Black Women in History-Civil War and Reconstruction

By Hopkins, Gary LaVaughn; Deshaies, Molly et al. | Black History Bulletin, Summer-Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Black Women in History-Civil War and Reconstruction


Hopkins, Gary LaVaughn, Deshaies, Molly, Strange, Julia, Black History Bulletin


With the start of the Civil War, the nation was thrust into the most crucial event in its brief history. From the time of its inception, America carried the overwhelming burden of an eternal stain that marred its goal of liberty and freedom for all--the institution of human slavery. By the time of the Civil War, the nation had grown so divided that those in the North and South could conjure up many reasons for the cause of the conflict, but make no mistake: at the heart of all the differences between the North and South, either politically, industrially, or culturally, was the "peculiar" institution of human slavery.

Throughout this crucial time in our history, African American women were deeply involved in all aspects of the movement to abolish slavery and worked to assist the North in obtaining ultimate victory. Many African American women, both slave and free, contributed much of their lives to the cause; highlighted here are just a few who made a profound effect through their courageous, and many times dangerous, efforts in the fight for the liberty that all Americans deserved.

During the Civil War, Isabella Baumfree spoke on the Union's behalf, as well as for enlisting black troops for the cause and freeing slaves. She worked among freed slaves at a government refugee camp on an island in Virginia and was employed by the National Freedman's Relief Association in Washington, D.C. Her grandson, James Caldwell, enlisted in the famous 54th Regiment of Massachusetts. (1) In 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe's article "The Libyan Sibyl" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly; it was a romanticized description of Baumfree. (The previous year, William Story's statue of the same title, inspired by the article, had won an award at the London World Exhibition.) Baumfree collected food and clothing contributions for black regiments and met Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1864. While there, she tried to challenge the discrimination that racially segregated streetcars. A famous painting depicts President Lincoln showing her the "Lincoln Bible," (2) given to him by the black people of Baltimore, Maryland.

After the Civil War ended, Baumfree continued working to help the newly freed slaves through the Freedman's Relief Association, then the Freedman's Hospital in Washington. In 1870, she began campaigning for the federal government to provide former slaves with land in the "new West." She pursued this for many years, with little success, and spoke widely, advocating for some time a "Negro State" in the west. She spoke mainly to white audiences, and mostly on religion, "Negro" and women's rights, and temperance, though immediately after the war she tried to organize efforts to provide jobs for black refugees.

At the Equal Rights Convention in New York in 1867, Baumfree spoke about women's rights:

   There is a great stir about colored men getting their
   rights, but not a word about the colored women;
   and if colored men get their rights, and not colored
   women theirs, you see the colored men will be
   masters over the women, and it will be just as bad
   as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going
   while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is
   still, it will take a great while to get it going again.

She continued touring as much as she could, still campaigning for free land for former slaves. In 1879, Baumfree was delighted as many freed slaves began migrating west and north on their own, many settling in Kansas. She spent a year there helping refugees and speaking in white and black churches, trying to gain support for the "Exodusters" as they tried to build new lives for themselves. This was to be her last mission. Just before her great journey began, on June 1, 1843, Baumfree changed her name to "Sojourner Truth" and told her friends, "The Spirit calls me, and I must go."

Before the onset of the Civil War, with the institution of human slavery still in full swing, a woman named Araminta Ross managed to escape from her owners and made her way to the free states of the North. …

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