Visions of Freedmen as Civilized Citizens

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Nineteenth century Americans prided themselves on belonging to a "Christian civilization" built on the home, the school, the workplace, and the church. Advocates of slavery had long represented African-Americans as savages who were inherently incapable of functioning as part of a civilized society, and even proponents of emancipation generally believed that the institution of slavery stunted the moral growth of those raised under its rule.This explains why freedmen's teachers focused so much of their time on encouraging domestic economy, traditional family relationships, and the exercise of a genteel Christianity. In addition, by starting reform groups dedicated to temperance and other causes, teachers encouraged self-restraint and self-help while also recreating in freedmen's camps the kinds of institutions that the teachers had valued in their own Northern communities.

In letters to their friends and supporters, freedmen's teachers often commented on the ways in which the former slaves seemed to fall short of accepted standards of behavior. At the same time, those letters often provided warm testimony about the strong moral character, instinctive warmth, deep family ties, and quick progress of the freedpeople.


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Teaching Freedmen "All the Arts of Civilization"

When Northerners of the Civil War era wrote--as they often did--of the need to "civilize" the freedmen, they were making two important assumptions; first, that education, industry, domesticity, and religion were prerequisites for successful participation in American life; and second, that African-Americans lacked these characteristics.

It is no coincidence that images of churches, schools, homes, and workplaces turn up repeatedly in nineteenth century American pictures related to reform because religion, education, domesticity, and enterprise were considered the foundations of American civilization. These four institutions were seen as providing the foundation for American progress and they offered mutually reinforcing messages about the importance of self-restraint, enterprise, manners, and morals. For example, religion taught the lessons of self-restraint and self-discipline necessary for success in the schoolroom and the workplace, and necessary as well for living within the boundaries of a monogamous marital relationship. Domesticity motivated individuals to succeed in the schoolroom and workplace: both to provide for and earn the respect of loved-ones. At the same time, the importance of industry and religion were taught within the domestic circle, particularly by women.

Freedmen were not seen as part of this system of civilization. On a practical level, during the antebellum period the school, the home, the marketplace, and the church had not played the same role in the lives of slaves as in the lives of other Americans. Slaves typically had been prohibited from learning to read and write, unable to compete in the marketplace for paying jobs, prevented from having legal marriages with their partners and yet expected to produce children, and sold away from their family members and paired with new partners. And those slaves who were permitted to attend church services often found their moral education limited to a lesson on the importance of being obedient to one's master.

However, discussions of the need to "civilize" the former slaves also reflected an acceptance of racial stereotypes of the period, which characterized African-Americans as stupid, lazy, uncultivated, and savage. Even "positive" stereotypes of the "docile," "loyal," and "obedient" negro, representations often found in the writing of reformers, suggested that African-Americans were unequipped to deal with the demands of independent, competitive American life. This explains why freedmen's aid societies included lessons on domesticity, industry, and religion as part of their educational programs.


Illustration for "Part II. Life as a Freeman," from Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855

Details from My Bondage and My Freedom Illustration

"The Proclamation of Emancipation,"
Lithograph, L. N. Rosenthal, 1865

Detail from "The Proclamation of Emancipation"

"The Tree of Temperance,"
Lithograph, N. Currier, 1849

Details from "The Tree of Temperance"

Above: "Past, Present and Future of Slavery," Harper's Weekly, April, 1864
Below: Details from "Past, Present, and Future of Slavery"


As you read the quotations below taken from reports written by government officials and teachers regarding the freedmen, it may be useful to consider the following questions:

  • How do you think these writers would explain what it means to be "civilized"?
  • What racial stereotypes--if any--do these discussions reinforce or contradict?
  • To what extent are the perceived racial differences described as consequences of nature or nurture?
The Question of Civilization

There was one striking feature in the contrabands which must not be omitted. I did not hear a profane or vulgar word spoken by them during my superintendence, a remark which it will be difficult to make of any sixty-four white men taken together anywhere in our army. Indeed, the greatest discomfort of a soldier, who desires to remain a gentleman in the camp, is the perpetual reiteration of language which no decent lips would utter in a sister's presence. But the negroes, so dogmatically pronounced unfit for freedom, were in this respect models for those who make high boasts of civility of manners and Christian culture. Out of the sixty-four who worked for us, all but half a dozen were members of the Church, generally the Baptist. Although without a pastor, they held religious meetings on the Sundays which we passed in Hampton, which were attended by about sixty colored persons and three hundred soldiers. The devotions were decorously conducted, bating some loud shouting by one or two excitable brethren, which the better sense of the rest could not suppress. Their prayers and exhortations were fervent, and marked by a simplicity which is not infrequently the richest eloquence. The soldiers behaved with entire propriety, and two exhorted them with pious unction, as children of one Father, ransomed by the same Redeemer.

In natural tact and the faculty of getting a livelihood the contrabands are inferior to the Yankees, but quite equal to the mass of the Southern population. It is not easy to see why they would be less industrious, if free, than the whites, particularly as they would have the encouragement of wages. There would be transient difficulties at the outset, but no more than a bad system lasting for ages might be expected to leave behind. The first generation might be unfitted for the active duties and responsibilities of citizenship; but this difficulty, under generous provisions for education, would not pass to the next. Even now they are not so much behind the masses of the whites. Of the Virginians who took the oath of allegiance at Hampton, not more than one in fifteen could write his name, and the rolls captured at Hatteras disclose an equally deplorable ignorance. The contrabands might be less addicted than the now dominant race to bowie-knives and duels, think less of the value of bludgeons as forensic arguments, be less inhospitable to innocent sojourners from Free States, and have far inferior skill in robbing forts and arsenals, plundering the Treasury, and betraying the country at whose crib they had fattened; but mankind would forgive them for not acquiring these accomplishments of modern treason. As a race, they may be less vigorous and thrifty than the Saxon, but they are more social, docile, and affectionate, fulfilling the theory which Channing held in relation to them, if advanced to freedom and civilization.

If in the progress of the war they should be called to bear arms, there need be no reasonable apprehension that they would exhibit the ferocity of savage races. Unlike such, they have been subordinated to civilized life. They are by nature a religious people. They have received an education in the Christian faith from devout teachers of their own and of the dominant race. Some have been taught (let us believe it) by the precepts of Christian masters, and some by the children of those masters, repeating the lessons of the Sabbath-school. The slaveholders assure us that they have all been well treated. If that be so, they have no wrongs to avenge. Associated with our army, they would conform to the stronger and more disciplined race.

--from Edward L. Pierce, "The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe," Atlantic Monthly, November 1861, 626-640

There are also on the plantations other laborers, more intelligent than the average, such as the carpenter, the plowman, the religious leader, who may be called a preacher, a watchman or a helper,--the two latter being recognized officers in the churches of these people, and the helpers being aids to the watchman. These persons, having recognized positions among their fellows, either by virtue of superior knowledge or devotion, when properly approached by us, may be expected to have a beneficial influence on the more ignorant, and help to create that public opinion in favor of good conduct which, among the humblest as among the highest, is most useful. I saw many of very low intellectual development, but hardly any too low to be reached by civilizing influences, either coming directly from us or mediately through their brethren. And while I saw some who were sadly degraded, I met also others who were as fine specimens of human nature as one can ever expect to find.

In substance, I told them that their masters had rebelled against the Government, and we had come to put down the rebellion; that we had now met them, and wanted to see what was best to do for them; that Mr. Lincoln, the President or Great Man at Washington, had the whole matter in charge, and was thinking what he could do for them; that the great trouble about doing anything for them was that their masters had always told us, and had made many people believe, that they were lazy, and would not work unless whipped to it; that Mr. Lincoln had sent us down here to see if it was so; that what they did was reported to him, or to men who would tell him; that where I came from all were free, both white and black; that we did not sell children or separate man and wife, but all had to work; that if they were to be free, they would have to work, and would be shut up or deprived of privileges if they did not; that this was a critical hour with them, and if they did not behave well now and respect our agents and appear willing to work, Mr. Lincoln would give up trying to do anything for them, and they must give up all hope for anything better, and their children and grand-children a hundred years hence would be worse off than they had been. I told them they must stick to their plantations and not run about and get scattered, and assured them that what their masters had told them of our intentions to carry them off to Cuba and sell them was a lie, and their masters knew it to be so, and we wanted them to stay on the plantations and raise cotton, and if they behaved well, they should have wages--small, perhaps, at first; that they should have better food, and not have their wives and children sold off; that their children should be taught to read and write, for which they might be willing to pay something; that by-and-by they would be as well off as the white people, and we would stand by them against their masters ever coming back to take them. The importance of exerting a good influence on each other, particularly on the younger men, who were rather careless and roving, was urged, as all would suffer in good repute from the bad deeds of a few. At Hilton Head, where I spoke to a meeting of two hundred, and there were facts calling for the counsel, the women were urged to keep away from the bad white men, who would ruin them. Remarks of a like character were made familiarly on the plantations to such groups as gathered about.

--E. L. Pierce, The Negroes at Port Royal: Report of E.L. Pierce, Government Agent, to the Hon. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, 1862

Except on Sundays, these people do not take their meals at a family table, but each one takes his hominy, bread, or potatoes, sitting on the floor or a bench, and at his own time. They say their masters never allowed them any regular time for meals. Whoever, under our new system, is charged with their superintendence, should see that they attend more to the cleanliness of their persons and houses, and that, as in families of white people, they take their meals together at a table--habits to which they will be more disposed when they are provided with another change of clothing, and when better food is furnished and a proper hour assigned for meals.

--E. L. Pierce, The Negroes at Port Royal: Report of E.L. Pierce, Government Agent, to the Hon. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, 1862

There are now eighteen hundred negroes here; and they continue to arrive. They come almost wholly destitute of clothing, covered with vermin, and extremely ignorant, and incompetent for noble, self-originating action of mind or body, uneducated in principle too as they are they ought to enter freedom through the path of moral restraint.

--Lucy Chase, Craney Island, South Carolina, January 15, 1863

This Association originated at a meeting held in the hall of the Cooper Institute, on the 20th February. 1862, in response to an appeal from Gen. SHERMAN and Commodore DUPONT, representing in a General Order, dated the 6th of that month, the helpless condition of the blacks within the vast area occupied by the forces under their command, and calling upon the benevolent and philanthropic of the land for aid. At that meeting the following gentlemen . . . were appointed to organize an Association, to make a special appeal to the public, to appoint suitable teachers to instruct the Freedmen in industrial and mechanical arts, in the rudiments of education, the principles of Christianity, their accountability to the laws of God and man, their relation to each other i as social beings, and all that might be necessary to render them competent to sustain themselves as members of a civilized society:—

--First Annual Report of the National Freedman's Relief Association, February 19, 1863

Coming, as they do, fresh from slavery; ragged; stripped of everything; many of them sick; few accustomed to any other than agricultural labor; at the mercy of speculators,—the condition of new-comers, especially, is abject and miserable in the extreme. Their dwellings are described as "not so good as good pigsties." Put up at the cost of thirty, twenty, and even ten dollars, they are rented at absurdly enormous prices. Two rooms for a large family are rarities: the majority of these huts or hovels have only one room. No wonder that casual visitors — though the inmates of these dwellings think otherwise — ask, "How much better off are these than they were in slavery?" Some of the children find their way to schools which have been opened under the auspices of different Freedmen's Associations; but the majority are unable to attend. And this brings us to two points which we would earnestly commend to the attention of our readers. Suitable buildings, both for dwellings and schools, are the great urgent want in Washington. Their absence is one of the greatest obstacles now encountered by our Association in their efforts to do their share in elevating and civilizing the colored people of that city.

--from "The Freedmen in Washington," The Freedmen's Record, February, 1865

THE thrift, industry, and general prosperity exhibited by the colored freedmen in many-quarters of the South, during the last three or four years, have surprised many. It is beginning to be seen that it is not the poor blacks but the poor whites whose disinclination to labor, whose ignorance and degradation, bid fair to unfit them for universal freedom. Not that the liberated negro does not show, in various ways, the ill effects of his previous condition. He does not prove himself, as yet, the equal of the Northern white man, reared under the influences of our Northern civilization, in energy and enterprise. He does not, as yet, manifest some of the hardier qualities which characterize some of the white races

--"The Freed Colored People," The Freedmen's Record, October, 1865

IT is a wise provision of Divine Providence that even the selfishness of man is made to minister to the progress of society. Political economy rests on laws which deal with the relations of capital and labor; yet these in their action produce moral results. The mechanic works for his day's wages, the capitalist builds his factory for a profit; but the result of their efforts is a blessing to others. The desire for wealth is one of the strongest and most powerful in the breast; it often prompts men to do very wicked things in order to get rich; nevertheless, in a broad, historical generalization, we see that this desire is one of the most powerful incentives to civilization. This deep inborn desire gives rise to industries. Out of it spring agriculture, commerce, and manufactures.

--"Free Labor as a Missionary," The Freedmen's Record, October, 1865

This is the month of holidays, when every little heart beats light with the hope of the joys which Christmas and New Year will bring. To the slave, Christmas brought a brief interval of amusement, followed by the sad partings of New Year's, when the new contracts for hiring out were made. We hope you will make it again a time of glad remembrance to the children. Last year some of the teachers received Christmas-boxes, and lighted Christmas-trees for their pupils, which gave a great amount of pleasure. Every such influence helps to bind the bonds of fellowship, and to elevate and civilize the negro.

In West Roxbury, the Society sent to each of the public schools, asking the children to contribute toys, books, pictures, and clothing to send to the freedmen. One little Irish boy, very poor himself, came to a friend who had helped him in his poverty, asking for a few "little pictures, that he might have something to send to the freedmen; and placed them in his teacher's hand, with a look of proud satisfaction, to be added to the box. Will not that boy have a kindlier feeling to the negro all his life for that act of boyish generosity ?

--"To Branch Societies," The Freedmen's Record, December, 1865

The whole school bent forward as I spoke, every face beaming with intense interest. I could not avoid the remark, in closing, that if any had messages to send you I should be most happy to bear them. A silent pause of about half a minute, and a tall boy, in a distant corner, slowly arose, stood a moment in thought, and then said, "Tell General Howard we are all thankful for what he is doing for us. We will endeavor to improve these privileges, and prepare ourselves for usefulness;" a short pause, and he added, "socially, religiously, and politically." I give his exact words as pencilled at the moment, uttered with deliberation and most appropriate emphasis.

---- J. W. Alvord, Letters from the South, Relating to the Condition of Freedmen, Addressed to Major General O. O. Howard, Commissioner Bureau R., F., and A. L. by J. W. Alvord, Gen. Sup't Education, Bureau R., F., & A. L., 1870


In 1861, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase sent Edward Pierce to the Sea Islands of Georgia to investigate the condition of the contrabands living there. Pierce's reports became the basis for the Union's system for dealing with the freedmen during the war.

What do the proposals below suggest about Pierce's vision of what it means to be civilized, and how does he believe people acquire civilized traits?

Pierce's Plan for the Freedmen

. . . Appoint superintendents for each large plantation, and one for two or three smaller combined, compensated with a good salary, say $1,000 per year, selected with reference to peculiar qualifications, and as care fully as one would choose a guardian for his children, clothed with an adequate power to enforce a paternal discipline, to require a proper amount of labor, cleanliness, sobriety, and better habits of life, and generally to promote the moral and intellectual culture of the wards, with such other inducements, if there be any, placed before the superintendent as shall inspire him to constant efforts to prepare them for useful and worthy citizenship. To quicken and ensure the fidelity of the superintendents, there should a director-general or governor, who shall visit the plantations, and see that they are discharging these duties, and, if necessary, he should be aided by others in the duty of visitation. This officer should be invested with liberal powers over all persons within his jurisdiction, so as to protect the blacks from each other and from white men, being required in most important cases to confer with the military authorities in punishing offences. His proposed duties indicate that he should be a man of the best ability and character: better if he have already, by virtue of public services, a hold on the public confidence. Such an arrangement is submitted as preferable for the present to any cumbersome territorial government.

The laborers themselves, no longer slaves of their former masters, or of the Government, but as yet in large numbers unprepared for the full privileges of citizens, are to be treated with sole reference to such preparation.

No effort is to be spared to work upon their better nature and the motives which come from it-the love of wages, of offspring, and family, the desire of happiness, and the obligations of religion. And when these fail,-and fail they will, in some cases,-we must not hesitate to resort, not to the lash, for as from the department of war so also from the department of labor, it must be banished, but to the milder and more effective punishments -of deprivation of privileges, isolation from family and society, the workhouse, or even the prison. The laborers are to be assured at the outset that parental and conjugal relations among them are to be protected and enforced; that children, and all others desiring, are to be taught; that they will receive wages; and that a certain just measure of work, with reference to the ability to perform it, if not willingly rendered, is to be required of all. The work, so far as the case admits, shall be assigned in proper tasks, the standard being what a healthy person of average capacity can do, for which a definite sum is to be paid. The remark may perhaps be pertinent, that, whatever may have been the case with women or partially disabled persons, my observations, not yet sufficient to decide the point, have not impressed me with the conviction that healthy persons, if they had been provided with an adequate amount of food, and that animal in due proportion, could be said to have been overworked heretofore on these islands, the main trouble having been that they have not been so provided, and have not had the motives which smooth labor. Notwithstanding the frequent and severe chastisements which have been employed here in exacting labor, they have failed, and naturally enough, of their intended effects. Human beings are made up of so much more of spirit than of muscle, that compulsory labor, enforced by physical pain, will not exceed or equal, in the long run, voluntary labor with just inspirations; and the same law in less degree may be seen in the difference between the value of a whipped and jaded beast, and one well disciplined and kindly treated.

What should be the standard of wages where none have heretofore been paid, is less easy to determine. It should be graduated with reference to the wants of the laborer and the ability of the employer or Government; and this ability being determined by the value of the products of the labor, and the most that should be expected being, that for a year or two the system should not be a burden on the Treasury. Taking into consideration the cost of food and clothing, medical attendance and extras, supposing that the laborer would require rations of pork or beef, meal, coffee, sugar, molasses and tobacco, and that he would work 300 days in the year, he should receive about forty cents a day in order to enable him to lay up $30 a year; and each healthy woman could do about equally well. Three hundred days in a year is, perhaps, too high an estimate of working days, when we consider the chances of sickness and days when, by reason of storms and other causes, there would be no work. It is assumed that the laborer is not to pay rent for the small house tenanted by him.. . .

It being important to preserve all former habits which are not objectionable, the laborer should have his patch of ground on which to raise corn or vegetables for consumption or sale.

As a part of the plan proposed, missionaries will be needed to address the religious element of a race so emotional in their nature, exhorting to all practical virtues, and inspiring the laborers with a religious zeal for faithful labor, the good nurture of their children, and for clean and healthful habits. The benevolence of the Free States, now being directed hither, will gladly provide these. The Government should, however, provide some teachers specially devoted to teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, say some twenty-five, for the territory now occupied by our forces, and private benevolence might even be relied on for these.

The plan proposed is, of course, not presented as an ultimate result: far from it. It contemplates a paternal discipline for the time being, intended for present use only, with the prospect of better things in the future. As fast as the laborers show themselves fitted for all the privileges of citizens, they should be dismissed from the system and allowed to follow any employment they please, and where they please. They should have the power to acquire the fee simple of land, either with the proceeds of their labor or as a reward of special merit; and it would be well to quicken their zeal for good behavior by proper recognitions.

----E. L. Pierce, The Negroes at Port Royal: Report of E.L. Pierce, Government Agent, to the Hon. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, 1862


Visions of Freedmen and Domesticity

First Annual Report of the National Freedmen's Relief Association, February 19, 1863


The first attempts to organize educational opportunities for the freedmen focused not on academic skills but on religion and domestic economy. In 1862 Mary Peake began running a mission school at Hampton, South Carolina, and in 1862 Edward Pierce, investigating the condition of former slaves at Port Royal on behalf of the federal reported:

The Rev. Mansfield French . . . proposes, with the approval of the authorities here, to secure authority to introduce women of suitable experience and ability, who shall give industrial instruction to those of their own sex among these people, and who, visiting from dwelling to dwelling, shall strive to improve their household life, and give such counsels as women can best communicate to women. All civilizing influences like these should be welcomed here, and it cannot be doubted that many noble hearts among the women of' the land will volunteer for the service.

--E. L. Pierce, The Negroes at Port Royal: Report of E.L. Pierce, Government Agent, to the Hon. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, 1862

While Pierce's description of instructions in housekeeping as "civilizing influences" may be difficult to understand today, in 19th century America, lessons in what was called "domestic economy" would have been seen as having a moral dimension. One of the most powerful blows against slavery struck during the antebellum period had been the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel that had featured descriptions of the tidy cabin of Uncle Tom, the neat kitchen of the Quaker family who aided the runaway Eliza, and the refined apartment of the former slaves George and Eliza as a means of signaling their moral worth. Because the creation of an orderly and refined home were seen in 19th century America as a fundamental part of civilized life, representing African-Americans as practitioners of "domestic economy" was a way of demonstrating that they were civilized.

Women of that period were expected to create orderly and refined homes and encourage the development of neat, mannerly, and moral children (and husbands), and this was the way in which they were regarded as contributing to society as a whole. Here is how Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, explained the system in her 1842 book, A Treatise on Domestic Economy for Young Women and Girls:

The success of democratic institutions, as is conceded by all, depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the mass of the people. If they are intelligent and virtuous, democracy is a blessing; but if they are ignorant and wicked, it is only a curse, and as much much more dreadful than any other form of civil government, as a thousand tyrants are more to be dreaded than one. It is equally conceded, that the formation of the moral and intellectual character of the young is committed mainly to the female hand. The mother forms the character of the future man; the sister bends the fibres that are hereafter to be the forest tree; the wife sways the heart, whose energies may turn for good or for evil the destinies of a nation. Let the women of a country be made virtuous and intelligent, and the men will certainly be the same. The proper education of a man decides the welfare of an individual; but educate a woman, and the interests of a whole family are secured.

If this be so, as none will deny, then to American women, more than to any others on earth, is committed the exalted privilege of extending over the world those blessed influences, which are to renovate degraded man, and "clothe all climes with beauty."

Thus, lessons of domestic economy were considered an important part of freedmen's education. In the classrooms, teachers established rules intended to encourage habits of neatness and hygiene, and in their visits to the homes of freedmen teachers reinforced these messages through conversation and direct instruction. The teachers were also expected to model through their dress, deportment, and mode of living the habits and behaviors expected of "civilized" Americans. In their reports to their sponsors, teachers frequently comment on their efforts to encourage neatness.

Encouraging habits of order in the former slaves were also part of the government agenda, and the sites used by the government to construct homes for freedmen were often laid out on neat grids that emphasized the importance of neatness and regularity, as can be seen in the pictures below. Indeed, the illustrations suggest a striking similarity between the military order of Camp Saxton, home of the African-American 1st Carolina Volunteers, and the orderly arrangement of Mitchellville, the first freedmen's village.


"Freedmen's Village, Arlington, Virginia,"Harper's Weekly, April 7, 1863



“Port Royal Island—1. Camp Saxton (Smith’s Plantation)—The New Headquarters of the 1st S.C. Vol. (Colored), Col. Higginson. 2. Mitchelville, The New South Village for Contrabands, Hilton Head.—From Sketches by Our Special Artist.—See Page 317,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, February 7, 1863, 316


Camp Saxton.

In our paper of Jan. 24 we gave an interesting picture of the festivities of the colored race on New Year’s Day. These were held at Camp Saxton, known formerly as Smith’s Plantation. It is the new headquarters of the 1st Carolina Colored Volunteers, commanded by Col. Higginson, who devotes every energy to overcome that natural love of idleness inherent to all inferior or oppressed races. The camp is well arranged, and the men present as soldierly an appearance as negroes seem to be capable of. Still they do not come up to anything like what the French Turcos are, not yet up to the black regiments of the British West India-Islands.

New South Village, or Mitchelville

When Gen. Mitchel resolved to try the effect of voluntary labor, he made arrangements for the building of a number of little cottages for the colored people, and it was named after him. It is situated on Hilton Head Island, and presents every evening scenes of remarkable gaiety.



A Teacher Describes Freedmen's Villages

Out of my window, at my right, long streets of negro-cabins stretch over the table-land--a complete city. Fifty cabins--Low, pigmy door-ways, open into their narrow, dimly-lighted single halls. Absolute neatnesss surrounds the cabins, which are unfortunately crowded, and are in many instances without garden patches. This neat little log house, with the schoolhouse on one hand, and the store on the other, stands on a little slope overlooking the village. Looking itself symbolic of the beneficence which emanates from it.

--Lucy Chase, Yorktown, May 19, 1846

Yorktown would be a fine point for a Northern tourist to visit. There one may see what the Negro can do with small opportunities, and may learn how surely the effort of his white patron meets with a speedy reward. A mile from the fort is Sabletown, a village of 500 negro cabins; while a half mile beyond it, is Acretown, a neat, negro village built by Genl. Wistar. Each cabin is enclosed with its acre, by a curiously interlaced slab-fence (the universal cabin enclosure in these parts). The acre [sic] are contiguous in their rear, so air and space are meted out in double measures. The cabins are built of an uniform pattern and absolute neatness is enforced upon the premises, by military authority. There the friends have built a school-house which, like the one at Sable-town, is occupied as a church on Sundays. A large Sunday-school is also kept, in each place. Uniform neatness, taste, and cleanliness characterize the dress worn on Sundays. The combination of colors, known at the North as “niggerfied,” are seldom, if ever, seen here (in the South).

--Lucy Chase, July 1, 1864


First Annual Report of the National Freedmen's Relief Association, February 19, 1863


Freedmen's Teachers Report on Their
Attempts to Be
"Civilizing Influences" 

I was very much interested in hearing the Dr commission the “squad-men” to tell their people of his agricultural plans. He has been lecturing them seriously, lately; insisting upon their compelling their charges to keep their quarters clean, to chop their wood in their back-yards!! to hang their clothes there, and to do other seemly things. One old man, alluding to the life before his men, said, “It makes me feel proud. I think we can talk to them stronger now.” The Dr said to them all, “You ‘r improving, but there’s a great deal that ant as I want it, yet.” “Yaas, suh,” was murmured by many. “But we cant do it all at once,” said one man.

--Lucy Chase, Craney Island, South Carolina, January 29, 1863

We made daily visits to the “quarters,” which were a few rods from the house. The negro-houses, on this as on most of the other plantations, were miserable little huts, with nothing comfortable or home-like about them, consisting generally of but two very small rooms, —the only way of lighting them, no matter what the state of the weather, being to leave the doors and windows open. The windows, of course, have no glass in them. In such a place, a father and mother with a large family of children are often obliged to live. It is almost impossible to teach them habits of neatness and order, when they are so crowded. We look forward anxiously to the day when better houses shall increase their comfort and pride of appearance.

--Charlotte Forten, "Life on the Sea Islands" The Atlantic Monthly, May and June, 1864

Children of the poorest and most distracted mothers seem to pick up certain general all-pervading ideas of neatness. In all my schools a general cry would be raised if a child should return an undrained dipper to the water-bucket. And until taught economy by the teachers few children would pass a schoolmate a dipper of water to which he had put his own lips. Anything like an oath sets a whole schoolroom on fire, and if it is heard at recess, the children rush to their teacher with Oh’s! and Ab’s! and staring eyeballs.

I have often told you how rare it is to find a dirty colored-house. A curiosity-hunter from the North might think the neat-houses the rare ones; but to one unfamiliar with the homes of the poor, simple barreness and poverty express filth.

--Lucy Chase to Anna Lowell, Richmond, Va., June 1868

[From a description of a Christmas party for the Freedmen]

The tea setts and hdkfs won universal favor. The prettiest, most refined, and most cultivated girl in Lake City, and one of our best scholars, has Prangs Two Sisters (I thank you, very much, for sending Prangs beautiful pictures. I shall rejoice in knowing that they will be in homes that need them.) One of the birds we gave to a colored teacher, a gentle, delicate natured person, whose school is somewhat connected with ours. Two of the pictures will cheer two of the noblest families here.

--Lucy Chase to Anna Lowell, Lake City, Florida, January 14, 1869


Compare the excerpts below from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin with the excerpts from a letter by Storrow Higginson published in the Freedmen's Record describing his visit to a school and the home of its African-American teacher.

  • How do the descriptions of the settings of the homes and the domestic interiors contribute to the characterization of the individuals being described? What do these writers seem to suggest about the relationship between "domestic economy" and morality, and how do they accomplish that?

  • Are there any differences between the depictions of the homes of "Uncle Tom" and "Uncle Charles" and the other homes described by Stowe? Do these differences of class or culture affect our evaluation of their owners, morally or otherwise?


Domestic Economy
in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1850)

The Refined Home of the Harris Family
Chapter Forty-Three, Uncle Tom's Cabin, (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1853)

The cabin of Uncle Tom was a small log building, close adjoining to "the house," as the negro par excellence designates his master's dwelling. In front it had a neat garden-patch, where, every summer, strawberries, raspberries, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, flourished under careful tending. The whole front of it was covered by a large scarlet bignnia and a native multiflora rose, which, entwisting and interlacing, left scarce a vestige of the rough logs to be seen. Here, also, in summer, various brilliant annuals, such as marigolds, petunias, four-o'clocks, found an indulgent corner in which to unfold their splendors, and were the delight and pride of Aunt Chloe's heart.

Let us enter the dwelling. The evening meal at the house is over, and Aunt Chloe, who presided over its preparation as head cook, has left to inferior officers in the kitchen the business of clearing away and washing dishes, and come out into her own snug territories, to "get her ole man's supper"; therefore, doubt not that it is her you see by the fire, presiding with anxious interest over certain frizzling items in a stew-pan, and anon with grave consideration lifting the cover of a bake-kettle, from whence steam forth indubitable intimations of "something good." A round, black, shining face is hers, so glossy as to suggest the idea that she might have been washed over with white of eggs, like one of her own tea rusks. Her whole plump countenance beams with satisfaction and contentment from under her well-starched checked turban, bearing on it, however, if we must confess it, a little of that tinge of self-consciousness which becomes the first cook of the neighborhood, as Aunt Chloe was universally held and acknowledged to be.

 A cook she certainly was, in the very bone and centre of her soul. Not a chicken or turkey or duck in the bam-yard but looked grave when they saw her approaching, and seemed evidently to be reflecting on their latter end; and certain it was that she was always meditating on trussing, stuffing and roasting, to a degree that was calculated to inspire terror in any reflecting fowl living. Her corn-cake, in all its varieties of hoe-cake, dodgers, muffins, and other species too numerous to mention, was a sublime mystery to all less practised compounders; and she would shake her fat sides with honest pride and merriment, as she would narrate the fruitless efforts that one and another of her compeers had made to attain to her elevation.

 The arrival of company at the house, the arranging of dinners and suppers "in style," awoke all the energies of her soul; and no sight was more welcome to her than a pile of travelling trunks launched on the verandah, for then she foresaw fresh efforts and fresh triumphs.

   Just at present, however, Aunt Chloe is looking into the bake-pan; in which congenial operation we shall leave her till we finish our picture of the cottage.

   In one corner of it stood a bed, covered neatly with a snowy spread; and by the side of it was a piece of carpeting, of some considerable size. On this piece of carpeting Aunt Chloe took her stand, as being decidedly in the upper walks of life; and it and the bed by which it lay, and the whole corner, in fact, were treated with distinguished consideration, and made, so far as possible, sacred from the marauding inroads and desecrations of little folks. In fact, that corner was the drawing-room of the establishment. In the other corner was a bed of much humbler pretensions, and evidently designed for use. The wall over the fireplace was adorned with some very brilliant scriptural prints, and a portrait of General Washington, drawn and colored in a manner which would certainly have astonished that hero, if ever he happened to meet with its like.

 On a rough bench in the corner, a couple of woolly-headed boys, with glistening black eyes and fat shining cheeks, were busy in superintending the first walking operations of the baby, which, as is usually the case, consisted in getting up on its feet, balancing a moment, and then tumbling down, -- each successive failure being violently cheered, as something decidedly clever.

 A table, somewhat rheumatic in its limbs, was drawn out in front of the fire, and covered with a cloth, displaying cups and saucers of a decidedly brilliant pattern, with other symptoms of an approaching meal.

--from "Chapter Four: An Evening in Uncle Tom's Cabin"

A quiet scene now rises before us. A large, roomy, neatly-painted kitchen, its yellow floor glossy and smooth, and without a particle of dust; a neat, well-blacked cooking-stove; rows of shining tin, suggestive of unmentionable good things to the appetite; glossy green wood chairs, old and firm; a small flag-bottomed rocking-chair, with a patch-work cushion in it, neatly contrived out of small pieces of different colored woollen goods, and a larger sized one, motherly and old, whose wide arms breathed hospitable invitation, seconded by the solicitation of its feather cushions, -- a real comfortable, persuasive old chair, and worth, in the way of honest, homely enjoyment, a dozen of your plush or brochetelle drawing-room gentry; and in the chair, gently swaying back and forward, her eyes bent on some fine sewing, sat our fine old friend Eliza. . . .

By her side sat a woman with a bright tin pan in her lap, into which she was carefully sorting some dried peaches. She might be fifty-five or sixty; but hers was one of those faces that time seems to touch only to brighten and adorn. The snowy fisse crape cap, made after the strait Quaker pattern, -- the plain white muslin handkerchief, lying in placid folds across her bosom, -- the drab shawl and dress, -- showed at once the community to which she belonged. Her face was round and rosy, with a healthful downy softness, suggestive of a ripe peach. Her hair, partially silvered by age, was parted smoothly back from a high placid forehead, on which time had written no inscription, except peace on earth, good will to men, and beneath shone a large pair of clear, honest, loving brown eyes; you only needed to look straight into them, to feel that you saw to the bottom of a heart as good and true as ever throbbed in woman's bosom. So much has been said and sung of beautiful young girls, why don't somebody wake up to the beauty of old women? If any want to get up an inspiration under this head, we refer them to our good friend Rachel Halliday, just as she sits there in her little rocking-chair.

--from "Chapter Thirteen: The Quaker Settlement"

George and Eliza had now been five years free. George had found constant occupation in the shop of a worthy machinist, where he had been earning a competent support for his familv, which, in the mean time, had been increased by the addition of another daughter.

Little Harry -- a fine bright boy -- had been put to a good school, and was making rapid proficiency in knowledge. . . .

The scene now changes to a small, neat tenement, in the outskirts of Montreal; the time, evening. A cheerful fire blazes on the hearth; a tea-table, covered with a snowy cloth, stands prepared for the evening meal. In one corner of the room was a table covered with a green cloth, where was an open writing-desk, pens, paper, and over it a shelf of well-selected books.

This was George's study. The same zeal for self-improvement, which led him to steal the much coveted arts of reading and writing, amid all the toil and discouragements of his early life, still led him to devote all his leisure time to self-cultivation.

   At this present time, he is seated at the table, making notes from a volume of the family library he has been reading.

"Come, George," says Eliza, "you've been gone all day. Do put down that book, and let's talk, while I'm getting tea, -- do."

And little Eliza seconds the effort, by toddling up to her father, and trying to pull the book out of his hand, and install herself on his knee as a substitute.

"O, you little witch!" says George, yielding, as, in such circumstances, man always must.

"That's right," says Eliza, as she begins to cut a loaf of bread. A little older she looks; her form a little fuller; her air more matronly than of yore; but evidently contented and happy as woman need be.

"Harry, my boy, how did you come on in that sum, to-day?" says George, as he laid his land on his son's head.

Harry has lost his long curls; but he can never lose those eyes and eyelashes, and that fine, bold brow, that flushes with triumph, as he answers, "I did it, every bit of it, myself, father; and nobody helped me!"

--from "Chapter Forty-Three: Results"


A Freedmen's Teacher's Description of a Visit
to the Home of an African-American Teacher
I must write you something of the little school for colored children which I found in Salisbury Maryland (the terminus of the Del., Newcastle, &c. R.R.), all was so encouraging. Having many letters from our men, to deliver in this town, I immediately inquired for Charles Pollitt, the colored preacher, of whom the soldiers have always spoken with love and reverence. Turning into a little lane, I passed between neat fences and pretty gardens, until I came to "Uncle's" house, standing amid hyacinths and narcissuses, the pebbly walk bordered with aldies-delligths and pure primroses, and all fresh and tidy, as thought he gentleness of these poor people had found expression in the flowers they cherish so lovingly. I found Charles's wife at home; a noble stately woman with that proud melancholy in her eyes I have often observed among these people. She received me with quiet courtesy and I saw at once that I must produce my credentials before receiving the confidence I desired. Opening my budget of letters, I soon assured her of my sincerity; and, as she gradually became aware that I was really her friend, it was beautiful to see the joy that lighted the worn features. "How I loves you, coz I knows you's a fren to me!" she said, as she turned to go for Uncle Charles. During her absence I took occasion to study the room. It would have charmed you to see the neatness of every thing in this tiny parlor.

The snow-white counterpane, the bright rag carpet, the carefully scrubbed hearth-stones and threshold, the orderly arrangement of furniture and the little treasures upon the whatnot, which only these simple hearts can understand, all filled me with interest and pleasure, as the loveliest expression of what is pure and beautiful in a poor and despised people. Streaming in the open doorway, came the sunlit air, laden with the delicious aroma of hyacinths and peach-blossoms. Along the village street, I heard the cries of happy children, reveling in their "recess," while from the gardens floated sounds of life and joy as the little ones pattered over the shining walks. Uncle Charles soon came, ushered in by his wife as though he were a king. There was something really princely in his step, and his presence was high and commanding. Standing full six feet, his frame was powerful and muscular, the features noble though not handsome, and in the wrinkles of the forehead, a magnanimity as though the fires that have burned up into his life had left only ashes of forgiveness, not of wrathful revenge such as we feel for him. . . .

And when I walked along the street where the colored people live, and saw the fresh gardens, the little green turf, plots decked with primroses and ladies-delights, the delicate blow of peach-trees half concealing the white-washed cottages with their mossy roofs; when I saw the children at play, well clothed, and the matrons faultlessly neat and tidy, a and all so happy and bright, I felt that God had indeed tempered the winds to his shorn lambs, and that, low upon the threshold, by the beautiful dawn in whose light they stand, these simple childlike hearts have laid away the sorrows and the grief of nearly half a century. Were it not too late for argument, I would take my enemy by the hand and lead him through this quiet village street; if the children and the flowers failed to teach him, then, why, then, the bayonet.

--from Storrow Higginson,"Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, July, 1865


Visions of Freedmen as Family Members









"Freedmen and Refugees Department of the Mississippi Sanitary Fair," 1864


In a letter to her family and supporters in the North, freedmen's teacher Lucy Chase wrote concerning the supervisor of freedmen in her area, Dr. Orlando Brown:

"The Negro marriage question continues to trouble the Dr."

--Lucy Chase, January 29, 1863

The problem had been caused by former masters who had repeatedly sold slaves and then paired their bereft spouses with new mates for the purposes of breeding. As a result, many of the people the freedmen's teachers worked with had never been formally married but had multiple spouses. And yet, concerned that this state of affairs reflected promiscuity on the part of African-Americans rather than the realities of slavery, government agents sent to assess the situation of the freedmen sometimes included questions about sexual activity in their interviews. Freedmen's organizations responded by organizing mass weddings and preaching the importance of loyalty to a single spouse.

And yet, while they sometimes offered critical or amused comments on the complicated marital relationships between former slaves, freedmen's teachers more frequently remarked on the tender relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, many of whom had suffered painful separations. By recounting stories of loving couples who had been torn apart by cruel owners, freedmen's teachers were sometimes able to use their letters to the North to remind their readers of the true source of "the negro marriage problem" and the broken homes of the freedmen. Teachers also tried to reunite families by writing letters on behalf of freedmen seeking out missing spouses or children.


July 1, 1864 Letter from Freedmen's Teacher Lucy Chase
Repeating a Story Told to Her by a Freedwoman


African-American Family Relations Under Slavery

My brother and myself were in the habit of carrying grain to the mill a few times in the year, which was the means of furnishing us with some information respecting other slaves, otherwise we would have known nothing whatever of what was going on anywhere in the world, excepting on our master's plantation. The mill was situated at a distance of about 20 miles from our residence, and belonged to one Colonol Ambler, in Yansinville county. On these occasions we used to aquire some little knowledge of what was going on aronnd us, and we neglected no opportunity of making ourselves acquainted with the condition of other slaves.

On one occasion, while waiting for grain, we entered a house in the neighbourhood, and while resting ourselves there, we saw a number of forlorn looking beings pass the door, and as they passed we noticed they gazed earnestly upon us; afterwards about fifty did the very same, and we heard some of them remarking that we had shoes, vests, and hats. We felt a desire to talk with them, and, accordingly after receiving some bread and meat from the mistress of the house we followed those abject beings to their quarters, and such a sight we had never witnessed before, as we had always lived on our masters plantation, and this was the first of our journeys to the mill. These Slaves were dressed in shirts made of coarse bagging such as coffee sacks are made from, and some kind of light substance for pantaloons, and this was all their clothing! They had no shoes, hats, vests, or coats, and when my brother spoke of their poor clothing they said they had never before seen colored persons dressed as we were; they looked very hungry, and we devided our bread and meat among them. They said they never had any meat given them by their master. My brother put various questions to them, such as if they had wives? did they go to church? &c., they said they had wives, but were obliged to marry persons who worked on the same plantation, as the master would not allow them to take wives from other plantations, consequently they were all related to each other, and the master obliged them to marry their relatives or to remain single. My brother asked one of them to show him his sisters:--he said he could not distinguish them from the rest, as they were all his sisters. Although the slaves themselves entertain considerable respect for the law of marriage as a moral principle, and are exceedingly well pleased when they can obtain the services of a minister in the performance of the ceremony, yet the law recognizes no right in slaves to marry at all. The relation of husband and wife, parent and child, only exists by the toleration of their master, who may insult the slave's wife, or violate her person at any moment, and there is no law to punish him for what he has done. Now this not only may be as I have said, but it actualy is the case to an alarming extent; and it is my candid opinion, that one of the strongest motives which operate upon the slaveholders in inducing them to mantain their iron grasp upon the unfortunate slaves, is because it gives them such unlimited control over the person of their female slaves. The greater part of slaveholders are licentious men, and the most respectable and kind masters keep some of these slaves as mistresses. It is for their pecuniary inerrest to do so, as their progeny is equal to so many dollars and cents in their pockets, instead of being a source of expense to them, as would be the case, if their slaves were free. It is a horrible idea, but it is no less true, that no slave husband has any certainty whatever of being able to retain his wife a single hour; neither has any wife any more certainty of her husband: their fondest affection may be utterly disregarded, and their devoted attachment cruelly ignored at any moment a brutal slave-holder may think fit.

--Henry Box Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, 1851

The disintegration of the family relation is one of the most striking and most melancholy indications of this progress of barbarism. The slave was not permitted to own a family name; instances occurred in which he was flogged for presuming to use one. He did not eat with his children or with their mother; "there was no time for that." In portions of this State, at least, a family breakfast or dinner table was a thing so little known among these people that ever since their enfranchisement it has been very difficult to break them of the life-long habit that each should clutch the dish containing his portion and skulk off into a corner, there to devour it in solitude. The entire day, until after sunset, was spent in the field; the night in huts of a single room, where all ages and both sexes herded promiscuously. Young girls of fifteen, some of an earlier age, became mothers, not only without marriage, but often without any pretense of fidelity to which even a slave could give that name. The church, it is true, interposed her protest; but the master, save in exceptional cases, did not sustain it, tacitly sanctioning a state of morality under which ties of habitual affection could not assume a form dangerous or inconvenient to despotic rule.

The men, indeed, frequently asked from their masters the privilege of appropriating to themselves those of the other sex. Sometimes it was granted, sometimes--when the arrangement was deemed unprofitable-it was refused. Some cases there were in which a slaveholder, prompted by his own sense of morality or religion or urged thereto by a pious wife, suffered these connections of his slaves to have the sanction of religious ceremony. But it is evident that to connect even with such a quasi-marriage the idea of sacredness or religious duty was inconsistent with that legal policy of the slave States which forbade to render indissoluble among slaves a relation which to-morrow it might be for the interest of their owners to break up.

The maternal relation was often as little respected as the marital. On many plantations, where the system was most thoroughly carried out, pregnancy neither exempted from corporal punishment nor procured a diminution of the daily task; and it was a matter of occasional occurrence that the woman was overtaken by the pains of labor in the field, and the child born between the cotton rows. Humane masters, however, were wont to diminish the task as pregnancy advanced, and commonly gave three, occasionally four, weeks' exemption from labor after child birth. The mother was usually permitted to suckle her child during three months only; and the cases were rare in which relaxation from labor was allowed during that brief period. On the other hand, instances have occurred in which the more severe drove the negress into the field within forty-eight hours after she became a mother, there to toil until the day of the next birth.

--The American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, Preliminary Report Touching the Condition and Management of Emancipated Refugees, June 30, 1863



"Marriage of a Colored Soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen's Bureau," Harpers Weekly, June 30, 1866


The "Marriage Problem"

Separations of families had been frequent. Of this I obtained definite knowledge. When I was registering the number of dependants, preparatory to the requisition for rations, the answer occasionally was, "Yes, I have a wife, but she is not here." "Where is she?" "She was sold off two years ago, and I have not heard of her since." The husband of the woman who took care of the quarters of General Pierce had been sold away from her some years before. Such separations are regarded as death, and the slaves re-marry. In some cases the bereft one--so an intelligent negro assured me--pines under his bereavement and loses his value; but so elastic is human nature that this did not appear to be generally the case. The same answer was given about children,--that they had been sold away. This, in a slave-breeding country, is done when they are about eight years old. Can that be a mild system of servitude which permits such enforced separations? Providence may, indeed, sunder forever those dearest to each other, and the stricken soul accepts the blow as the righteous discipline of a Higher Power; but when the bereavement is the arbitrary dictate of human will, there are no such consolations to sanctify grief and assuage agony.

--Edward L. Pierce, "The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe," Atlantic Monthly, November 1861

Notwithstanding their religious professions, in some cases more emotional than practical, the marriage relation, or what answers for it, is not, in many instances, held very sacred by them. The men, it is said, sometimes leave one wife and take another,-something likely to happen in any society where it is permitted or not forbidden by a stern public opinion, and far more likely to happen under laws which do not recognize marriage, and dissolve what answers for it by forced separations, dictated by the mere pecuniary interest of others. The women, it is said, are easily persuaded by white men,-a facility readily accounted for by the power of the master over them, whose solicitation was equivalent to a command, and against which the husband or father was powerless to protect, and increased also by the degraded condition in which they have been placed, where they have been apt to regard what ought to be a disgrace as a compliment, when they were approached by a paramour of superior condition and race. Yet often the dishonor is felt, and the woman, on whose several children her master's features are impressed, and through whose veins his blood flows, has sadly confessed it with an instinctive blush. The grounds of this charge, so far as they may exist, will be removed, as much as in communities of our own race, by a system which shall recognize and enforce the marriage relation among them, protect them against the solicitations of white men as much as law can, still more by putting them in relations were they will be inspired with self-respect and a consciousness of their rights, and taught by a pure and plainspoken Christianity.

--E. L. Pierce, The Negroes at Port Royal: Report of E.L. Pierce, Government Agent, to the Hon. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, 1862


A very large portion, probably, at least, more than half of the "married" freed people, had been married only in slave fashion, by "taking up together," or living together by mutual agreement. without any marriage ceremony. The missionary proposed to such that they should be married agreeably to the usages in the free states. The leaders of the colored people were conversed with, and they, with-out exception, agreed as to the propriety of the measure. One, now advanced in life, said, that when he proposed to his companion to go to a minister and be lawfully married, she replied, "Oh, what use will it be ? Master can separate us to-morrow." But he coincided folly in the propriety of the proposed course.

Mr. Lockwood, after preaching on the sanctity of the marriage relation, proceeded to unite in wedlock several couples, among whom were some who had lived together for years. He gave each of the parties a certificate, in handsome form, which they seemed to prize very highly. It appeared to have a most beneficial effect upon the parties themselves, and the whole population.

--"Appendix," from Mary S. Peake, the Colored Teacher at Fortress Monroe, by Rev. Lewis C. Lockwood, (American Tract Society: 1862), 53-64

As to the false ideas touching chastity above referred to, the Commission believe that these can be in a great measure corrected by bringing practically to the notice of the refugees as soon as they come under the care of the superintendent the obligations of the married state in civilized life. Debarred as slaves from any legal union, often from any permanent connection, unable to contract a marriage that is not liable to be broken up at the will of the master, they usually regard it as a privilege appertaining to emancipation to be married "as white folks are." The Commission think that while compulsion in regard to this matter should be avoided, a judicious superintendent will, as a general rule, find no difficulty in inducing refugees when bringing with them those whom they acknowledge to be their wives and children, to consent to a ceremony which, while it legitimizes these relations, imposes upon the husband and father the legal obligation to support his family. This obligation and the duties connected with the family relation of civilized life should be carefully explained to these people, and while they remain under our care should be strictly maintained among them. The evidence before the Commission proves that with few exceptions they show themselves prompt to acknowledge and ready to fulfill such obligations.

If, however, cases should occur in which a refugee proves refractory and refuses to acknowledge as his wife, or to marry, the woman with whom he has been living and who is the mother of his children, he should no longer be allowed to cohabit with her or to live with the children; but if the proof of his previous relationship to them be sufficient, he should be compelled to contribute to their support from his wages in the same manner as if they were his family by legal marriage.


As to reform in the matter of chastity and marriage, it requires time and patience to bring it about. Much more than half the cases of personal difficulty requiring intervention among the emancipated negroes in South Carolina have arisen out of infractions of the marital relation. In this respect there is a marked difference between South Carolina and North Carolina. Yet, even in the former State the old habits are speedily yielding to better teaching.

General Saxton deposed:

Question. Were the women under the slave system taught chastity as a religious duty?

Answer. No, sir; they were taught that they must have a child once a year.

Question. Has your observation led you to believe that the refugees pay regard to the marriage ceremony?

Answer. Yes, sir; whenever it is solemnized, I think that they do.

It is here to be remarked that in the cities there appears to have been a nearer approach to recognized marriage and to conjugal fidelity than in the country, and that there the church succeeded better in repressing juvenile incontinence.

--The American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, Preliminary Report Touching the Condition and Management of Emancipated Refugees, June 30, 1863

The negro marriage-question puzzles the Dr. A negro man here wishes to retain, for his wife, a woman with whom he has lived happily for a year or more; but another woman upon the Island claims him for her husband, and does not give her consent to a separation; while he declares that his first wife is very ill-tempered and that it is impossible to live with her. The Dr. intends to invite some clergyman to visit the Island to marry all who wish to be married, and to make legal the relation between those who have already married themselves. He wishes to impress the Negroes with the sacredness of the relation. A few nights ago, we had a wedding in our dining-room; perhaps not a "sure enough" wedding. Indeed, the Dr doubting its legality, pronounced them man and wife "By virtue of the authority assumed by me."

--Lucy Chase to Her Family, Craney Island January 29, 1863

A letter from a woman to her “Dear husband” (who is not here) has been opened, and the woman is discovered to have told her husband that if he does not come to join her, she shall be obliged to get another “Bough”—Boy, I supposed she meant, but the Dr says “No, Beau.”

--Lucy Chase to Her Family, Craney Island January 29, 1863

After the service, there were six couples married. Some of the dresses were unique. One was particularly fine, — doubtless a cast-off dress of the bride’s former mistress. The silk and lace, ribbons, feathers and flowers, were in a rather faded and decayed condition. But, comical as the costumes were, we were not disposed to laugh at them. We were too glad to see the poor creatures trying to lead right and virtuous lives. The legal ceremony, which was formerly scarcely known among them, is now everywhere consecrated. The constant and earnest advice of the minister and teachers has not been given in vain; nearly every Sunday there are several couples married in church. Some of them are people who have grown old together.

Charlotte Forten, "Life on the Sea Islands," The Atlantic Monthly, May, 1864

The positive influence for good that emanates from the zealous friends who have made their home in Sabletown is marked in its results upon the reverential, receptive people. It seems like a well-regulated realm there. Forty couples, over whom “The Matrimonial” had never “been read,” because no state law could make it binding, were married in the church, while we were there, and were feasted at the Mission-house with huge slices of rich, frosted wedding cake, and lemonade without stint. The Superintendent of Contrabands united with one of the energetic teachers in compelling all living as man and wife to take the choice of separation or marriage. Many unwillingly assented to marriage, while others indicate a full appreciation of the necessity, propriety, and dignity of the ceremony. It was a strangely picturesque and impressive sight to see, in the twilight, the neatly dressed couples, moving from their various quarters and drawing near our doorway. Old men and women, hand in hand, coming up to their “bridal.” “Take her by the hand,” one old man said as he led his wife forward. Everyone had an air of serious modest reserve. Some were young enough to blush, and all seemed to say, “This is our marriage day.” After the ceremonies in the church, the newly married were invited to the house, where the great cakes were cut for them and the air was sweetened by the magnolias and brilliantly illuminated by the kerosene. Our good friends anticipate immediate and wholesome results from the occasion. The colored people easily assume the responsibilities, proprieties, and graces of civilized life.

--Letter from Lucy Chase, Richmond, VA., July 1, 1864

A good old Craney Island friend of ours, wise and faithful in her home relations, and conscientious and loving in her business relations with the whites on the Isd. found her first husband, a few weeks ago, in a crowd of supposed strangers at the Rope-walk. “Twas like a stroke of death to me,” she said, “We threw ourselves into each others arms and cried. His wife looked on and was jealous, but she needn’t have been.

My husband is so kind, I shouldn’t leave him if he hadn’t bad another wife, and of course I shouldn’t now. Yes, my husband’s very kind, but I ain’t happy. No. He hasn’t any enemy but himself as I knows on and perhaps I ought ‘nt to worry about him, but I do.” Thinking again of her first husband from whom she was early parted, she said, with keenest feeling, “White folk’s got a heap to answer for the way they’ve done to colored folks! So much they wont never pray it away!”

--Letter from Lucy Chase, Richmond, VA., July 1, 1864

The domestic relations of the freedmen, if indeed they can be said to have any, are, to use one of their own expressions, “the most twisted-up affairs conceivable.” This, however, is one of the legitimate fruits of slavery, and it will take many generations of freedom to bring them out of their present condition of chaos. What most surprises one in this connection is, that families having no legal bond hang together as well as they do.

“My husband and I have lived together fifteen years,” says the mother of a large family of children, “and we wants to be married over again now.”

“I have lived with my husband twenty-one years,” says another. “He has always been good to me, and my ways have pleased him, and so we are both satisfied.” “She is my fifth wife,” says an old man, of the present incumbent of his bed and board, “and I believe I could live with her anywhere.”

“They kept my husband away from me three years,” says Judy, “and tried to make me marry another man, but I wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t make me love anybody but Sam; of course they couldn’t, and I wouldn’t marry anybody else. But if my master found him on his grounds, he’d whip him; and if his aster knew of his being away fro home, he’d whip him; and then they sold him away, and I couldn’t hear where he was. After he had been gone three years, I was sick and master sent me to the doctor’s to be cured. One night I heard some one knocking at my doe, and I called out, ‘Who’s thar?’ ‘Sam!’ ‘Sam who?’ ‘You wouldn’t know any better than you does now if I tol’ you. I want to find the way to Dr. T’s.’ ‘You is at Dr. t’s now, but who is you.’ ‘My name is Sam, but they call me Sam Beverly.’ (They did call him Sam Beverly, because he ‘longed to Miss Harrit Beverly.) Then I got out of bed, and crawled to the doe, and opened it, and I says, ‘Sam, is this you?’ and he caught me in his arms, and says, ‘Judy is this you?’ and I was so glad, and after that I couldn’t get well fast enough. He had been sold back into that part of the country, and had got leave to come up to the doctor’s to see his wife. Then he coaxed his master to buy me, and we have lived together ever since, and that was eleven years ago. My owner said he wouldn’t sell me if I was well, but he thought I was going to die and sole me off his hands, so as not to lose me entirely.”

--"Domestic Relations of the Freedmen," The National Freedman. A Monthly Journal Devoted to the Promotion of Freedom, Industry, Education, and Christian Morality in the South. May, 1866, 143-145

That the negro is capable of the truest and most devoted affection, and that his heart, in absence is afflicted with the same longing for kindred as the heart which throbs under a white skin, is attested by abundant proof. Witness the anxiety of mothers peering into every strange face, to see if they can discern some trace of the long-lost child, their agonized expressions, when attempting to relate the horrible tale of separation, old men begging to have letters written to the place where their boys were last heard from, children undertaking long and tiresome journeys because they can not repress the yearning to see once more the face of the old father or mother if peradventure they be yet alive.

--"Domestic Relations of the Freedmen," The National Freedman. A Monthly Journal Devoted to the Promotion of Freedom, Industry, Education, and Christian Morality in the South. May, 1866, 143-145

I don't know whether I have told you Laura Spicers story. She was sold from her husband some years ago, and he, hearing she was dead, married again. He has had a wavering inclination to again unite his fortunes with hers; and she has been persistent in urging him to do so. A few days ago she received a letter from him in which he said, "I read your letters over and over again. I keep them always in my pocket. If you are married I don't ever want to see you again." And yet, in some of his letters, he says, "I would much rather you would get married to some good man, for every time I gits a letter from you it tears me all to pieces. The reason why I have not written you before, in a long time, is because your letters disturbed me so very much. You know I love my children. I treats them good as a Father can treat his children; and I do a good deal of it for you. I was very sorry to hear that Lewellyn, my poor little son, have had such bad health. I would come and see you but I know you could not bear it. I want to see you and I don't want to see you. I love you just as well as I did the last day I saw you, and it will not do for you and I to meet. I am married, and my wife have two children, and if you and I meets it would make a very dissatisfied family.''

Some of the children are with the mother, and the father writes, "Send me some of the children's hair in a separate paper with their names on the paper. Will you please git married, as long as I am married. My dear, you know the Lord know both of our hearts. You know it never was our wishes to be separated from each other, and it never was our fault. Oh, I can see you so plain, at any-time, I had rather anything to had happened to me most that ever have been parted from you and the children. As I am, I do not know which I love best, you or Anna. If I was to die, today or tomorrow, I do not think I would die satisfied till you tell me you will try and marry some good, smart man that will take good care of you and the children; and do it because you love me; and not because I think more of the wife I have got than I do of you. The woman is not born that feels as near to me as you do. You feel this day like myself. Tell them they must remember they have a good father and one that cares for them and one that thinks about them every day. My very heart did ache when reading your very kind and interesting letter. Laura I do not think that I have change any at all since I saw you last. I thinks of you and my children every day of my life. Laura I do love you the same. My love to you never have failed. Laura, truly, I have got another wife, and I am very sorry, that I am. You feels and seems to me as much like my dear loving wife, as you ever did Laura. You know my treatment to a wife and you know how I am about my children. You know I am one man that do love my children.

--Lucy Chase, 1869?


The Complex Family Histories of Freedmen:
Examples from One Letter

Our young Ary, one of our clothing-room assistants, pines for a young child she was forced to leave behind her when she ran away and which died, soon after she left it. She looked long, and fondly, one day, at a child's skirt, saying, "Once that belonged to some dear little baby." She told us her story, one day. "Young Master was the father of my baby, and he was very fond of it. He made me dress it clean, three times a day, and he was never tired of playing with it and calling it pet names. One day the nurse put it in a tub of water and got a grit in its eye, and I thought he'd go mad about it. We always played together from the time we were little children. Old Master was the richest man in Virginia. He's all out doors secesh. His sons were Union and Anti-Slavery. Oh, how he would quarrel with them, and swear to them! He'd make his daughters kiss the bible, every morning, and say they would not give anyone a rasher of meat. Ive seen ten cargoes of negroes sold on his plantation, at once. They came and tied young Masters hands and feet together, and took him off to the war. He used to write to me, and a young lady who was in love with his brother used to read me his letters." "Did your Master's sisters know how intimate you were with him?" I asked. "Oh, yes, indeed," she said, "and they were all as fond of me as he was, and of the baby too. The baby was very white, and looked just like him. When the cavalry came and took off young Master's brother, I had gone to the point, four miles, and got a woman to mind my baby while I was gone. Master's brother rode up to me and said, 'Don't go back Ary I'll take charge of the child. It shall go to my house, hurry to the Union Army.' And the next thing I knew, in four weeks, the babys father wrote me that baby had died. He said I must not grieve, that it was a great deal better off now than it would be with me. That he should try very hard to get to the Union, but he was afraid he could not. That if I found any-body I loved, I must marry him, and try to be happy. He used to say he should go mad if I left him. He always stood up for the North, and found fault with the South. His mother came from the North. O, baby could walk, and could say almost anything. He would not let me have anything to do with colored men; he said they weren't good enough for me. He was my cousin, and he named the baby for his uncle."

"How old are you," said Mrs Brown to a woman one day. "Oh, I ant but thirty-five. I ant done breedin yet. I reckon breedin ages a woman." "I ant done breedin yet" is a frequent statement here. We are in Virginia. Anne Devor, another of our clothing-women, says she was always hired out to her husband, at first for ten dollars a month, then for five, and then for nothing, because she was breeding. (She has lost her six children.) . . . .

Sandy and his wife have just been called behind my chair by the Dr. "Well Sandy, will your wife be comfortable at Fort Norfolk if I let her join you there?" "Well, Lucy, where's your other husband?" "They sent him off Christmas before last sir." "I don't know about these things. In the North we should not allow such things. You don't love this husband, so well as you did your other, do you Lucy?" "Yes, sir, better." "Well, if he should go off, and some fine-looking man should come along, what should you do?" "I'll never have another husband sir, if I ever get destituted of this one." "But, supposing your other husband should come and claim you?" "Well, where's your other wife Sandy?" "She's the only one I ever contained Sir." "Well, supposing you take a notion to take some other wife, some day?" "The way I've felt Dr, ever since I was a boy, was if ever I saw a woman I loved well enough to marry, to stick to her as long as I could." "Then you think you'll never leave her Sandy?" "I put myself with her suh to do as well with her, Suh, as long as I can stay with her, suh." "Did you ever want to go into the army Sandy?" "Yes, Sir, I did, indeed, sir. That Seven days battle at Gaines' Hill, I wanted to go into, dreadful bad, but they would not let me, Suh." "Do you think many of your people would be willing to fight?" "Oh yes suh from now to Saturday night you'd have all you wanted Suh!" ''Would you be willing to fight, rather than go back into slavery?" "Yes, Suh. I wouldn't ha come away Suh, if I hadn't felt willin to fight suh. I have been in some scrimmages. I drove an army-wagon in Hooker's division three months and two days." "Well, Sandy you've got a nice wife and Lucy you've got a nice husband. When you get to Fort Norfolk have the chaplain of some regiment marry you."

--Lucy Chase, Craney Island, March 4, 1863?


"They Know How to Love:"
Freedmen's Teachers Describe Reunions

We are frequently charmed with the delicacy and tenderness with which the Negroes express affection for each other. They know how to love, and how to remember. We sometimes witness the unexpected meeting of scattered members of a family. When the John Tucker was at the C. Isd wharf a little girl who had wondered where she should go, as she had no friends to go with, or to go to, strolled upon the deck of the steamer and found in one of the hands her father!

--Lucy Chase to her Family, Craney Island, VA., September 30, 1863

My sister saw many reunions yesterday. One woman came to her, leading a girl of eighteen, and said, “See my daughter, they sold her away from me when she was just old enough to rock a cradle, and see how they’ve done her bad, see how they’ve cut her up. From her head to her feet she is scarred just as you see her face.”A man from one of the farms just came to me for a blanket, saying, “I make out tolerably well myself, but my children, you see it grieves my mind.”

-- Lucy Chase to Anna Lowell, Norfolk, VA, November 29, 1863

We were also told the story of two girls, one about ten, the other fifteen, who, having been taken by their master up into the country, on the mainland, at the time of the capture of the islands, determined to try to escape to their parents, who had been left on this island. They stole away at night, and travelled through woods and swamps for two days, without, eating. Sometimes their strength gave out, and they would sink down, thinking they could go no farther; but they had brave little hearts, and got up again and struggled on, till at last they reached Port-Royal Ferry, in a state of utter exhaustion. They were seen there by a boat-load of people who were also making their escape. The boat was too full to take them in; but the people, on reaching this island, told the children’s father of their whereabouts, and he immediately took a boat, and hastened to the ferry. The poor little creatures were almost wild with joy when they saw him. When they were brought to their mother, she fell down “jes’ as if she was dead,”— so our informant expressed it, — overpowered with joy on beholding the “lost who were found.”

--Charlotte Forten, "Life on the Sea Islands" The Atlantic Monthly, May and June, 1864

A sweet voiced blind woman--caressing her bright little girl--sat in the chimney corner--a sympathetic listener; --and the tears flowed down her cheeks as she heard of little Nellie's death--'Dey tought I'd no feelins when my children died'--said she; 'cause I didnt cry: but dey wouldn't give me time to tend em but kep me hard at work, so I couldn't get a chance to give em a drop of cool water in dere burnin lips: --so when dey died I couldn't shed a tear--bad as I felt--cause I tought--now deys whar dey'll get taken keer of. I'se served em (the Southrons) all my life--honey! for nuffin--and now I'm got old and blind and crippled doin for dem--cause I'se no account now to dem dey turns me off onto government--rich as dey is--cause dey grudges de little cornmeal I'd eat in de few days dats lef me --But I tanks de good Lord de Governor (=ment) cares for me, and lets me have my child.

--Sarah Chase to Fred W. G. May, Norfolk, Virginia, January 23, 1865


Visions of Freedmen as Christians

While many freedmen's aid societies were sponsored by particular religious sects and engaged in active missionary work on behalf of their churches, even freedmen's teachers from non-sectarian organizations were committed to promoting religion. In their letters, teachers often speak approvingly of the sincerity of the freedmen's religious beliefs and of the frequent occasions on which African-Americans ask to be taught how to read passages from the Bible. Yet, teachers and other Northerners often regarded the expressions of emotion they witnessed at African-American religious services as evidence of "barbarism."



Freedmen's teachers often distributed Bibles and incorporated Bible reading and religious instruction into their lessons. However, they also assumed that when they taught freedmen how to read, they were also providing the former slaves with the opportunity to advance their religious knowledge. This assumption was an echo of the Puritan tradition that had helped shape America's Protestant culture.

Puritans had regarded education as a means of preparing people not only for this world but also the next. Harvard was founded in 1836, only sixteen years after the first permanent settlement was established in Massachusetts, in order "to provide for the instruction of the people in piety, morality, and learning." In 1842, the colony of Massachusetts adopted a statute "taking into consideration the great neglect of many parents and guardians in training up their children in learning and labor and other employment which may be profitable to the Commonwealth . . . that chosen men in every town are to redress this evil, are to have power to take account of parents, masters, and of their children, especially of their ability to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of the country." And in 1647, Massachusetts adopted an act requiring the establishment of public schools, a law that was subsequently accepted through most of New England and eventually paved the way for the common-school system of education. The text of "The General School Act of 1647" makes it clear that one purpose of literacy is to provide a means to salvation:

It being one cheife piect of ye ould deluder, Satan, to keepe men from the knowledge of ye Scriptures, as in formr times by keeping ym in an unknowne tongue, so in these lattr times by pswading from ye use of tongues, yt so at least ye true sense & meaning of ye originall might be clouded by false glosses of saint seeming deceivers, yt learning may not be buried in ye grave of or fathrs in ye church & comonwealth, the Lord assisting or endeavors . . .

Clipping from a Civil War Scrapbook, American Antiquarian Society

During the antebellum period, prohibitions against teaching slaves to read or write had strengthened the power of the owners. On a practical level, illiteracy had made it less likely that slaves would be able to forge passes or read maps or signs, and thus less likely that slaves would be able to escape. Slaves who could not read were left reliant on their masters for information about the world. It was only after learning to read that Frederick Douglass became aware of the abolitionist movement, and conscious for the first time that there were people who believed slavery was wrong.

And slaves who could not read were also reliant on their masters' ministers for information about religion. While the Protestant tradition places a high value on the ability of the individual to read the Bible independently, that ability had a particular significance for former slaves, most of whom had been taught that the Bible said they should obey their masters.

Consider the excerpts below from George Freemen's 1837 sermon: The Rights and Duties of Slaveholders and then go on to read the anecdote about a former slaves first encounter with Bible passages read by a Northerner.


"In the Sweat of Thy Face Shalt Thou Eat Bread"

Discourse I. Colossians IV.I: Masters give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a master in heaven.

The strict meaning of the word here rendered servants, is bondmen or slaves. In this sense, particularly when applied, as here, to a distinct class of men, it is believed to be uniformly employed in the New Testament, especially in the Epistles.

Slavery, it appears, is of great antiquity. It has existed in the world, in some form or other, even from the times immediately following, if not before the flood. It may be regarded as one of the penal consequences of sin--an effect of that doom pronounced upon the human race in consequence of the disobedience of our first parents, whereby perpetual labour was entailed upon man as the only means of sustaining life--"Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto the ground."

Though this sentence was passed upon mankind generally, it was not to be expected, that its effects would continue for any length of time to be felt by all alike. There would, of necessity, very soon arise an inequality e men. The Father, s the head of the family, would of course direct and command the labours of his children; and as the number of these increased, and the operations of the household became, in consequence, expanded, his time would be more and more occupied in planning and superintending the labours of the rest, until, in process of tie, he would find it essential to the welfare of the whole, that he should withdraw entirely from manual toil, and devote himself exclusively to cares and labours of a different kind.

So, also, as society advanced and the human race multiplied in the earth, the idleness of some, the incapacity of others, and the vices of a still greater number, would lead to greater inequalities. The wants of the idle and improvident, would, after a while, constrain them to enter the service of the more industrious and prudent; the incapable and weak would naturally become dependent upon the intelligent and strong; and a regard to the common safety, if bi other cause, would ultimately lead to something like the enslaving of the lawless and violent.

To such a state of things had the world advanced long before the establishment of the Mosaic Institutions. Subordination in society existed everywhere. Servitude was recognized as a necessary condition, and patiently, if not cheerfully, submitted to, in every variety of form. Patriarchs, or heads of families, held in subjection to their authority, not only the inferior branches of their respective tribes, together with their hired labourers and menials, but also servants "bought with their money," or "born in their houses"--that is, slaves.* (See Genesis xiv. 24, 25--svi. 6,90--xvii. 12. 13.)

[Note: Here the author goes on to describe the nature and extent of slavery in the Roman world.]


Such were the nature and extent of slavery in the world, when our Saviour appeared, to proclaim "peace on earth, and good will to men"--to preach the glad tidings of salvation to a ruined world--to redeem us from sin and everlasting death, and to "open the kingdom of Heaven to all believers." And how did he regard it? What had he to say of this institution, as he found it existing among the people he came to save? Did he condemn it as anti-scriptural and unjust? Did he enjoin on his disciples an immediate emancipation of their slaves? Did he so much as caution his followers against purchasing them in the future? Not a word, disapproving the practice, ever fell from his lips. As a settled civil institution of the Empire, he meddled not with it, of course--for his "kingdom", as he declared "was not of this world." He came not to remodel the governments--he came not to reform the civil institutions of the world--he came "to seek and to save that which was lost." But in the course of his ministry, he must have come in contact with many individuals who were holders of slaves; and surely, had he regarded them as living in the habitual commission of a 'moral wrong,' he would scarcely have forborne, on some occasion, to express his indignation. And did he never rebuke them for holding their fellow-men in bondage? Did he never give them to understand that, if they would be his disciples, they must set their slaves at liberty? No, Brethren, nothing of the kind occurs in his whole history. On the contrary, it appears that he habitually inclined to discountenance the dissevering of those ties which he found binding society together. He sought to reform the hearts and lives of men, and to fit them for Heaven; not to change their relative condition on earth. Indeed, so far was he from anathematizing those who were owners of slaves, it seems he once passed a very high encomium on one of this class--on a Heathen Slave-holder! Of the Centurion--an officer in the Roman army--who applied to him on behalf of a sick servant, upon his declining the honor of a personal visit from our Lord, and arguing, "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof; but speak the word only, and my servant (slave) shall be healed; for I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me; and I say unto one, go, and he goeth, and to another come, and he cometh, and to my servant (so slave) do this, and he doeth it"--of him, we are told, that Jesus "said to them that followed, verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith; no, not in Israel.

Neither do we find anything in the writings of the Apostles condemnatory of slavery. The relation of Master and Slave is frequently spoken of, but never with one word of disapprobation. The relative duties of each are inculcated with freedom and earnestness, in the same manner as are those of other relations subsisting among men, such as parents and children, husbands and wives, magistrates and citizens; while no intimation whatever is given that that particular one is more inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the gospel than the rest. Indeed we are furnished with one remarkable instance, in which an Apostle appears to have been instrumental, not in setting at liberty, (as some over-benevolent persons in our day are forward to do) but in reclaiming and sending back to his master, A FUGITIVE SLAVE! I allude to the case of Onemsimus. Phileon, it appears, was a Christian--a convert of St. Paul's--and a slaveholder. His slave Onesimus had eloped from his master; but meeting St. Paul in his travels, he became a convert to the Christian Faith, and now, under the influence of Christian principle set home to his conscience, doubtless by the faithful exertion of the Apostle, he resolved on returning to his master's service. This occasion sees to have led to the writing of the "Epistle to Philemon," of which this very Oensimus was the bearer.*

*Footnote: Some strenuous advocates of emancipation, the author is aware, have sought to give this transaction a somewhat different aspect. From the expressions used by the Apostle (vs. 16-21) they have inferred that he did not mean to consign Onesimus again to bondage; confidently trusting that since his conversion he would no longer be regarded by Philemon as a slave, but be received and acknowledged not only as a Christian brother, but as an equal. A candid examination of the Epistle, however, must, it is thought, satisfy every impartial mind that the view given above is the correct one. Certainly, it is the one maintained by the generality of commentators. Bloom field (notes on the Greek Testament) on the expression (v. 15) "that thou shouldst receive him forever," remarks, "this is not only meant to engage that he shall not run away again, but to suggest another and affecting consideration; 'for if,' as Dr. Burton observes, 'Onesimus had continued a heathen, Philemon might have had him a servant for life, but after that they would have been separated; now, they would be companions forever, in this world and the next."

--from George W. Freeman's The Rights and Duties of Slaveholders: Two Discourses Delivered on Sunday, November 27, 1836, in Christ Church, Raleigh, North-Carolina, 1837


"The Blessed Light of Knowledge"

One Saturday evening one of them asked me to call and see him at his home the next morning. I did so, and he handed me a Bible belonging to his mistress, who had died a few days before, and whose bier I had helped to carry to the family vault. He wanted me to read to him the eleventh chapter of Daniel. It seemed, that, as one of the means of keeping them quiet, the white clergymen during the winter and spring had read them some verses from it to show that the South would prevail, enforcing passages which ascribed great dominion to "the king of the South," and suppressing those which subsequently give the supremacy to "the king of the North." A colored man who could read had found the latter passages and made them known. The chapter is dark with mystery, and my auditor, quite perplexed as I read on, remarked, "The Bible is a very mysterious book." I read to him also the thirty-fourth chapter of Jeremiah, wherein the sad prophet of Israel records the denunciations by Jehovah of sword, pestilence, and famine against the Jews for not proclaiming liberty to their servants and handmaids. He had not known before that there were such passages in the Bible.

--Edward L. Pierce, "The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe," Atlantic Monthly, November 1861

A very bright woman came to Sarah yesterday, and asked her if she would “Expound the Bible to her” saying, “I can read myself, but I am mighty desirous to have you read it to me. I am learning in a broken manner, now.”

--Lucy Chase, Craney Island, South Carolina., January 29, 1863

I do not wonder at the quickness with which they learn to read. I have taken a colored woman from her wash tubs where she earned daily bread for herself and family, and she has learned all the letters, to spell several words, and to write them all, in one day. And in six weeks she could extract bread of life from the Bible for herself, and the blessed light of knowledge shone into the dark places of her mind I am truly thankful, and proud as colored people [word?] , I have been the instrument God used to enlighten her darkness, and that of others also.

I remember the woman of whom I spoke said she did not want to learn the letters, “I want to learn to read the bible, these only block up my mind!” Then I said, “I want you to go to the shoe maker and tell him to cut me out a pair of shoes all whole, made without [seams?] I will not have them first cut in pieces” Then she laughed and understood when I shoed her how the letters were parts of the word, as B in Boy, and in the alphabet. If these freed people are at once instructed, their freedom will from the first be a blessing to them. They have so kept their faith while wandering in the wilderness, of others sins that the true [?] may at once guide them to the good Land flowing with the milk of kindness, and the honey of knowledge, and blessed shall be the friendly hand that leads them.

--Rebecca Spring to freedmen's teacher Lucy Chase, New York, November 22, 1863

In Alexandria we visited the Colored Hospital, and found there many deeply interesting cases. It was most instructive to see the young and the aged alike stirred with devotional feeling, and to observe how that blessed Comforter, who is "no respecter of persons," was soothing many a lowly, untutored heart, and softening many a dying pillow. One poor, stupid, almost loathsome-looking, youth, said he had been waiting on an officer in the navy, and had taken his sickness from sleeping out on the boards in all kinds of weather. He appeared to be one revolting mass of disease; yet his poor parched lips whispered his love for Jesus, and a little gleam of light spread over his swollen features when one spoke to him of this precious Friend of the friendless, and he said, in broken accents, " I tinks of Him often, — He all de comfort I got, " A few of these men had learned to read since their emancipation; but most were yet unable. One old man, whose heart seemed aglow with love to the Redeemer, but whose only outward knowledge of him had been gained from their own class-meetings, amongst people probably as ignorant as himself, was asked if he would like to have a copy of the New Testament, from which any visitor could read ft chapter or a few verses to him in passing. He started back, with a sort of holy horror, at the thought of any thing new in religion, — asking if it was different from the good book that told about Jesus and he did'nt want any thing else. When assured that this was a part of the Bible, and would tell him all about the Saviour, — how he suffered and died for us, and is now in heaven, ready to plead for and to save all who come to him in sincerity, — the poor old man eagerly accepted the proffered volume, saying he had children, and would leave it to them when he died.

--"Anecdotes and Incidents of a Visit to Freedmen," The Freedmen's Record, October, 1865

Aunt Caroline brought her basket of patchwork; and while I sat by her she told me how she had been at work the past summer to accumulate, sufficient money, that she might afford to come to the free school when it opened. She has made and sold two quilts, taken in washing and ironing. and carefully laid by the money for use during the long winter, in which she hopes to accumulate something more lasting. She told me that she was able to read from the Bible last Sunday, for the first time in her life. By spelling each word, she was able to read, " Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. " Tears filled her eyes as she told me what a great blessing it was to her to be able to read the Bible alone.

--Mrs. C. G. Howard, "Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, December, 1865



The emotionally charged services of the freedmen--which often included lively singing, and exclamations from members of the congregation--sometimes provoked the disapproval of the teachers. The teachers feared that such displays might express a belief based on emotion rather than devotion, superstition rather than reflection. Even so, the power of the preaching and response sometimes won the admiration of the Northern onlookers.

While the religious practices of the freedmen were occasionally criticised, the religious faith of the freedmen won universal admiration from their Northern observers. Letters written by freedmen's teachers--like the one on the right--often included included verbal sketches of men and women whose piety seemed to serve as a guarantee of their fitness for citizenship.



"The Contraband Camp at City Point--An Evening Prayer Service--From a Sketch by Our Special Artist, Joseph Becker," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, October 1, 1864


Mixed Responses to the Religious Practices of the Freedmen

Out of the sixty-four who worked for us, all but half a dozen were members of the Church, generally the Baptist. Although without a pastor, they held religious meetings on the Sundays which we passed in Hampton, which were attended by about sixty colored persons and three hundred soldiers. The devotions were decorously conducted, bating some loud shouting by one or two excitable brethren, which the better sense of the rest could not suppress. Their prayers and exhortations were fervent, and marked by a simplicity which is not infrequently the richest eloquence. The soldiers behaved with entire propriety, and two exhorted them with pious unction, as children of one Father, ransomed by the same Redeemer.

--Edward L. Pierce, "The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe," Atlantic Monthly, November 1861

As a part of the plan proposed, missionaries will be needed to address the religious element of a race so emotional in their nature, exhorting to all practical virtues, and inspiring the laborers with a religious zeal for faithful labor, the good nurture of their children, and for clean and healthful habits.

--E. L. Pierce, The Negroes at Port Royal: Report of E.L. Pierce, Government Agent, to the Hon. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, 1862


Not a few of the freedmen, though illiterate, exhibit remarkable powers of eloquence. The missionary, in describing the address of one of them, after a discourse by the former, says, "The address was a masterpiece. It melted every heart. He appealed to the soldiers present who were in rebellion against God, striving to put down rebellion this land, and asked them how they, who hail been taught to read the Bible, and had learned the Lord's Prayer in infancy from a mother's lips, could stand in judgment, when a poor, despised, and inferior race, who, though denied the Bible, had been taught of God, and found their way to Christ, should rise up and condemn them. He then tuned to his fellow 'contrabands,' and entreated them to embrace thankfully, and improve, the boon already given. He considered the present a pledge of the future —the virtual emancipation of fifteen or eighteen hundred the promise of the emancipation of fur millions. The Lord works from little to great."


The missionary wrote: "Last Thursday I had an opportunity to observe the intellectual state of a considerable number of the brethren at a church meeting. I was surprised at their understanding and wisdom in regard to church order and propriety, and tone of discipline. As the church records had been burned up in the church edifice at Hampton, I inquired how far any of them could recall their contents. One or two replied that they could almost repeat the church regulations from memory.

"In the discussion, high ground was taken in regard to the Sabbath, the temperance cause, and other matters of Christian morality. In discipline, stress was laid on the propriety and duty of private admonition, in its successive scriptural steps, before public censure. On this point one brother said he had privately admonished a neighbor of the impropriety of taking articles to the camp on the Sabbath, and lie had acknowledged his fault, and promised amendment. The duty of for-giving offenders, and undoing wrongs, was also insisted on. Several had been improperly excluded from church privileges through the influence of white power. It was, therefore, decided to-day that those who had the confidence of the church should be restored to church-fellowship unconditionally."

One of the members, and an aged leader, stated that he had on one occasion been seized by a white deacon, dragged down from the gallery, and threatened with thirty-nine lashes, because there was a little of the Methodist in his composition, and he had "got happy and shouted in meeting."

On another occasion, William Davis concluded some remarks as follows: "I hope that all of you, old and young, will learn to read, as I did. When I was converted, I was anxious to learn to read God's book. I kneeled down by my book, [he here kneeled by the table,] and prayed that Gal would teach me to read it — if only a little, I would be thankful. And I learned, and yon can if you will, for you have no one to hinder you, as I had. We should all show that we are worthy of freedom. Only educate on, and we will show ourselves capable of knowledge. Some say we have not the same faculties and feelings with white folks. All we want is cultivation. What would the best soil produce without cultivation? We want to get wisdom. That is all we need. Let us get that, and we are made for time and eternity."

--Rev. Lewis C. Lockwood, "Appendix" from Mary S. Peake, the Colored Teacher at Fortress Monroe, 1862

At one of their prayer-meetings, which we attended, last night, we saw a painful exhibition of their barbarism. Their religious feeling is purely emotional; void of principle, and of no practical utility. The Dr says they will rise from prayer and lie or steal, if the way opens therefore.

--Letter from Lucy Chase, January 15, 1862

At a conference meeting they can pray and sing apparently with great sincerity. Bro. Rich conducted the services an evening or two since, and having finished, invited his brethren to add their testimony. One brother rose and remarked, “Brudder Rich has come a long way to teach us good things, and we must seek to beautify the Lord’s tabernacle by whitewashing it, and a hat will be passed round to obtain the necessary means. I hope it will be carried unanimouse.” A sum but little short of $5 was raised on the spot.

-- Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 29, 1862, 310

The Dr catechised Nancy last evening, and found she needed no religious teacher. "Nancy do you believe in so much excitement as your people work themselves into when in meetings?" "No, sir, I dont." "What do you think of, Nancy?" "Oh its self, they can deceive man, but they can't deceive God. They sees each other doing so; and so they does it." "Where is heaven, Nancy." "Heaven can be here below sir, as well as above." "What sort of a place is it, Nancy?" "I cant tell temporarily, that is discerned spiritually." "Do you think hair will be straight there, Nancy?" "Oh, yes sir, hair will be straight there." "Do you think the slave-holders will go to heaven?" "If Massa's good he'll go to heaven with all the rest of the just." "What is your idea of God, Nancy?" "He's all in a smile," said Nancy, adding, after a pause, "he smiles on the just, and he frowns on the unjust." "What is your idea of the Devil?" "He's meesable, he's meesable." "Well, what does he look like?" "Well, the Devil has got such a disagree-able look that it's out of my power to tell how he do look. He drags his tail, too, oh, its so disagreeable. He looks naturally; sometimes like a man, sometimes like a beast." "Well Nancy what do you think about baptism?" "Its one of Gods commandments. He say if we neglect one commandment, we neglect all." "Do you think no one will be saved who is not baptized?" "It is the pure in heart what see God," said Nancy. Oh how charming Nancy is! I really love to be ruled by her. She is motherly, kind, fond as one's aunt, and indulgent as a grandma.

--Lucy Chase, February 7, 1863

At the last m'tg we attended, the Dr preached a sermon on practical religion. He loses no opportunity to impress upon the noisy worshippers that boisterous Amens, wild, dancing-dervish flourishes--, "Oh thats the Devil!," exclamations--Yu-oo's, raw-aw-aw's, Ru-u-u-uh's and pandemoniamies generally, do not constitute religion.

--Lucy Chase, March 4, 1863

As a general rule, however, the religion of the South Carolinian slave was emotional, and did not necessarily connect itself with the suppression of vicious habits, but rather with church observances. It produced, indeed, submission, humility, resignation, reliance on Providence, obedience to masters; but its effect in checking lying, thieving, incontinence, and similar offenses was feeble and uncertain. A slave has seldom any distinct moral perception that he ought to speak the truth, or to respect private property in the case of a person he dislikes, but these people are easily reached through their affections.

--The American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, Preliminary Report Touching the Condition and Management of Emancipated Refugees, June 30, 1863

One woman who always came to the school at the first sound of the bell, said to me, one morning, “I feel so anxious to learn ! Every once in awhile I come to the name of God,—and the love of it, the name is so sweet, I can’t help trying to learn!” We often hear the negroes singing this— Jesus been here, been here, been here,—Dun bless my soul, and gone.” Some of them show, unmistakably, that their souls are blessed.

--Lucy Chase to her Family, Craney Island, VA., September 30, 1863

On this, as on several other large plantations, there is a “Praise-House,” which is the special property of the people. Even in the old days of Slavery, they were allowed to hold meetings here; and they still keep up the custom. They assemble on several nights of the week, and on Sunday afternoons. First, they hold what is called the “Praise-Meeting,” which consists of singing, praying, and preaching. We have heard some of the old negro preachers make prayers that were really beautiful and touching. In these meetings they sing only the church-hymns which the Northern ministers have taught them, and which are far less suited to their voices than their own. At the close of the Praise-Meeting they all shake hands with each other in the most solemn manner. Afterward, as a kind of appendix, they have a grand “shout,” during which they sing their own hymns. Maurice, an old blind man, leads the singing. He has a remarkable voice, and sings with the greatest enthusiasm. The first shout that we witnessed in the Praise-House impressed us very much. The large, gloomy room, with its blackened walls, —the wild, whirling dance of the shouters,—the crowd of dark, eager faces gathered around,—the figure of the old blind man, whose excitement could hardly be controlled, and whose attitude and gestures while singing were very fine, —and over all, the red glare of the burning pine-knot, which shed a circle of light around it, but only seemed to deepen and darken the shadows in the other parts of the room, — these all formed a wild, strange, and deeply impressive picture, not soon to be forgotten.

Maurice’s especial favorite is one of the grandest hymns that we have yet heard: —

“De tallest tree in Paradise
De Christian calls de Tree oh Life,
An’ I hope dat trumpet blow me home
To my New Jerusalem.


“Blow, Gabriel! trumpet, blow louder, louder!
An’ I hope dat trumpet blow me home
To my New Jerusalem!

“Paul and Silas jail-bound Sing God’s praise both night and day,
An’ I hope dat trumpet blow me home
To my New Jerusalem.


“Blow, Gabriel! trumpet, blow louder, louder!
An’ I hope dat trumpet blow me home
To my New Jerusalem!

--Charlotte Forten, "Life on the Sea Islands" The Atlantic Monthly, May and June, 1864

”They begin with a meeting and end with a party, don’t they?” my sister said - And so it seems. The excitable people protract their evening meetings far into the night. It is customary with them to continue the exercises of prayer and singing after the benediction has been pronounced. Their spiritual gratifications are emotional, rather than rational, and they rock, and sing, and wail, and bowl, till their own most lazy patience is exhausted It is very common for a large congregation to accompany the preacher, or prayer, by a wailing chant, swaying their bodies all the time, and often drowning the voice of the speaker. It is usually the women alone who are so unseemly. In their prayer-meetings, one or many grow “Happy,” jump, and spin, throw their arms into the air, embrace those near them, shake all the bands they can reach, screech words of religious rapture, and give an occasional staccato howl, -- horrible and startling. The minister has great control over these exhibitions. Some ministers will not countenance them, and check them easily; but most of them encourage the noisy. It is an important question how fast and how far it would be advisable for the whites to check such customs. The congregations have manifested determined opposition to settling white preachers. Few white men would have the tact gently to leave their loving spirits. The lash and the auctionblock could dictate to them, but not the preacher. They must find out that their way is not the best way, without being told so, or they will never change it.

--Letter from Lucy Chase, July 1, 1864

Perhaps the most marked characteristic of the blacks, in distinction from the poor and ignorant of other races I have chanced to observe, is their religious susceptibility. All their songs are religious, or, at least, are filled with expressions borrowed from the Bible or the camp-meeting. Coming over from St. Helena yesterday, in a row-boat with about twenty of them, they were singing all the way strange responsive chants or melodies, of which the women would sing the burden, and the stout oarsmen every once in a while burst out with the refrain, " An I heard from Heaben to-day." These songs, much to my surprise, were all cheerful in their tendency, and all in the major key. I had read much of the plaintive airs of the slaves; but have not heard one since I came among them. There seems to be no room for sorrow in their hearts, now that they are free; nothing but gratitude to God for their great deliverance. Not but that they have their vices, and these the very ones with which the white man has the least patience. Lying and cheating seem the incorrigible sins of the negro. The most earnestly religious are frequently guilty of them. Yet no candid observer calls them hypocrites. They are rather babes and sucklings, whose character has not been ripened into consistency and self-reliance by the light of a free and Christian civilization. They have been taught to imitate and extenuate all the crimes of the master, because he was their superior, and to excuse all their own, because they were his inferior, — " nuffin but a nigger noways,"— what wonder that their degraded and brutal habits cling tightly to them still, and what true-hearted man would not regard them with charity?

--James P. Blake, "Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, February, 1865

The  other evening, just at sunset, I called a meeting in the schoolroom, and explained to them our motives, plans, and circumstances; inviting their confidence, friendship, and assistance. At the close of my remarks, a white-headed patriarch, unsolicited, kneeled down, and poured out a most fervent and eloquent prayer to Almighty God, to shield from harm, and bless in every Way, these kind friends who had left their pleasant homes and their beloved families, “to come way down here for de love us poor niggers, jas as de Lord Jesus Christ leff he home in de hebens for de love of wicked sinners.” The sun went down while be prayed; and, as soon as he concluded, a rich voice struck up the hymn, —" Oh for a thousand tongues to bless My great Redeemer’s," which was sung by the whole assembly with great feeling; the darkness and the occasion seeming to inspire them with peculiar emotion. Such scenes may not interest you at the North; but they do inspire those who work here with a deep sense of the sacredness of their mission and encourage them to believe that they shall reap the fruits of their toil in due season.

--"Extracts from Teachers' Letters," The Freedmen's Record, April, 1865

I find the colored people, as a class, are very religious, and seem sincere. They often make remarks quite amusing. "Uncle, why do you make so much noise in your meetings?" "Why! didn't ye ever read in your Bible, that hollered be thy name?" was the ready reply. They always crave a lessing upon "Abram Lincum;" and seldom omit to pray for "our teachers, who have come so far to teach us."

--Mary C. Fletcher, Norfolk Virginia, "Extracts from Teacher's Letters," The Freedmen's Record, May, 1865, 76-77.

Having a strong desire to see as much as possible of the freedman, in their various phases of life and character, and especially to mingle in their devotional exercises, we attended one of their meetings on first-day afternoon. And here we would say, before introducing a description of these occasions, that we have no wish to bring a shade of ridicule over them, but merely to convey to unfamiliar minds some idea of the simplicity and originality of the people, — and, by sometimes giving their own language, to increase the force and interest of the narrative. Many people were assembled when we reached the meeting-house, and more came in afterward, — in all probably about three hundred. They were singing when we entered; but soon one of the ministers opened his sermon with the words, " The Lord is my rock and my foretrust; for thy name's sake I will not fear," — a text of his own arranging; and his exposition of it was marvellously energetic. He went rapidly from one point to another of the Psalmist's experience, and gradually brought it down to personal application, — asking his hearers if they "had not often known their own feet brought out of the snares that were sot so prevalent for them, and fixed upon this Rock?" There was something really touching in his appeals to those who had so lately known, with himself, what it was to wear the chain of the oppressor, and to be torn from mother and from children, never more to meet. He told of his own loving mother torn away and sold from him, and of the awful retribution which met the person who bought and carried her away,— how, directly afterward, the child of that man was standing so near the fire that her clothing caught, and she was soon enveloped in the flames; yet the mother, looking on, was so paralyzed with fear that she could not even call for help, and the child perished. The preacher seemed to think a lukewarmness was creeping over his brethren; that the fervor they had shown when under constant terror of the lash was already beginning to subside, —and he recalled to their remembrance how often they had met in secret places, not daring to assemble openly, for fear of their masters, and, with stifled groans and moans, had called on the Lord to send them deliverance; and now he had sent it, he was calling upon them to be more earnest and devoted, instead of less so. Through all this, and much more which was really good, and delivered with great earnestness, there were occasional shouts and groans on every hand around us. But these increased wonderfully when the next speaker rose. His sermon began without any text, — the subject uppermost in his mind appearing to be the difference between professors of religion and true possessors. The development was something after this manner. "Dere's a great many Christians in dis world, — may be as many as dere was in Sodom, — but when a dey come to be counted, dere wasn't enough to save de city. I can tell a real Christian far, far off, —far as I can see him; but I can't tell a church-member at all. If I was to see a vessel way off on de 'Lantic, and wanted to know whether she b'longed to England, or de 'nited-States Gov'ment, how'd I know? how'd I give de countersign to de captain, if I was so fur off I couldn't speak wid de trumpet? could I tell her by de hulk? no; for all de hulks might be painted alike. I'd tell by de flag ! Just so wid Christians, — know 'em by de flag dey carry! Now, dere's plenty of folks to praise Mr. Wesley, and to sing his hymns; but whar's de flag"? whar's all de little flags Mr. Wesley put on his little barks, when he freighted 'em 'wid heavenly treasure? I don't see 'em, —de flags don't show!" Some of this man's illustrations were quite original, and his mode of expression so characteristic, that he seemed quite a representative character altogether. Speaking of faith, he said, "it must be even-spun, to go right through the eye of a cambric needle, — like when you sew muslin, you know, if you ha'nt got an even thread it makes holes in your muslin; so if your faith ain't even-spun, — if your sins make bumps on it, it'll make great holes in your 'ligion. Lay all your camel-burdens down, and go right through." He said it was " hard to be a Christian in dis world, because every thing belonging to heavenly things on this side was so ugly, and Satin draws such fantastic scenery, which leads us away." Speaking of the importance of having all the roots of sin exterminated, he launched out into an elaborate description of the general practice of cutting off the stumps even with the ground, and smoothing the earth over, " and den say die mighty putty, — dis ground all smoove away, — all right; but when de spring-time come, and de soft airs blows on it, den up comes all de little green sprouts, and de old roots jist as much alive as ever. Bruth-ring, dis won't do, —de roots must be all dig up." But one can have little idea of the effect of these things without seeing the violent gesticulations, and hearing the tones which accompanied them; yet there was such a manifest sincerity,— such a feeling, that to the mass it was devotion, that we could only hope a blessing might rest upon them in their strange, almost alarming, mode of worship, until He who formed their impulsive hearts shall see fit to bestow upon them further light and instruction.

* * *

As an instance of the readiness with which these people appropriate the lesson of the hour, directly afterward old "Uncle Solomon" knelt in prayer, and, amongst his fervent petitions, uttered amid sobs and groans, we caught the words, " Oh Lord, make us like a yoke of Pharaoh's hosses in de olden time, dat we may all pull together!" At the request of one of their teachers, they sang us one of their native hymns. The peculiar melody of the notes is indescribable, — there is a pathos and a sweetness deeply affecting about some of them; and on this occasion, when, with a solemnity most striking, the children blended their young voices in the refrain, "I'm gwine to keep journeyin' on, — for Christ's a comin' on de fiel' byme-bye, — Christ's a comin' on de fiel' byme-bye," it was quite impossible to repress the tears, so touchingly did the mind realize that these poor outcasts were pressing on to meet their Saviour, with perfect confidence that he is ready to prove himself their double Deliverer. Blessings and praise already fill their mouths, for redemption from the oppressor's yoke, in answer to the prayers of many generations; and they now look joyfully forward to an inheritance incorruptible in the "promised land. "

--"Anecdote and Incidents of a Visit to Freedmen," The Freedmen's Record, October, 1865

There are seven congregations of colored people in this city; most of them,—large and flourishing And, to most of the people, going to Church is their highest pleasure. One church, built and paid for by freedmen, is as pretty, and home like, as I have ever seen. It is crowded three times on the Sabbath, and three times in the week with the most orderly well dressed people; who give surprising amounts of money in the constant collections that are taken there. This church has 5000 members and a fine Sunday school of 800.

--Sarah Chase to Fred W. G. May, Charleston, S.C., March, probably 1866

You don't know what a pleasure there is in listening to an intelligent "white" sermon now and then, after the darky trash to which I am forced to lend an unwilling ear, week after week, for the sake of example. Mr. W. is a much better preacher than ordinary, and is so thoroughly in earnest, & feels so the dignity and importance of his office that it is a real treat to have him here now & then.

--Jane Briggs Smith (Fiske) to William Fuller Fisk, June 10, 1867

One morning on my way to school, I passed two or three abandoned women, who were listening with respectful and serious attention to a tall, dignified-looking woman who was showing them the better way. I stopped near the group, and heard her say, “He says come just as you are. Does not he,” she said, appealing to me. “Come ragged, come naked, come filthy, come just as you are. I hate nobody, I only bate their ways. And I’m bound to urge everybody to love the Lord. My soul was set free long before the fetters fell from my body. God gave me his freedom, but the little children of this earth would not give me theirs. I brought religion with me into this place. I’m so glad I did, for I could not get it here.” (She keeps a small eating house in a low neighborhood.) “I want all these women to find peace. Nothing that can happen to them will trouble them if they will seek religion, not the noises, and coming and dying away of a revival, but something deep, to live by. And then they will have peace in heaven. God will say ‘Sit down, your feet are sore, and rest. You’ll never have to work more for a mouthful of food, or a rag of clothing."

. . .I today attended a monster baptism of two hundred and thirty persons (colored). But few of them lost their self-control. Now and then a woman would “Thank God! thank God!” with exultant emphasis. And two or three gave way to physical excitement. The officiating minister (a colored man) and the deacons checked all such demonstrations. And the minister said, after some shouting, “We shall expect that all who shout, will fall back into the ways of the world again.” Thousands crowded the church as spectators, and, at times, the buzz of tongues was beard. But the vast multitude was under the ready control of the quiet, dignified preacher, when he said, “My friends, remember that this is the house of God. We are not in a theatre. Let us have quiet.”

--Lucy Chase to Anna Lowell, June, 1868

December 3, 1862.—7 P.M.

What a life is this I lead! It is a dark, mild, drizzling evening, and as the foggy air breeds sand-flies, so it calls out melodies and strange antics from this mysterious race of grown-up children with whom my lot is cast. All over the camp the lights glimmer in the tents, and as I sit at my desk in the open doorway, there come mingled sounds of stir and glee. Boys laugh and shout,—a feeble flute stirs somewhere in some tent, not an officer's,—a drum throbs far away in another,—wild kildeer-plover flit and wail above us, like the haunting souls of dead slave-masters,—and from a neighboring cook-fire comes the monotonous sound of that strange festival, half pow-wow, half prayer-meeting, which they know only as a "shout." These fires are usually enclosed in a little booth, made neatly of palm-leaves and covered in at top, a regular native African hut, in short, such as is pictured in books, and such as I once got up from dried palm-leaves for a fair at home. This hut is now crammed with men, singing at the top of their voices, in one of their quaint, monotonous, endless, negro-Methodist chants, with obscure syllables recurring constantly, and slight variations interwoven, all accompanied with a regular drumming of the feet and clapping of the hands, like castanets. Then the excitement spreads: inside and outside the enclosure men begin to quiver and dance, others join, a circle forms, winding monotonously round some one in the centre; some "heel and toe" tumultuously, others merely tremble and stagger on, others stoop and rise, others whirl, others caper sideways, all keep steadily circling like dervishes; spectators applaud special strokes of skill; my approach only enlivens the scene; the circle enlarges, louder grows the singing, rousing shouts of encouragement come in, half bacchanalian, half devout, "Wake 'em, brudder!" "Stan' up to 'em, brudder!"—and still the ceaseless drumming and clapping, in perfect cadence, goes steadily on. Suddenly there comes a sort of snap, and the spell breaks, amid general sighing and laughter. And this not rarely and occasionally, but night after night, while in other parts of the camp the soberest prayers and exhortations are proceeding sedately.

A simple and lovable people, whose graces seem to come by nature, and whose vices by training. Some of the best superintendents confirm the first tales of innocence, and Dr. Zachos told me last night that on his plantation, a sequestered one, "they had absolutely no vices." Nor have these men of mine yet shown any worth mentioning; since I took command I have heard of no man intoxicated, and there has been but one small quarrel. I suppose that scarcely a white regiment in the army shows so little swearing. Take the "Progressive Friends" and put them in red trousers, and I verily believe they would fill a guard-house sooner than these men.

--Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Camp Life," Army Life in a Black Regiment, 1869

Passages from prayers in the camp:-- "Let me so lib dat when I die I shall hab manners, dat I shall know what to say when I see my Heabenly Lord." "Let me lib wid de musket in one hand an' de Bible in de oder,--dat if I die at de muzzle ob de musket, die in de water, die on de land, I may know I hab de bressed Jesus in my hand, an' hab no fear." "I hab lef my wife in de land o' bondage; my little ones dey say eb'ry night, Whar is my fader? But when I die, when de bressed mornin' rises, when I shall stan' in de glory, wid one foot on de water an' one foot on de land, den, O Lord, I shall see my wife an' my little chil'en once more." These sentences I noted down, as best I could, beside the glimmering camp-fire last night.

--Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Camp Diary," Army Life in a Black Regiment, 1869

It used to seem to me that never, since Cromwell's time, had there been soldiers in whom the religious element held such a place. "A religious army," "a gospel army," were their frequent phrases. In their prayer-meetings there was always a mingling, often quaint enough, of the warlike and the pious. "If each one of us was a praying man," said Corporal Thomas Long in a sermon, "it appears to me that we could fight as well with prayers as with bullets,--for the Lord has said that if you have faith even as a grain of mustard-seed cut into four parts, you can say to the sycamore-tree, Arise, and it will come up." And though Corporal Long may have got a little perplexed in his botany, his faith proved itself by works, for he volunteered and went many miles on a solitary scouting expedition into the enemy's country in Florida, and got back safe, after I had given him up for lost.

--Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "The Negro as Soldier ," Army Life in a Black Regiment, 1869

We passed the Lord's day here, with delightful services in Sabbath school, Bible-class, sermon and evening meeting for prayer, and since primitive piety such Christian spirit is, I am sure, seldom seen. Prayer in this place of peril is full of meaning, like that of the ancient builders when in the midst of their enemies, "with one hand they wrought in the work and with the other held a weapon."

--J. W. Alvord, Letters from the South, Relating to the Condition of Freedmen, Addressed to Major General O. O. Howard, Commissioner Bureau R., F., and A. L. by J. W. Alvord, Gen. Sup't Education, Bureau R., F., & A. L., 1870


Freedmen Attempt to Convert a "Freethinking" Freedmen's Teacher

I told you that I have a class of young men who come here every day to read and recite. Two of them are local preachers, one is an ordained minister, named Ben Lawson. One day I was talking with them about temperance, and trying to urge it upon them to establish a total abstinence society. Ben Lewson, to point some remarks, said, "Well now, mum, I spose you'se a church member." "No, Ben."

(Up to this point I wrote in the dark, which accounts for the independence I exhibit of all lines.) [?] You should have seen the astonishment of the party. Why, one of them said "I tout you'se a Metterdis, sure, miss." Then began earnest entreaties and affectionate pleadings to join with them. I almost wish I could. Ben, especially, is very urgent, and repeats his persuasive logic at every interview. Said he yesterday while I was elucidating a point in our Bible reciting pertaining to the Fatherhood of God: "Seems like you'se got the strongest mind, Miss Janey, I ever saw. Nothing can't move you from your belief. You obeys every command of God but one, and you seems to live so near to God, and to love Him so, and yet that one thing you won't do." Ben is a very intelligent man, and I enjoy talking with him exceedingly. One other of my pupils is very interesting to me. His name is Burrell James, and he is about thirty years old. He wants very much to get an education, and studies nights after working hard during the day to support his family. He too feels badly because I do not belong to any church. They cannot bear to think that I am not a Christian, and yet the two things are inseparable to them.

--Jane Briggs Smith to William Fuller Fisk, January 18, 1867


Both Lucy and Sarah Chase were impressed by religious devotion expressed by the Freedmen in their spirituals.. In a letter to her sponsor on January 23, 1865, Sarah Chase wrote: "Here is a quaint 'Hyme' or 'Praise' which I once heard sung in a log cabin, crowded with earnest devout people . . ."

Letter from Freedmen's Teacher Sarah Chase, January 23, 1865


Visions of Freedmen as Reformers

The virtues of self-control and self-help were celebrated in nineteenth century America, another legacy of the Puritan inheritance given new life by evangelical and reform movements. Freedmen's teachers used a variety of methods to foster these virtues. Teacher Lucy Chase, for example, set up sewing groups for African-American women and arranged for them to sell their wares to Northern customers, initiated temperance societies, set up banks and preached the importance of saving, and encouraged freedmen to set up charitable organizations so they could help one another.

Roll your mouse over the picture to take a close look at the "fruits" of the "Tree of Temperance." You can also see a larger image of the picture as a whole, a close-up of the image to the right of the trunk, or a close-up of the image to the left.

What do the fruits, the trunk, and the scene at the bottom of the tree contribute to the message of the lithograph?


A Response to a Request from a Teacher
for Temperance Materials for Freedmen

Rev. E. P. Smith, Gen. Field Agent, N.Y.

New York, Feb. 26th 1868
Miss Lucy Chase,
Richmond, Va.

Dear Friend,

Sec” Whipple has handed me your letter to him of the 23d inst. wishing me to attend to your requests for Temperance Pledges tc., and to write to you, as he is so pressed with his correspondence that notwithstanding his desire to write he he is unable to do it promptly, which he regrets.

We are happy to circulate through you, and such other persons as you may select our Temperance Pledges, + Certificates We send you now by mail

50 Pledges for general signature

50 To Family – to be signed by names of members of families they can be kept in the family safely;

50 Certificates –

We will send more when these are used, if you write for them. They are without charge to anyone. The certificates, you percieve [sic], can be filled in the blank for any Society Sunday School tc of any places. You will readily fill the blank appropriately as you find use for the Certifs.

We are grieved to learn that there is so much drinking of intoxicating liquors at Richmond by Freed, or other colored persons; and that in some other districts the tendency is strong in that direction? We must do all in our power to arrest this great evil.

In my intercourse with colored people largely, at the north, I have not found them given to strong drink, or any drink that intoxicates as much as the laboring classes of whites. It will be a sad thing to every interest of liberty + humanity if they are led to indulge in even the first steps to drunkenness. Try to get all christian friends and well wishers of the people to labor with you in this good cause of preventing future demons.

I am Dear Friend
Yours Truly


--S. S. Jocelyn to Lucy Chase, February, 25, 1868


A Letter from Teacher Lucy Chase Describing Her Reform Efforts

Howard Grove Hospital Richmond, Va. June. ‘68

My dear Miss Lowell:

I have run away from home, desperate to get where I can reach you; and now I will talk right on, saying whatever comes to my mind. On my way here, I walked through the streets where black-smith’s shops and stables centre, and urged the laborers to abstinence from liquor and tobacco. Here one can seldom urge the expense as an argument against its use, because it costs nothing to the thousands of colored-people who are employed in the tobacco warehouses; and tobacco-lovers outside of the warehouses find many ways of keeping up the weed, without dropping coin in change. Yet there are many who leave their money in cigar-shops and never learn the way to the Freedmen’s Bank.

I embrace every opportunity to suggest building up dollars by saving pennies, and investing them singly in bank-stock. Of course, I say that the dollar must not represent an essential need unmet—but I say to them it is well to put money that may be idly spent or lost where it can be found when a real need must be met. Not many days ago I joined a bright looking working man in his walk, and asked him if he ever went to the Temperance meetings. He said, “Yes,” adding that he never drinks. In reply to my question, “Do you ever put your money into the bank?” he said, “Yes, I put in $35 last year; and I don’t want to touch it. I want to buy some land, sometime, but not now. I want to buy when Government sells.” “Why do you think the govt will sell?” I asked. “Uncle Sam gave it out so, during the war,” he replied with confidence and simplicity, adding, “I served two years and a half in the war.” I felt, all the time that I was walking by the side of a noble man. No invitation is more welcome to an intelligent colored man than this, viz. “Come, and let us reason.” It is pleasant, indeed, to talk with the thoughtful and earnest; to catch the serious light of their eyes, and to take counsel with them. Paying, as one does, most justly, due reverence to crude opinions, or prejudices honestly held and honestly expressed.

At one of the temperance meetings a man said, after signing the pledge, “I ‘se taken the pledge tonight, not hastily, but wisely, I hope. I had a great deal of trouble, and instead of applying at the throne of grace, as I ought to have done, I thought I would seek consolation in liquor. - Its stronger than any chain. Its the worst master you ever had in your life. It’ll make you sell your soul.”

One speaker said, “Those who have made money by the sale of liquor must be made to resort to the pickaxe and the hoe.”

One very interesting speaker said his father was president of a colored temperance society formed more than thirty years ago. He said he intoxicated himself when be was five (or seven) years. old, and, in shame, he next day signed the temperance pledge, which he had always kept. For some years no colored person was allowed to join the 1st African Church without having first signed the temperance pledge. The colored men love their pipe. They often say to me, “I can give up whiskey much easier than I can tobacco.” But instances where the unwholesomeness of both are acknowledged, and neither are used, are by no means rare. Though Parton would say, if he should look upon our numerous and busy tobacco-houses, “It does not pay,” we tobacco-haters are half-reconciled to their activity, because they bring present relief into so many households.

Still, we see all around us the demoralizing influence of idleness, and the depressing influence of unsuccessful clamor for remunerative work. Not a few hardworkers are growing thin and weak by trying to live on promises to pay. Still, here—as elsewhere, people with ready money leave their washing-bills unpaid; and I visit many women stooping over their washtubs, weak in body and hopeless in mind, who say, “I keeps on washin for em, for if I leave em they’ll never pay me what they owe me.” So wearing care and scanty food unite with their task-masters in grinding them very small. It is astonishing what light food sustains men hard-working. I have seen a coal-heaver sit down to a dinner of half-baked corn-bread and coffee. I have seldom seen a greedy col’d child, and I have never seen one who would not give up his dinner for almost anything that would bring him pleasure.

Children of the poorest and most distracted mothers seem to pick up certain general all-pervading ideas of neatness. In all my schools a general cry would be raised if a child should return an undrained dipper to the water-bucket. And until taught economy by the teachers few children would pass a schoolmate a dipper of water to which he had put his own lips. Anything like an oath sets a whole schoolroom on fire,. and if it is heard at recess, the children rush to their teacher with Oh’s! and Ab’s! and staring eyeballs.

I have often told you how rare it is to find a dirty colored-house. A curiosity-hunter from the North might think the neat-houses the rare ones; but to one unfamiliar with the homes of the poor, simple barreness and poverty express filth.

Our brightest and most advanced scholars are leaving us for the factories, and a religious revival, which has spread its wings all over the city, has shut the eyes of many at their desks. The new spirit takes the same phase in every school. The children refuse to join in the singing, are disinclined to go out at recess, and are very unwilling to lift their heads from their desks. Sometimes a child is two or three weeks in this condition, and the teacher is perplexed to learn her duty in the premises. The children are unwilling to stay away from School; and yet their presence is unprofitable to themselves, and distracting to the others. In the majority of instances, the children fall back into their former careless, hard ways. One of my most rebellious boys, an urchin who has the past winter been dismissed from two private schools for insubordination has been religiously inclined for sometime; but his natural surliness and unwillingness to obey have held him back. A few days ago I sent for his father, who works near my school, and told hint of some special misdemeanor. I was particularly interested in the tone of The Father’s condemnation. “I thought, my son, you had experienced religion! You should show in your life that you have done so. Religion will break your self-will; it will make you humble and submissive. You disobedient! and speaking in church as you did last night! You shall not go into the water, young man, until you show that you have changed. Obey, your teacher. Don’t use your judgment.” I find that most religious col’d people demand a change of heart, and a change of life from all who are quickened by revivals.

Mr. Forester, an intelligent colored man (at whose house Miss Stevenson, my sister, and I boarded, for a while, three years ago) and a leading member of a Methodist Church in this city said, in church, a short time ago, “Our children are not taught hell either in our week-day schools, or Sunday Schools.” Our (Boston) ladies, some of whom heard the statement, felt that the censure was meant for them because they teach on Sundays in Mr F ‘s school.

One morning on my way to school, I passed two or three abandoned women, who were listening with respectful and serious attention to a tall, dignified-looking woman who was showing them the better way. I stopped near the group, and heard her say, “He says come just as you are. Does not he,” she said, appealing to me. “Come ragged, come naked, come filthy, come just as you are. I hate nobody, I only bate their ways. And I’m bound to urge everybody to love the Lord. My soul was set free long before the fetters fell from my body. God gave me his freedom, but the little children of this earth would not give me theirs. I brought religion with me into this place. I’m so glad I did, for I could not get it here.”

(She keeps a small eating house in a low neighborhood.) “I want all these women to find peace. Nothing that can happen to them will trouble them if they will seek religion, not the noises, and coming and dying away of a revival, but something deep, to live by. And then they will have peace in heaven. God will say ‘Sit down, your feet are sore, and rest. You’ll never have to work more for a mouthful of food, or a rag of clothing.’ You are a Yankee God sent the Yankees to Richmond. I always knew they would come. I said they would come, and I said never a gun would be fired, and no gun was fired.”

I today attended a monster baptism of two hundred and thirty persons (colored). But few of them lost their self-control. Now and then a woman would “Thank God! thank God!” with exultant emphasis. And two or three gave way to physical excitement. The officiating minister (a colored man) and the deacons checked all such demonstrations. And the minister said, after some shouting, “We shall expect that all who shout, will fall back into the ways of the world again.” Thousands crowded the church as spectators, and, at times, the buzz of tongues was beard. But the vast multitude was under the ready control of the quiet, dignified preacher, when he said, “My friends, remember that this is the house of God. We are not in a theatre. Let us have quiet.”

--from a letter from Lucy Chase to Anna Lowell, June, 1868


 The Reform Impulse Among Officers, Teachers, and Freedmen

"The end of the season approaches. No kind and ever-watchful care has sought to check the gratification of their childish appetites and desires; therefore, they have generally consumed the earnings of the year, and, practically, they are still slaves, though no one is obliged to provide for them when sick or disabled. They are, in a measure, without the benefit of slavery, while still subject to many of its disadvantages. Happily, however, the reverse side of the picture is not so dark. While the laborers on the large plantations have not essentially improved their condition, the colored lessees have much improved theirs. They have been industrious and self-denying; have become more considerate and calculating; have greater self-respect; are desirous of being themselves taught to read and write, and to have their children well educated. . . .

I would, in every possible way, encourage individual effort and laudable ambition. This plan will encourage all, stimulate to industry, train to virtue, and produce a self-supporting and self-directing people, — a comfort to themselves, and strength to the nation."

--"The Negroes in Arkansas," The Freedmen's Record, February, 1865

"There are about fifteen hundred colored people in Helena; all nominally self-supporting, and most of them really so. They live quite comfortably, dress respectably, and are improving very fast. Such, at least, is the testimony of those who have been here a long time. Of course, there are a great many who are corrupted by their freedom from restraint and by the presence of the soldiers; and there is, no doubt, a great deal of immorality. It is a question, whether much can be done with the men of the present generation, except to keep them comfortable, and restrain them from gross vice: at the same time, there are a great many who are respectable and thrifty, and the schools are doing an excellent work."

-- "From St. Helena, Ark," The Freedmen's Record, February, 1865

A "Ladies' Patriotic Association," comprising three hundred of the leading colored women of Charleston, has been organized, "to assist the United States Government in caring for the poor;" and has agreed to make up into clothing all the cloth which may be sent from the North for the Charleston people.

--James P. Blake,"Report of Relief Operations for Freedmen in the Department of the South, for March, 1865," Freedmen's Record, May, 1865

My sister and I have, now, afternoon and evening classes for the benefit of persons who are unable to leave work for the morning school. We have a very interesting class of young men in our evening class. "We are moral young men, Miss Chase," one of them said to my sister, when she expressed a hope that they made no use of tobacco or intoxicating drink. They then told us that they are all members of a "Moral improvement Assocn" bound to good behavior, by strict rules. Ready to visit the sick, bury the dead, & to "assist" young men or young ladies.

--Lucy Chase to Fred May, Charleston, S. C., March, 1866

I have a class of most promising young men to whom I am teaching book keeping:--giving them a trade you see. I also aid them in the direction of their specialty--among them is a prospective organist--a minister a statesman --ect--All are bound to use no liquor, tobacco or wicked words. They take advice so gladly, and are so anxious to improve in every way! "I can't give up Saturday evening--'' said one--"though I play for the choir to practice--I'm sorry for them--but I cannot afford to loose a lesson--I never can learn all I ought--I shall tell them that I get through my work so late--and then have to get paid off--and then have to go to market." But those would not be your reasons for not being with them' said I. But 'twould be the truth--for I have to do those things'--Ah but 'tis the spirit and not the letter said I--illustrating and explaining fully what constitutes a lie:--they listened most attentively and thanked me "kindly for taking so much interest--to explain such things--we have much to learn--we haven't been brought up to see moral points sharp--but we are anxious to."

--Sarah Chase to Fred W. May, Charleston, South Carolina, March 22, 1867

The passion for tobacco among our men continues quite absorbing, and I have piteous appeals for some arrangement by which they can buy it on credit, as we have yet no sutler. Their imploring, "Cunnel, we can't _lib_ widout it, Sah," goes to my heart; and as they cannot read, I cannot even have the melancholy satisfaction of supplying them with the excellent anti-tobacco tracts of Mr. Trask.

--Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Camp Diary," Army Life in a Black Regiment, 1869


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An American Antiquarian Society Online Resource
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