Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Contours of Emancipation: Freedom Comes to Southwest Arkansas

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Contours of Emancipation: Freedom Comes to Southwest Arkansas

Article excerpt

A LATE MORNING IN EARLY SUMMER WAS A STRANGE time to hear the plantation work horn blow on a southern cotton field. It was June 4, 1865, nearly two months after Confederate forces surrendered at Appomattox. The slaves toiling in the fields of the Isaac Jones plantation in Hempstead County, Arkansas, barely broke pace, believing the whistle a mistake. Their overseer-who took control of them for the Jones family after Isaac, the patriarch, was killed in a boiler explosion-was supposed to have been on a trip to the nearby town of Washington, and it was too early for the lunch call. Once more, however, their pace was interrupted by the steam whistle's blow. Rather than face punishment for ignoring the call, the lead row slave rounded everyone up and led them to the cabins. What they saw when they got there must have confused them: a federal official was perched beside their overseer, who had a slip of paper. On it were all of their names. They were no longer the names of enslaved people to be counted as the property of the Jones family; they were the names of free men and women. The slaves on the Jones plantation were finally free, and this northern man was their liberator.

The scene was typical of the experience of emancipation in Southwest Arkansas.2 Having recently undergone a transformation from frontier to plantation society in a state usually associated with upland yeomen on the one hand and delta planters on the other, the region found itself on the periphery of a periphery during the Civil War. Few Union soldiers laid eyes on the area before the collapse of the Confederacy. When federal forces and Freedmen's Bureau agents arrived in June and July 1865, observers could hardly fail to notice how much the region still resembled the Old South. Ads had run in recent issues of a local newspaper, the Washington Telegraph, notifying readers of runaway slaves, and black men and women still worked as slaves on cotton plantations. In stark contrast to much of the rest of the South, slaves in this corner of Arkansas were unable to bring down the peculiar institution by their own action.

Southwest Arkansas illuminates two of the most debated aspects of emancipation-its agents and its timing. In the decades following Reconstruction, the downfall of slavery was treated with considerable contempt by many historians. As William A. Dunning wrote at the turn of the twentieth century, "the policy of emancipation was systematically carried out [by the North], with the result that great masses of blacks, withdrawn from their wonted routine, wasted away in idleness, want, and disease . . . while their former masters eked out a precarious existence from the wreck of their farms and plantations." Characteristically, Dunning denied the agency of African Americans in emancipation and set their freedom in opposition to both their own and the South's well-being.3 In his interpretation, regions like southwestern Arkansas were merely waiting for the conquering Union army to let slaves loose upon the "civilized" portions of southern society.

The earliest critique of this view came from W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1930s. Du Bois portrayed a Confederacy bested by slaves, who launched a "general strike," ceasing work and fleeing their masters, in the midst of a "white man's war to preserve the Union." Neither side calculated the wartime involvement of slaves, yet with the war's primary arena being in the South, as soon as it "became clear that the Union armies would not or could not return fugitive slaves, and that the masters with all their fume and fury were uncertain of victory, the slave entered upon a general strike against slavery." Union officers exploited the grassroots revolt in the cotton fields to provoke social unrest in certain areas and benefit by the labor of ex-slaves. Gradually, the utility of disrupting slavery became apparent in the Oval Office, prompting Abraham Lincoln to draft the Emancipation Proclamation.4

Despite being largely ignored in his lifetime, Du Bois's argument was resurrected by revisionist scholars in the 1960s and 1970s. …

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