Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Migration of Former Slaves to Worcester: Hopes and Dreams Deferred, 1862-1900

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Migration of Former Slaves to Worcester: Hopes and Dreams Deferred, 1862-1900

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION: The Historical Journal of Massachusetts is proud to select as our Editor's Choice Award for this issue Janette Thomas Greenwood's magisterial First Fruits of Freedom: The Migration of Former Slaves and Their Search for Equality in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1862-1900. A moving narrative that offers a rare glimpse into the lives of African American men, women, and children on the cusp of freedom, First Fruits of Freedom chronicles one of the first collective migrations of blacks from the South to the North during and after the Civil War.

Greenwood relates the history of a network forged between Worcester County and eastern North Carolina as a result of Worcester regiments taking control of northeastern North Carolina during the war. White soldiers from Worcester, a hotbed of abolitionism, protected refugee slaves, set up schools for them, and led them north at war's end. White patrons and a supportive black community helped many migrants fulfill their aspirations for complete emancipation and facilitated the arrival of additional family members and friends. Migrants established a small black community in Worcester with a distinctive southern flavor.

But even in the North, white sympathy did not continue after the Civil War. Despite their many efforts, black "Worcesterites" were generally disappointed in their hopes for full-fledged citizenship, reflecting the larger national trajectory of Reconstruction and its aftermath}

Historian Elizabeth Pleck describes the work as, "A remarkable work of historical scholarship that tells an incredibly moving and often tragic human story." Sydney Nathans writes that, "Greenwood peoples her story with those who embodied the freedom struggles of the second half of the nineteenth century. Her literary skill and human empathy bring us to know and care about her subjects."1 Janette Thomas Greenwood is a professor of history at Clark University. She is author of Bittersweet Legacy: The Black and White "Better Classes" in Charlotte, 1850- 1910 (1991).

In June 1862, amidst news from the Civil War battlefront, the Worcester Daily Spy announced the "arrival of a 'Contraband'"-a slave who had absconded to the safety of Union lines in search of freedom. The refugee had just come from New Bern, North Carolina, where he had "rendered important service to Gen. Burnside, in the capacity of pilot." In return for his aid, "he was sent north with his wife and child," bearing "recommendations from officers high in rank." The newspaper editor appealed to readers to consider hiring him, as "such a man certainly deserves immediate employment here-a chance for honest labor, which is all he wants."1

The arrival of the escaped bondsman and his family to Worcester marked the beginning of a small but steady stream of contrabands and then emancipated slaves to Worcester County, Massachusetts, during and immediately following the Civil War. The contraband's story contains several clues about the origin and nature of this development. Southern black migration to central Massachusetts from the 1860s on was rooted in the experience of the Civil War, first and foremost in relationships built between northern white soldiers and the southern blacks they encountered during the conflict. Fugitives and white soldiers, sharing the experience of the war, forged strong personal bonds that led former slaves to accompany the veterans north to their homes. Missionary teachers from Worcester, following in the paths of county regiments, reinforced military networks of migration, bringing additional freedpeople north with them after their service in the South. Personally sponsored and highly localized, this wartime journey established southern black migration networks to Worcester County evident through the turn of the twentieth century, as migrants brought family and friends north. A third, less personalized network, the Freedmen's Bureau, helped place additional former slaves in Worcester by finding them employment. …

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