Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"I Earn by My Own Labor from Day to Day" 1: African American Women's Activism in the Wartime Midwest

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"I Earn by My Own Labor from Day to Day" 1: African American Women's Activism in the Wartime Midwest

Article excerpt

IN 1863, CLARISSA HILL AND MINERVA WILLIAMS, two African American women from Illinois, formed a committee to "procure some gifts for our noble and gallant volunteers." They sent their "gifts" with a keen awareness that the men were "far from home, battling for the rights of their brethren and the cause of freedom."2 Women like Hill and Williams were no strangers to social activism, but the enormous scope of the Civil War brought public engagement to new heights. During the Civil War, black women negotiated relationships with local, state, and federal entities by the practice of philanthropy, mutual aid, religiosity, and refugee and soldier relief. Denied legal and socioeconomic access to democracy (which was assumed to be white, male and at least middle class), midwestern African Americans used activist tactics to gain entry to arenas where they were disallowed access.3 As part of the larger black emancipation movement, they argued for a type of emancipation that moved beyond abolitionism to include their own midwestern freedoms as well as that of African Americans elsewhere who were experiencing liberty for the first time. Women developed their own particular brand of activism which served to both grow their black settlements at home as well as to provide relief to soldiers and poor families.4 In doing so, African American women played a crucial role in the continuance of black midwestern settlement and in the development of the region and the nation.5

We must first briefly look at to midwestern black foremothers to understand how wartime activists translated what they had learned at their grandmothers' knee into a concrete plan for relief work. Throughout the antebellum period, migrating African Americans conducted a settlement movement. First, they sought to eradicate black codes and other forms of iniquitous legislation, sowing the seeds for the destruction of slavery altogether. The next step encompassed a long building stage wherein black activists constructed a unique midwestern black cultural identity. This identity emanated from racial uplift provided by schools and churches, the foundations of a growing black society. In the 1830s and 1840s, African American elders sought new safe spaces for African Americans who chose the Midwest as their new home. Now, the protracted war created new political, social, and economic contexts for that activism. The extraordinary circumstances of the great civil upheaval incited free black women to augment the autonomy-bearing foundations built by their grandparents.

The war was terrifically ironic for African Americans because it carried both the nightmare of armed conflict and the dream of freedom. With the promise of emancipation nipping at their proverbial heels, African American women responded to the war in numerous ways. In a somewhat stunning show of bravado, they protested poor treatment of black soldiers by waging letter-writing and petition campaigns to Union and Republican leaders, including Lincoln. Much like middle-class white women, they became nurses and caregivers in hospitals and camps, and they formed or expanded philanthropic groups within their churches and communities in order to gather money and supplies for the soldiers. They did all of this while discharging their regular reproductive labor and performing greater shares of physical labor as a result of mens absence.6 These chores fell under a larger umbrella of black kinship networks and typically included all members of a community or church. The women at the higher end of the economic ladder-who could afford to leave their children and homes for longer periods of time-planned and participated in fundraising fairs and bazaars. For black women, however, their war work goals included much more than soldier relief-they wanted freedom.

But what did freedom mean for African Americans living in midcentury Indiana and Illinois? In these states, slavery was technically illegal, but black codes and the Fugitive Slave Law disallowed both actual physical mobility as well as the more intangible opportunity to pursue citizenship rights in the American democracy. …

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