Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

First Fruits of Freedom: The Migration of Former Slaves and Their Search for Equality in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1862-1900

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

First Fruits of Freedom: The Migration of Former Slaves and Their Search for Equality in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1862-1900

Article excerpt

Janette Thomas Greenwood. First Fruits of Freedom: The Migration of Former Slaves and Their Search for Equality in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1862-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 256 pages. $55.00 cloth, $22.95 paper.

This relatively small work covers a lot of ground and breaks some as well. It offers the first study of post-Civil War Black migration to New England, with previous works dealing with the migrations to the Midwest, from Kansas to the Great Lakes. It is also original in that it deals with migrations other than those sponsored by the Freedmen's Bureau.

Worcester is different from Chicago or the Black towns of Kansas. At the time of the Civil War it was a well-established city enjoying a boom in manufacturing. It was attractive to immigrants from Ireland as well as French Canada, sympathetic to runaway slaves and had a strong abolitionist community. When the war began, Worcester had a small Black community and a powerful impulse to join the anti-slavery war in the South. Troops made their way to Virginia and eastern North Carolina, establishing themselves especially in the latter state.

The Union forces attracted contrabands, or runaway slaves, and contraband encampments attracted New England teachers to the enclave near to the coast. As the war pushed rebels and more contraband into the coastal areas, and the volume of contrabands, refugees, and "schoolmarms" grew. During and after the war, former slaves made their way to Worcester and environs, mostly sponsored by soldiers or teachers and other social welfare workers, often as servants or otherwise in the households of their sponsors.

During Reconstruction another Black migration occurred, this one under the auspices of the Freedmen's Bureau. This group came without sponsorship. All three waves received favorable welcomes in Massachusetts, probably because the numbers were small, unlike the large waves sent to unwelcoming Midwestern sites. The Black population through the period remained below one thousand souls. Those who had sponsors in the community fared better than the Freedmen's Bureau group who were relocated but not provided resources.

Once in New England, Southern Blacks adapted to Northern life but did not abandon their Southern preferences. The Southern Black and Northern Black communities were on opposite sides of Worcester, and the Southerners built their own Baptist Church rather than joining the older Black denominations or the White Baptists. …

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