourself. You know, Becky, is Provan waiting to say this for years like this has been boiling. And so you want to kind of like jump up and cheer. But as Rothman reminded us, people like Becky still were existing within sort of a parallel set of circumstances.
S13: At the same time, as there is this new sense of confidence, this new sense of empowerment on the part of enslaved people. It is a very dangerous time because slave holders are not yet defeated. In New Orleans in 1862, in 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 go get the whip hand back, they’ll push their enslaved people back down into slavery. And 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.
S14: So getting back to the biography of Rose Herrera that we started with. It’s pretty notable and interesting that the slave holder took her kids to Havana, Cuba in particular.
S6: Yes. And B, decision to take the kids to Havana is not an accident. One of the I think interesting it turns interesting at times incredibly alarming facts of slave holder society in meeting in 50s was a growing I thought I could push speculation, demand to really try to expand their slave holding empire further south and other regions that it couldn’t go north, they couldn’t go west, make it just go further south. And so Cuba was a target because slavery still existed there. But there are other Southern slave holders who thought they could expand the institution even further south in places like Nicaragua, even Mexico. There are a group of men called filibusters, a term that has no real relationship to the term we use for unlimited debate in the Senate.
S11: It is a derivative of a term called Free BUETER, which it’s taken from piracy, basically someone who goes to stir up revolution, a mercenary type in the southern press. At the time, there are writers like George Fitzhugh, who is a noted partisan of slavery who encourage this kind of thing. One of the most famous filibusters we know of is William Walker, who ends up failing in his attempt to do this. It comes back to the United States. But the point is that there was a real push to further expand slavery as much as as much as was possible, and that this almost you could call a radicalization of slaveholding society was one of the things that pushed the country towards war.
S7: And that stuff is on. You know, it sounds almost fantastical, so ideological and so extreme to our ears.
S14: Of course, there are. The fact that there are actually historical examples that people are 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. You know, would we have about ever abolished slavery peacefully? And so we asked Adam Rothman to engage in some counterfactual speculation with us.
S7: I think as might be a polite term, he kind of badgered him into the actual discussion regarding what would have happened to slavery at the Civil War had never occurred.
S10: There used to be an idea that slavery was just going to die a natural death in the 19th century through to the pressures of the invisible hand. I think that I think that’s still a common understanding. That’s false. Yeah, it’s completely bogus. 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, but also the technological innovation in the oldest of the plantation economies that have sugar. And I think one of the reasons why the Civil War emancipation to the Civil War was so crucial is precisely because slavery was not ever going to die a natural death.
S6: So it could have just absent emancipation, or at least the Civil War could have just kind of chugged along in the United States indefinitely or could have chugged along indefinitely.
S10: Even the visions of 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 eighteen hundreds. Well, right. So, you know, think about that possibility. And not only is it a question of whether or not and when slavery would have been abolished, but how different would the social and political order of the United States have been if slavery had slowly morphed into some other kind of Karzai feudal relationship in the heart of a liberal democracy? So there are a lot of what ifs, right. But none of them are good. Yeah.
S6: You know, setting aside the alternative history for a moment, if we go back to real history, there was a real fear among enslaved people that this state of freedom wasn’t permanent, that things were very uncertain. Things were very much in flux in terms of what all of this meant.
S14: And that’s another reason why the birther story stands in for a lot of the uncertainty here. You know, her kids actually were kidnapped and taken away down into Cuba. You know, but there were, you know, other rumors after the end of the war of recently free people being kidnapped and sold down to Cuba or Brazil, someplace in South America. Which kind of goes to show that the specter of the continuing. Slavery in the southern part of the hemisphere is very real to people and that these places exist, as you know, a place where you could still be grabbed and pulled down to. And Adam Rothman told us that these fears are so prevalent that in 1866, the Senate actually investigated and issued a report on this question of kidnappings. And although it’s hard to find concrete evidence about the veracity of some of these reports, that the fears that people had of these kinds of kidnappings came from that precarity that they felt, especially during the war.
S11: That’s right. There are definite instances of mass kidnappings during the war. And one of my I wouldn’t call favorite facts of the horrible thing, but it’s it’s a useful fact to know just in terms of debunking myths about the civil war. One of those misses of the, you know, robbery Leamy Army Unit of Virginia were fighting for their homes and their own freedom.
S8: But it is a fact that during the Gettysburg campaign, Robert de Lee’s army in northern Virginia embarked on kidnapping campaigns to take blacks, free blacks and sell them down south in slavery or send them down south into slavery. And that sort of thing wasn’t unknown to enslaved people. They heard of these things and they cost quite a bit of fear.
S10: You have to remember that, you know, the civil war was a hard fought, closely fought war. And it wasn’t one in which the Union Army kept pushing forward. You know, there were times that they retreated. There were times they were defeated. There were times of the Confederacy game background that they had lost. And 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. We don’t it hasn’t quite made it into the history books yet, but there’s a lot of evidence that stuff like that took place. So the rumor of the kidnappings after the war, I think is very much an extension of that experience of wartime kidnapping and also kidnapping before the war. In the case of Solomon Northup is the most famous one, but again, only the tip of the iceberg for the experience of free people of color, especially in the north, but also free people of color in the south being essentially re enslaved. So this was part of the experience of black people in the United States. We always think of people moving from slavery to freedom. 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, you know, it bends backwards. And I think that happened during the war. War is mayhem. It’s havoc. So if we enter into the experience of enslaved and newly free people during the war and see it through their eyes, we would see is a much more chaotic, much more confusing, incredibly hopeful, but also incredibly fearful moment.
S15: The arc of the universe is squiggly. It’s the arc of the universe. It’s clearly not an arc to continue along with that kind of big picture thinking.
S6: I do want to make a couple quick points about what it meant for emancipation. Yeah, it seems to come when it did. The first thing is that we really are in a situation in 1860, in 1965 where there are legitimate questions about whether a democratic society can survive, can exist, can endure. Just 10 years earlier, if there were failed revolutions in Europe, democracy kind of is on the wane in countries where it existed. And so the civil war becomes as big kind of world historical question of whether or not a democratic government actually it’s feasible to be successful conclusion of it. For the United States, it’s actually a very big deal in terms of the spread of democratic governance.
S7: Yeah, and we were late to emancipate. That’s right. We relate to abolish. But after we did the rest of Cuba and Brazil followed suit.
S6: Right. It’s hard to imagine a United States type kind of persist as a liberal democracy. But it’s also a large slave society, essentially. Eventually, something would have had to give in in sort of real life history. What gave what we had a war about it.
S8: But if we had never had a war about it, it’s hard to say what would have happened. But my my hunch is that the United States, or at least large parts of it, would look something like South Africa. It’s a way worse. South African apartheid. I think the other thing to keep in mind is that the end of slavery and. I’ll be careful, but 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. With that said, the Emancipation United States effectively ended the global economic institution that was slavery that no longer exist. And that is a huge thing. And when we say slavery has ended, I think that’s generally what we mean, that this trans-Atlantic, deeply embedded institution of bondage that connected the United States to South America, to Europe, to European colonies elsewhere, had come to an end.
S7: Right. A thing that was at the foundation of everyone who had a lot of money, partly had it because of that. Right. And that’s not the case anymore. Right.
S8: And that’s that’s no small thing. And in our conversation with Adam, he really kind of gets to the fact that we should not discount even even with all the caveats and everything that came after emancipation and all the failures in the United States to really make good on the promise of emancipation, we really should not discount how genuinely important this was both for enslaved people, for the United States as a country and for, you know, I mean, to sound a bit prosaic about it, that the cause of human freedom.
S7: Yes. Even the very fact that Bruce Herber was able to work through the courts in the later part of the 1860s and was able to retrieve her children was sort of revolutionary in a way. And, you know, we talked a little bit about the the way that the trial went for her, the way that, you know, people were called as witnesses to say, you know, those children seemed happy with the slave holder. They seemed like they were being taking good care of, which is sort of this like standard paternalist line, which has at its heart the implication that black people can’t possibly be good parents. And, you know, she was able to sort of battle through that and get them back. And that’s the sort of the effect of emancipation within an individual life.
S16: So we’re going to take a little break, and when we come back, we’re going to speak again with Heather Williams, the historian we spoke with an episode for about family separation. And we’re gonna talk to her about other ways that people after the war, after emancipation, during reconstruction, who had been scattered to the four corners of the earth, tried to find who took.
S17: You can read an excerpt from Adam Rothman’s book Beyond Freedom’s Reach. A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery as part of this Slate Academy. Find the link in our Shoney’s or at Slate.com Slash Academy.
S18: This is the history of American Slavery A Slave Academy.
S19: I’m Rebecca Onion. 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.
S20: Just as Rose Herrera 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.
S21: What’s so difficult about trying to tell these stories or even construct him in the first place? It’s just 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 word or take down records and to what we rely on to kind of build these narratives and find new stories. Well, we have from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was established towards the end of the civil war, to begin to essentially deal with the huge population of formerly enslaved people who now had to, you know, make their way in a war torn south.
S22: The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which actually have been recently released online and we can include the link to that on our show notes are good sources for tracing what happened to some families, people who happened to come into contact with the Fragments bureau in trying to find their loved ones. But there is 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. She 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. So we had the chance to talk to Professor Williams again at the end of our podcast series and to ask her how people tried to rectify the family separations that had happened to them during the slavery years.
S23: 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. I mean, sometimes people had some sense of it, but very often when people started the search, they just weren’t sure and nobody had kept records. You know, individual traders would have records. So their letters that slave traders writing back to one of his partners or even one was writing back to his wife. And he lists the eight people he had sold. He names them, but it’s just a first name. And that’s not an official record. There was no directory. There was no listing of where people had been taken to. And 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. And so, you know, I see people who were writing to the Freedman’s Bureau, a government office that was established by the federal government. People are using them as a kind of search bureau. So 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. And 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.
S3: So one thing that I try to remember when hearing about these stories is just how much geographic distance slavery had put between some people. So you could have, you know, someone who started out in Virginia, had a family in Virginia and then got old way south and 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. That put in a time when there is not really, you know, fast transportation and especially not for no money. The geographic distance becomes just kind of unimaginable.
S21: Right. And this is I mean, I want to emphasize the extent to which depending on where you’re enslaved, you could be separated from family members and spouses by these huge distances, just as the matter of local economies of Virginia, for example, is a slave exporting state.
S1: If you are enslaved in the Tidewater and your child gets sold away. They could be sold away literally anywhere. They could be sold in North Carolina. It could be in Florida. It could be in Mississippi. In Louisiana.
S6: And 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 when someone is sold away across sorts of distances, they might as well have died. Then I worry I recall at least 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. And so you can imagine them. Right. Be the jubilation at being reunited because it really is like someone coming back from the dead.
S3: Yeah. It’s amazing to think about those kinds of journeys and also amazing to think about sort of the thought process he would go through, trying to plan out how you would try to get reunited, the amount of sort of networking and thinking and researching that you’d have to do. And so some of the stories that Dr. Relly was found were about people who made the decision to try to go back to where they had been sold. And that was their strategy for trying to be reunited.
S23: And so somebody from Arkansas goes back to Virginia to find her mother and her sister, and she gets there. But then she’s run out of money and she wants to get back to Arkansas with her mother and sister. But she has no funds. And so she goes to the Freedmen’s Bureau and the agent was very sympathetic and 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. And so I want to take my mother and my sister there. And the bureaucracy, you know, you see the letters going back and forth, and eventually she finds a way. I mean, she was obviously quite resourceful and she found the money to get back to Arkansas. So transportation is an issue and it’s through these requests that you get to see what the people were doing that making these efforts. But it’s really up to the discretion of the Freedmen’s Bureau. You know, that agent or that office, whether you’ll get the support. And I think that if you were elderly, you were more likely to get support 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’s going to have to give you ration food rations and they don’t want that. So they’ll they’ll help pay for you to get back to a family that can support you. So it was really tough. I mean, 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’s not there. And that’s something people have 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.
S21: Listening to Professor Williams and sort of just, you know, reading and thinking about these stories, my my first thought and this might just be 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 ready made for a cinematic depiction either. I know of the lead, the annuals kind of small C type. I like the butler or you know, my my preference would be for something a bit more. You know, I guess sort of looking for it as bleak or dire. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I got a movie where a formerly enslaved person traverses the south not just to find their relatives, but to get revenge. Right. You know, that’s that’s more my style. But either way, this all seems very ripe for four cinema just because these are such powerful stories and their stories and, you know, happen right here in the United States in places that you can go visit right now.
S24: Yeah. And, you know, in telling that story cinematically, you could also tell the story of the fortunes of the people who’ve been split up. You know, like we’ve been talking throughout this whole series about this sort of diversity of ways that slavery happened. You know, you tell the story of Iranian. You’re also telling the story of the intervening years. These people, you know, you’re your character is having these different experiences and then coming back together and trying to figure out how to live together again. That’s a really interesting story. I think you should write a screenplay.
S21: You know, once once they get all of my other screenplay ideas out the way of maybe I’ll try to tackle this.
S24: Yeah, put it on your list anyway. Yeah. So something that Dr Williams was talking about is the sort of obscure calculus that went into you, the government’s decisions to help people or not to help people try to figure out how to get back to their families. So we asked her whether the decisions to help people or not help people, whether the Freedmen’s Bureau actually had like a rubric for what to do in these cases.
S23: Yeah, as far as I can tell, it was completely discretionary. So that if you’re a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in a particular community, you are being called on for all kinds of things. You know, they’re acting as courts really. 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 free people into signing contracts to continue to work for former owners or for other plans. So they were doing a lot of things. And so 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 comments from Freedmen’s Bureau agents, let’s say, in response to requests for transportation. You know, why don’t they just say where they are or this is a nuisance or they should not become dependent on the government? So you had labored in slavery without pay for 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 and we cannot have people dependent on the federal government. And so, no, we’re not going to help.
S1: Two things stick out here for me. The first is that even 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 kind of be self-sufficient, you have these worries about dependency, which I think are very much tied to racial ideas about black Americans, that these are people who are helpless and cannot fend for themselves. And, you know, parent that a whole that’s in part why they’re in slavery. And we don’t want that to happen again. And it’s interesting to kind of juxtapose that with the extent to which in plenty of places in the post-war south northern officials are trying to return freed people to some sort of labor arrangement for the production of cotton and other resources that these I feel like those two things are in tension in a way that, you know, I’m sure some people realize at the time. But whatever the other thing and this is I think more of a 30000 feet view of things. It’s just how much 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. I mean, you can imagine a large humanitarian agency in the wake of a war coming out of the First World War, the Second World War. And it makes sense that it would come out of the civil war, which is sort of another conflict of comparable size and destruction. But still, it just it feels both very appropriate and a bit like out of place, if you see what I’m saying.
S3: I mean, it seems so extremely ad hoc, both like powerful and ad hoc in some ways. Right. I think maybe that’s sort of the feeling that you get from it is that, you know, it’s like, of course, someone needed to step in. Something needed to happen. So many people have all these human needs and are just in this sort of really chaotic place. But at the same time, model for it. Yeah, there’s no model for it. And the Freedman’s Bureau fascinates me for that reason. I think it’s so interesting.
S1: So because there’s all this chaos and because the Freedmen’s Bureau is not super interested in being a source of unlimited or even sort of generous help. What’s interesting is that it you know, as is often the case, I think the mystery of American slavery, it is the enslaved people themselves, or in this case, the 4000000 slave people who are working to reunite themselves and bring some water to their own lives.
S3: That’s the source of another amazing set of sources that Dr. Williams used in her book, One.
S23: 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 sold before the 13th Amendment. You have people establishing newspapers, black newspapers, and then people start to advertise in these newspapers looking for family members. And 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 somebody you know, there’s a mother in Raleigh who had lost nine children, as she names each of them. Very important information is who they had belonged to. And in a family, people may have belonged to two or three people or four people. And 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 her a last name for the former slave, that name may have changed. And 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. Some people knew that a daughter or a mother might know that her daughter had been sold and taken to Texas and then in one case had been taken to Cuba. And 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.
S25: 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 tibs, who sold her when I was quite young. To a trader named Breathing Lather, tibs lived in Leesburg, Virginia. When he saw mother to breathing and afterwards Tip’s moved to Alexandria, Virginia, and swap me to breathing for another boy. Brother 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. Mother then brought me some cake and candy, and that was the last time I saw her. Brother brought me to New Orleans, Louisiana, and sold me to a man named M. Pickett, a mother is found. Please address me at D Neville, Yazoo County, Mississippi, and care Reverend James Allen. Henry tibs, Southwestern Christian Advocate. December 11th, 1879.
S3: So the thing about that ad to me, besides the fact that has a really sad story in it, is that, you know, the last time that Henry Teb saw his mother was in 1853 and he’s placing the ad in 1879. And so a bunch of years have already passed. And he’s got all this information sort of that he’s treasuring or he’s keeping he’s sort of he’s trying to figure out how to make these pieces. They has fit together in a way that will bring her back to him.
S1: Right. In this I mean, this is as we’ve said, this is a story that’s replicating itself across the south. And one thing I wouldn’t do is understate Vixen to which this kind of story probably has been going on since the end of the civil war into the present, because you had so many families that were separated, so many people wrenched away from from their relations that maybe the direct people never found each other. The parents and the children, the siblings, Devah spouses. But the next generation forward may have run in somewhere in the two generations. Ford may have run into someone today. There are plenty of stories about people discovering or meeting or. And then I guess you can use the word re-uniting. We are really used for this with, you know, families of enslavers and enslaved. But I wouldn’t discount the extent to which with genealogical research especially, you’re finding people reuniting with family members or branched off their family that were separated in the wake of slavery in the Civil War, in that the Civil War. And in this period of American history isn’t really that far away. And in terms of sort of human lifespans, it’s having been the Louis C.K. joke is that it’s two 75 year old women living back to back. Yeah. And so that in that time span, you know, families can still find each other. Hundred years later.
S3: Yeah. And I’m I’m hoping that the more sort of documents like this go online, you know, either the separation ads or the Freedmen’s Bureau ads, you know, just the more effort is put into digitizing this stuff, the easier that will become. Although, of course, we know that some stuff just never got written down. So no matter how much digitization we do, you know, in some cases, those reasons will be hard to bring about. But we wanted to know from Dr. Williams how many of these ads might have led to successful reunions. Of course, she doesn’t really, you know, know that numerically, but she let us know that she was able to find a few success stories in the documentary record.
S23: There’s one case where there’s a letter written by a man named Tate, and 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. And so he and his wife belong to two different owners. Her owner had taken her away. I think they lived in Georgia. And so she was still in Georgia, but hundreds of miles away. And so he was dictating a letter. His the slave owners wife actually wrote the letter for him. And he says, you know, this is probably my last letter because Masters 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. And so 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. And so he sends his love to his wife and to his two children. He names the children. He never names his wife. He called. He says, My dear wife, but he pledges his love to her. He says, I’m not interested in any of these other women. But if anything should happen, I’ll let you know first. And he kind of goes back and forth on this in his 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.
S26: And two of the children have the names of the children he had mentioned in that letter.
S15: Yes, that’s really great. Back when we were first brainstorming this project, we kind of were working hard to figure out how to organize everything, you know, American slavery is nothing short of slavery in the Western Hemisphere.
S1: Writ large is a massive topic. And, you know, people make entire academic careers are focusing on small slices of it. So how are we going to tell this story in nine episodes, no less without sort of overlooking something? And that, I think, was your idea, Rebecca, to focus on these individual lives instead of trying to tackle a broad theme by broad theme. And I mention that because I think this last clip and in this episode in particular really highlights how much the history of American slavery is, the history of these individual lives and of these families and of these communities and of their struggle to bring some sense of order, incoherence and light to their lives in the midst of this this very terrible system.
S27: I think it’s really I mean, I believed it when I proposed this way of doing it. And I think at the end of the experience of doing this whole inaugural flight academy, that especially for this topic, I like looking at as much information about people’s lives as we have, because there’s so many sort of big sweeping things that happened during the period that affected people’s lives that, you know, from the perspective of the white people living at the time, you know, those people that enslaved people didn’t matter for four or like outside of history in some way or were, you know, that’s sort of the matter that was building history or like the hands that was building history, but weren’t thinking about it or weren’t affected by it in some way. And that part of the racism that allowed slavery to happen.
S22: And so for me, you know, looking at as much information as we have, which is not very much about some people and about how people react, is what was going on around them and, you know, made decisions or changed the way that they were living or tried to fix things for themselves or, you know, in whatever way that might be. For me, that’s kind of 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.
S1: What’s remarkable to me is how much, you know, 150 years later these stories and in these places still resonate. To finish off the series, we did an event involving a whole host of scholars around slavery or about slavery, which you can listen to at the Slate Academy website.
S28: And one of the people who participated in what he does as partially a job, partially of vocation personally hobby is bring people to sleep and to stay in what’s left of the cabins of enslaved people on former plantations. And to me, that that’s just an incredibly powerful thing, because what it does is it does begin to help you inhabit the lives of these people. You know, I think I said at the beginning of this series have long had an interest in academic interest in American slavery. But I never thought so much about individual lives, people’s lives as I have doing this project. And I’m great. I’m grateful for it. It’s given me a new way of not just approaching this history, but history in general.
S27: I mean, I love hearing that as a cultural historian. That’s sort of my Maya always sort of my reflex in some way. I’m always sort of interested in everyday life and I’m interested in the way that, you know, large political movements affect what happens in a kitchen or what happens in a bedroom. And one of the amazing things about doing this series to me is the amount of scholarship that people have been able to produce that actually looks at those sort of intimate relationships or emotional relationships, family relationships, the way people are around each other every day. And, you know, there’s an argument to be made that that stuff is gone because it wasn’t recorded. But there is a lot of really good books, you know. Stephanie Kamps book that I really loved or have only a glimpse book, you know, about Gordon Reade’s book. These are all writers who are trying to say, OK. So, you know, we don’t have that much information, but we do have some stuff that we can kind of think about as, you know, a way to reconstruct the way that people just on kind of an emotional level reacted. To being enslaved, and that to me is sort of like what has the potential to transform the way that people think about the history of slavery. Because it’s so hard. It’s so. That’s so exhausting in some way to think about. And there. And when you get down to it on a human level, I think it’s paradoxically almost easier in some way.
S1: I think that’s right. And I think getting down to the human level also helps. I think 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 myths and misdirections. And one of the I think the common threads to all of them is an attempt to completely abstract out the people involved. And so it’s easy to kind of dismiss mass suffering or it’s easy to kind of look for some sort of way out.
S28: If these are all of this, 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 know, like you and me, people who had aspirations, people who have loves. There’s in Tallahassee coats his book Between the World and Me, which is written as a letter to his son.
S1: There is a great passage where he describes an enslaved person as, you know, someone who like the particular way the light fell on the grass. Right. There were people just like you and I. And remembering bad and taking that seriously. Doesn’t just make for 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.
S17: You can read an excerpt from Heather Williams’s book, Help Me to find My People. The African-American Search for family lost in slavery as part of this Slate Academy. Find the link in our show notes or at slate.com. Slash an academy.
S29: And with that, that’s the end of this first play, Slate Academy. We really want to thank you, listeners for sticking with us through this sort of experimental project. And we’ll also we want to hear what kinds of topics you like to hear Slate explore and the academy format and the future. So there’s a link to a survey and the show notes for this episode. Or you could write us an e-mail at History Academy at Slate.com. Know that in order says the word history in it. But the academies won’t always be about history. And so if you’re interested in hearing an academy about some other non history related topic. Shocking new. That sounds to me. Send us an e-mail and we will forward it to the right person.
S30: And we should say thank you to everyone who helped put this together. That includes our producers, Toni Field and Jeff Friedrich, as well as our Slate Plus bosses, Van Cuase and Gabe Roth. And also just sort of slate management for deciding if this is a thing could be a good idea to do.
S18: And I also want to say thank you so much to the professors, the scholars who appeared as our guests for bearing with our many carry this question. If you missed any of our earlier episodes, you can go to Slate.com Slash Academy. And there’s also links to excerpts from the books we talked about there. And further reading. And we’re going to leave the episodes up for Slate Plus members. Part of the idea of the series was that it would be something that would be durable, that would be evergreen, that you could listen to, you know, next year or the year after that.
S29: So they will continue to be available.
S30: We will continue to use our private Facebook group for listeners, which is Facebook.com Slash Group’s Slash History Academy. Rebecca, more than me, honestly posts a lot of great stuff to read, but I will try to engage more as well and hopefully we can keep the conversation going. Both for people who’ve been listening from the beginning and for the recurring new listeners. B We hope to have now. Thank you so much for doing this with me, Rebecca. Thank you for asking me to do it. I’m really glad we had a chance to work together on this. I’m Rebecca Onya. I’m Jamelle Bouie. And thank you so much for listening.