Slavery was a system created and sustained by a series of robberies. Such acts were committed not just by individuals but also by the government, at the state and federal level. Yes, the theft of people, their liberty, and their labor. But also the theft of African-descended people’s right to love and experience pleasure. It was sustained by the theft of African-descended people’s families, spouses, and friends. Critically, it thrived on the theft of enslaved people’s sexual autonomy. More painfully, it involved the theft of enslaved mothers’ ability to nurse their infants and care for them.
Abolition should have been remuneration for these acts of theft. It should have been a process whereby the thieves, namely white men, women, and pro-slavery bureaucrats, aided formerly enslaved African-Americans in their quests to mend the bonds which our nation’s laws delegitimized and that sale, white inheritance, white debt, and white cruelty had broken. Abolition should have included a series of programs aimed at offering formerly enslaved African-Americans recompense in the form of pensions or land for lifetimes of toil without pay (things they asked for at the time), free education to redress the illiteracy that southern law mandated, and healthcare to help heal the African-Americans who were physiologically worn and broken by slavery and deprived since childhood of the nutritive sustenance they needed. But abolition was none of this.
Such an abolitionist program would have been in step with what frequently happened after the contracts of temporarily bound (i.e., indentured) laborers from Europe ended in places like seventeenth-century Virginia and Maryland. In the colonial period, these European indentured servants, who completed a typical term of 4-7 years of labor, received “freedom dues,” which were mandated by law. They often included things a free person would need to get started: land, tools with which to work it, a few barrels of corn, a gun, and a new suit of clothes. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation could have provided this for enslaved people, but it failed them in this regard. It made no provision for compensation for the enslaved, but it did promise to pay Confederate slave-owners for any enslaved people they owned if, and only if, they would be willing to accept the abolition of slavery and emancipate those they held in bondage. We all know how that went. However, in Washington D. C., which passed its own Emancipation Act in April of 1862, many, though not all, slave-owners seized the opportunity to receive compensation for their “losses.” Abolition paid well for enslavers, but not for the African-American men, women, and children they kept enslaved. Consequently, formerly enslaved African-Americans left their former owners’ homes, farms, and plantations when they could leave at all, in rags, and with little more than their freedom. In all of these ways, American abolition exacerbated the crimes of slavery and served to rob African-descended people again.
Slavery was a regime so economically and psychically valuable to white people that they ensured it would live on even if under the guise of some other system, long after the law forbid its existence. And just as abolitionist politicians were attempting to destroy the institution through legislative acts, white southerners ensured its survival through the same process.
For many formerly enslaved African-Americans, abolition and Emancipation meant remedying one of the most egregious aspects of slavery—family separation—and reconstituting their families even when the government refused to assist them. Laws passed after the Civil War made that difficult. Although Emancipation was supposed to be immediate in 1865, southern lawmakers passed legislation that created systems of pseudo-slavery, which granted former slave owners access to formerly enslaved children’s labor until they were adults. For example, so-called “Black Codes” which southern states like Mississippi passed included provisions for “apprenticeship” which allowed any white person (usually a former slave owner) to acquire and retain custody of an African-American child under the age of fifteen whose parents could not be located or who the white person alleged could not care for them. If a formerly enslaved parent chose to fight for custody and lost, the white guardian could command the formerly enslaved child’s labor until the age of 21 for boys and 18 for girls. What they refused to acknowledge in these cases was that many of the former slave owners who petitioned to have these children bound to them as apprentices were the ones responsible for their being separated from their parents in the first place. It was they who had sold or given them away. Not unlike the Trump Administration’s family separation policies and their traumatic impact, white southerners created the circumstances that led to enslaved family separation. Rather than aid formerly enslaved parents in reuniting with their children, they created policies that made it nearly impossible for them to do so. White southerners and the laws they passed legalized the theft of black children once again. And the white northern men who were charged with abolition’s implementation on the ground in the South often exacerbated the challenges enslaved people already faced and intensified the trauma they endured before the war.
For many formerly enslaved people then, abolition was dark and bittersweet. It often meant starvation, continued separation from loved ones, forced field labor for the white men and women who once owned them, and the enduring taint of bondage. They tried to escape these conditions. They placed advertisements in newspapers seeking information about lost loved ones, efforts which sometimes led to reunification. They bought land collectively or tried to negotiate the terms of their labor. Formerly enslaved men voted and ran for and were elected to public office. When all of this did not work, they left the South and moved to cities like Richmond, California, Chicago, Illinois, and Brooklyn, New York, which is the place to which my sharecropping grandparents fled. But white men and women in the South and the North met formerly enslaved people’s attempts to exercise their rights to self-determination with violence and terror, brutality that extended well into the twentieth century, and arguably into the present.
In the 1930s, the federal government employed a number of out-of-work writers to travel around the nation, locate as many of slavery’s survivors as they could find, and interview them about their lives in bondage. The men and women they found often spoke about the moments when they learned that they were free. Some sang and danced and even brazenly taunted those who once owned them. But others were reticent and apprehensive. No matter how they initially responded to the news, they came to understand that the abolition which their oppressors envisioned was empty, that their oppressors’ “freedom” came with nothing.
Formerly enslaved people embraced a more radical vision of abolition and Emancipation than those who oppressed them and those who, intentionally or not, enabled their oppressors. The African-descended people born out of this past embraced a similarly radical abolitionist vision. And their descendants are still striving towards the realization of their ancestors’ more radical dream of abolition today.