What Shall we do with the Freedmen?


This is a question which is often discussed. We see it in our papers, and hear it frequently in conversation; but, if the North were more familiar with the state of affairs at the South, the question would much oftener be, “What shall we do with the white men, now that they have no slaves to take care of them?” The prevalent idea, that the masters of the South were intelligent, capable men, who, though unjust and cruel, still exercised a provident supervision over the wants of their slaves,—clothing and feeding them,— while the negroes, on the contrary, were unthinking, unthrifty, dull machines, is false.

The negro’s wants were few; and, such as they were, he was fully capable of supplying them, if not interfered with. With the change from slavery to freedom, he will doubtless discover new wants, the most pressing of which is that of education, which it is our duty to supply; but there is little ground of any apprehension that the slaves of the South, as a mass, are to suffer, by being deprived of their former masters, or that they will need charitable support.

Who built the huts in which they have been living? Who raised the corn upon which they have fed? Who wove the homespun stuffs with which they have been clothed? Will it be more difficult to obtain these things now that they work for themselves alone, than when they gave a large share of the products of their labor to their master?

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.
But what of the whites? They have been fed and clothed by their slaves: their property has been absorbed and lost in the war; and now, without any slaves to work for them, and with habits which make them incompetent to labor efficiently, even if their false pride permitted it, they are left more dependent upon charity than those they consider their inferiors. They seldom possess such an education as would fit them for intellectual labor of any sort; and we have reason to believe that they are the most helpless class in the South.

In Petersburg, when the needy and hungry were fed by the Federal authorities, it was noticeable, that by far the larger proportion of applicants were whites. In passing through the streets, we saw, in many an humble doorway, an old table, covered with a white cloth of spotless purity, on which were exposed for sale, pies, tarts, and lemonade,—tempting enough to the palates of hungry soldiers. For a moderate lunch of such edibles, the colored woman or child in attendance asked sometimes a fair price, sometimes one which showed an implicit confidence in the wealth or generosity of the purchaser; and by this and a hundred other thoughtful devices, the black population, in three days after the entrance of our forces, had in their possession a very tolerable sum of Federal money,—many times the amount of that held by the whites of the town. Thus the colored men were the first to prove themselves independent of charity.

If they can but have land of their own to cultivate, we need have no anxiety about the ability of the blacks to support themselves. Were an equal number of negroes and Southern white men of the middle class thrown unexpectedly upon a strange shore, the chances are, that, in twenty-four hours, the former would have tolerable shelters provided, and whatever of food the locality could possibly afford; the latter would probably be in the same helpless condition as when they landed, except that their hunger would have been increased by a day’s abstinence. We often hear piteous accounts of the destitution of the freedmen at certain places. We must not necessarily conclude that they are in greater want than they have usually been. The ordinary condition of a large portion of the Southern slaves previous to their liberation has been one which, with our ideas of comfort, we should call destitution; that is, they have had a scant allowance of food, and insufficient clothing. Let us not, then, attribute to freedom what is really the result of slavery, and judge that the former is the cause of evils which it cannot immediately prevent.

The positive eagerness of the slaves for education is a sign whose importance we cannot overestimate. Who ever heard before of a degraded and subjugated race so anxious for mental culture? At City Point, I saw great, stalwart negroes unlading vessels at the pier, and noticed that many of them carried their primers tucked beneath their belts; and, when an opportunity offered, they would sit down in some corner, and soon be wholly absorbed in their reading or their alphabet. This was no rare sight either. Wherever you went, you found black men busily poring over their primers. I have been assured that colored soldiers who have been wounded in battle have frequently been found on the field, spelling-book in hand, making the most of their time.

The Twenty-fifth Corps of colored troops contained (after a portion had been sent with General Terry to Fort Fisher) about fifteen thousand men. Schools were established among them last winter; and the greatest interest in study was felt throughout the camps. A chaplain, giving some statistics of the educational work in that corps, states, that two thousand have learned to write, and ten thousand to read, since entering the army. The average time of learning to read was about two months.

I attended, a month ago, a school held nightly in the barracks of the Commissary Department at City Point, in which not only were the pupils colored, but the teacher himself was a black man, Wm. K. Harris by name. He had organized the school, which contained about seventy-five members; and he had proved himself a very efficient teacher in the common elements of English education. The scholars were of all ages, from twelve to seventy. I heard several classes recite in reading and spelling, and they exhibited an excellent degree of proficiency. He also taught them writing and arithmetic; and I saw specimens of their penmanship and problems upon their slates, of which they might justly feel proud. They could not have attended this school from any motive but the purest desire of knowledge, as it was held in a low, dark, and dingy place, feebly lighted by a rude board chandelier, on which several candles were fastened. The teacher was an intelligent and efficient fellow, and purposes to obtain, if possible, a college education at Oberlin or elsewhere.

Not two hundred feet from this school was the Christian-Commission Chapel; and there, four nights in the week, three hundred negroes might be seen studying and reciting their lessons. Their attendance was regular, and their progress very encouraging. One colored boy, who had just entered the school, showed me his copy-book; and I could hardly be persuaded that the writing was his own. It was not the heavy, bold penmanship of a man, but a delicate, characteristic lady’s hand. I asked him where he had learned to write so beautifully; and he said, that, when a slave, he had often carried notes for his mistress, and had always copied the address, or whatever of the writing was visible: and this had been his only school. How many of us would, in his place, have shown an equal eagerness for self-improvement?

In short, we may rest assured, that, if the negro race of the South can but obtain land which he may call his own, which he may cultivate, and upon which he may build him a home, he will show himself independent of charity, at least as soon as his former master; and that, if the opportunities of education are put within his grasp, he will not be slow to avail himself of them.

Source: The Freedmens Record, July 1865

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

Related Posts

Tags: ,

Stay Connected

Connect with Accessible Archives on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or Linkedin to stay up to date on news and blog posts or get our latest blog posts by email.