An Uncertain Future: What Happened After Emancipation

1 Posted by - June 18, 2022 - LATEST POSTS

James Johnson, a 79 year old ex-slave from Columbia, South Carolina, stated in his narrative that he “[felt] and [knew] dat de years after de war was worser than befo’”.  The Emancipation Proclamation and the Union’s victory in the war secured the freedom of slaves, but with a society plagued by Jim Crow Laws and segregation, ex-slaves were far from liberated. Slaves paid the price for their freedom as emancipation introduced new hardships, insecurities, and humiliation.

During the post Civil War and Reconstruction Era, a slave’s fight for freedom turned into a mere fight for survival. The majority of slaves were released from their previous plantations penniless. Wages for African Americans also fluctuated in response to the perceived worth of that person and manual labor was considered easily replaceable during the post Civil War time period. With income being an issue, few ex-slaves had the ability to own land. According to the 1880 Census, one-fifith of African Americans owned at least some of the land they farmed. However, these holdings were usually beset with debt, crippling owners in the long run.  Johnson declared that, “Befo’ de war, niggers did have a place to lie down at night and somewhere to eat, when they got hungry in time.”

This prevalent poverty among ex-slaves during the Reconstruction Era resulted in a lack of nourishment and medical care which in turn caused a high mortality rate for African Americans, especially children. Illness left former slaves with the burden of unpaid medical bills or the inability to access proper medical care. Deficiencies caused African Americans to resort to the treatment of diseases with herbal and home remedies. The 1900 Census reveals 30 per 1,000 blacks died each year as opposed to only 17 per 1,000 whites.

Death as a result of poverty was not the only thing that affected a slave’s life in the tough times of the post Civil War era. Ex-slaves were weakened by a severe sense of isolation brought on by separation from their families. Sales of slaves, the death of owners, and the presentation of slaves as gifts during the pre- Civil War era were only some of the reasons for this division. Alienation and loneliness dampened the spirit of these slaves’ new found freedom and made the fight to survive that much harder.

As whites saw African Americans as an imposition on normality as well as a threat to their dominance, they continued to make former slaves work for their freedom. Johnson stated in his narrative that “Since them times, a many a nigger has had it tough to make a livin’. I know dat is so, too, cause I has been all long dere.” Johnson’s experiences, along with so many others, shed light on the darker side of emancipation after the Civil War.


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  • GHarris Edwards June 14, 2017 - 3:29 pm

    And still we rise! In spite of hundreds of years of mistreatment and government sanctioned murders, we are here and our culture is copied and has made many successful.

  • linda tart November 10, 2018 - 12:31 pm

    There are different accounts of the post Civil War freedman. Some were glad slavery was over, and they begin searching for lost loved ones. I read, that that was the largest movement of people in this country. There were many former slaves, that was GLAD to be free and left their plantations, especially, if they had a horrible master.
    There was one preacher that said, “We ain’t what we ought to be, we ain’t what we are going to be, but thank God, we ain’t where we was.” Of course, there were some Black people that did not want freedom to come. There was a woman in Virginia, that baked cakes for whites. She did not want freedom. However, once freedom came, MANY Blacks wanted education, not only for themselves, but for their children, also. Some former masters, was “kind” enough, to give their former slaves, a few dollars, a horse, wagon, and wished them well, when they left.

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