After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South

After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South

After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South

After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South


"Is there really anything new to say about Reconstruction? The excellent contributions to this volume make it clear that the answer is a resounding yes. Collectively these essays allow us to rethink the meanings of state and citizenship in the Reconstruction South, a deeply necessary task and a laudable advance on the existing historiography."--Alex Lichtenstein, Indiana University

In the popular imagination, freedom for African Americans is often assumed to have been granted and fully realized when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation or, at the very least, at the conclusion of the Civil War. In reality, the anxiety felt by newly freed slaves and their allies in the wake of the conflict illustrates a more complicated dynamic: the meaning of freedom was vigorously, often lethally, contested in the aftermath of the war.

After Slavery moves beyond broad generalizations concerning black life during Reconstruction in order to address the varied experiences of freed slaves across the South. Urban unrest in New Orleans and Wilmington, North Carolina, loyalty among former slave owners and slaves in Mississippi, armed insurrection along the Georgia coast, and racial violence throughout the region are just some of the topics examined.

The essays included here are selected from the best work created for the After Slavery Project, a transatlantic research collaboration. Combined, they offer a diversity of viewpoints on the key issues in Reconstruction historiography and a well-rounded portrait of the era.


“In my youth, in my manhood, in my old age,” Thaddeus Stevens reminisced as he rose in Congress to urge ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, “I had fondly dreamed that when any fortunate chance should have broken up for awhile the foundations of our institutions” the nation’s political leadership might seize the opportunity to “[free] them from every vestige of human oppression, of inequality of rights, of the recognized degradation of the poor, and the superior caste of the rich.” Now, however, just fourteen months after Confederate surrender had sealed the end of slavery and—in the late President Abraham Lincoln’s words—cleared the way for a “new birth of freedom,” Stevens resigned himself to being “obliged to be content with patching up the worst portions of the ancient edifice.” Already, well before the postemancipation order had taken any definite shape in the former slave states, Stevens declared that his “bright dream had vanished ‘like the baseless fabric of a vision.’”

Stevens’s dejection seems at first glance conspicuously out of step with the dramatic transformation unfolding before him: he was rising, after all, to lend support to the Fourteenth Amendment—acknowledged then and now as a landmark in American constitutional history and one of the enduring legislative achievements of the Reconstruction era, overturning the newly contrived “Black Codes” and extending citizenship to freed slaves formerly possessing only those rights granted at the discretion of whites. In the immediate circumstances surrounding the congressional debates, however, Stevens found grave cause for concern. A more root-and-branch overhaul of American democracy might have been possible if Lincoln’s successor in the White House, Andrew Johnson, shared Stevens’s vision, but the new president rejected calls for thoroughgoing reconstruction in favor of a more lenient approach to readmission of the former slave states that left them, in . . .

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