The sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, is fast approaching. Yet in anticipation of what will undoubtedly be an atmosphere of celebration, those professional killjoys known as historians are striking a more somber note. Where once the abolition of slavery was seen as the great watershed of African-American life—a point of view epitomized in the title of John Hope Franklin’s highly influential black history textbook, From Slavery to Freedom—historians of late have taken to emphasizing the failure, or at least the inadequacy, of the freedom brought about by the Civil War. Current scholars tend to stress continuity as much as change over the course of the nineteenth century. Racism and black subordination persisted despite emancipation; Reconstruction (when an alternative outcome seemed possible) failed. A few months ago, Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery hosted a conference on new directions in the study of emancipation titled “Beyond Freedom.”
Historians of the years following slavery have always spoken directly to modern-day concerns. The Dunning School, with its emphasis on the alleged horrors of postwar Reconstruction (corruption, misgovernment and “black supremacy”), provided scholarly legitimacy for Jim Crow and the disenfranchisement of Southern black voters. The revisionist school, which saw Reconstruction as a noble experiment in interracial democracy, arose in tandem with the civil rights movement. Today’s more gloomy view of emancipation and its aftermath reflects, in part, a sense that the modern civil rights revolution failed to address adequately the economic plight of most black Americans. The Freedom Movement may have succeeded on the legal front, but as the title of a recent work by Nancy MacLean on modern-day economic inequality puts it, Freedom Is Not Enough.
Stephen Kantrowitz’s new book places him firmly in the camp of historians who conclude that freedom, when it came, wasn’t sufficient to undo the centuries-long legacy of slavery. Kantrowitz, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of a prize-winning study of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, who took part in the violent overthrow of Reconstruction in South Carolina and later rose to the governorship on the strength of lurid warnings that black demands for equality posed a threat to the purity of white womanhood. In More Than Freedom, Kantrowitz turns his attention to the North, chronicling the struggles of Boston’s black activists over the course of the nineteenth century. The key figures in his book are hardly household names, even among historians—men like the former slave turned underground railroad activist Lewis Hayden; William C. Nell, whose book The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution laid claim for blacks to the revolutionary heritage; and John S. Rock, who became the first black attorney admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court and who wrote articles ridiculing contemporary theories of racial hierarchy and inborn racial difference. Kantrowitz has done a remarkable job of bringing them to life and situating them in their social milieu.
Boston’s black community in those days represented only 2 percent of the city’s population. Most of its members lacked education and were confined to menial, low-wage employment. In this world the activists constituted an elite. But, as Kantrowitz makes clear, they often lived themselves on the edge of poverty. Nell remained in debt throughout the 1850s and resided in a room in a boarding house; Hayden’s clothing store failed, and he was able to make ends meet only after he was hired as a messenger by the secretary of state of Massachusetts. Thus, Kantrowitz claims, these leaders understood the experiences of ordinary black Bostonians and can plausibly be taken as spokesmen for them.
Kantrowitz argues convincingly that the familiar story of sectional crisis, civil war and emancipation takes on a different cast when viewed from the perspective of these black activists. The slavery controversy unleashed a complex, far-reaching debate about the role that racial difference should play in defining such core American values as freedom, equality and citizenship. Boston’s black leaders inserted themselves into this debate, using every means at their disposal—petitions, speeches, pamphlets, lawsuits and direct action—in pursuit of their goals. In so doing, they directly challenged the prevailing assumption that “public life was for whites only.” Kantrowitz insists, moreover, that the familiar label “black abolitionists” is a misnomer, since their goals extended well beyond ending slavery.