Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867

By Kerr-Ritchie, Jeffrey R. | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867


Kerr-Ritchie, Jeffrey R., The Journal of Southern History


Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. Series 3, Volume 2: Land and Labor, 1866-1867. Edited by Rene Hayden and others. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. xxxiv, 1070. $99.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-0742-9.)

"[E]mancipation accomplished a profound social revolution": this interpretation has guided the documentary labors of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project (FSSP) since its inception in 1976 (p. xi). The collective endeavors of numerous scholars, federal archivists, and publicly funded institutions not only have produced ten volumes of documents and essays thus far (with several more projected) but also have influenced a generation of scholarship and teaching about this critical moment in America's past.

This veritable tome, edited by seven scholars with the support of three public entities, is the latest installment. Land and Labor, 1866-1867 opens with a sixty-page introductory essay on the politics of Presidential and Congressional Reconstruction along with former slaves' struggles during 1866 and 1867. The introduction is followed by interpretive essays and copious documents (labor contracts, federal circulars, planter letters, freedpeople's correspondence, newspaper articles, and so forth) organized into nine chapters on free labor enforcement; possession and dispossession of the land; rural labor; nonagricultural labor; family labor; commerce, credit, and debt; dependency and relief; migratory workers; and land tenure/ownership. The stated document count is 339, but there are far more. Document 81, for example, contains seven letters from freedwomen, a Virginia landowner, three Freedmen's Bureau officials, and a freedman. Every document is followed by an exact citation with explanatory notes. The dominant theme is the ebb and flow of freedom's contested moment. The editors show how freedom developed through the control, distribution, and compensation of free labor over two agricultural seasons in the aftermath of the defeat of the Confederacy and in the unprecedented presence of the federal government throughout the southern states.

An opening chronology would help readers navigate this complicated political moment, as would regional maps for the physical terrain. The editors' frequent acknowledgment of federal employee hierarchy--especially in the explanatory notes--highlights government bureaucracy over all else. (The irony is a dearth of biographical detail about these ordinary federal employees.) The volume quickly turns into a bewildering maze of officialdom even for those historians familiar with these documents. Moreover, the editors' inclusion of so many documents proves the proverb that less is more. This reviewer would have preferred the inclusion of fewer documents--chapters 1 and 2 contain more than ninety-three documents with notes spread over three hundred pages--with the addition of document synopses adopted in previous FSSP volumes.

This collection confirms that slave emancipation was a profound historical moment of contestation. The FSSP is unearthing enough documents written by freedmen and freedwomen to add a new category to the genre of freedpeople's own voices, which already includes ex-slave autobiographies and Works Progress Administration interviews with former bondpeople. …

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