Thulani Davis’s Freedom Visions

The Promise of Freedom

Thulani Davis’s Reconstruction.


On May 24, 1861, the fate of the Civil War was unclear. The Confederacy was formed in large part to defend slavery, but the Union was not yet committed to ending the chattel regime. That did not deter three enslaved people—Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory—from doing their part to change the meaning of the conflict. Leased out to construct Confederate defenses in Virginia, they fled at night, rowing a boat four miles north along the Chesapeake coast to Fort Monroe, the Union’s only base in Virginia at the time. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, the Union should have returned the three men to their enslavers. The commanding officer of the fort, Benjamin Butler, thought differently: Secession had invalidated any Union responsibility to Confederate property, he insisted, and the men could be kept as “contraband of war.” Butler still justified the emancipation of the enslaved by treating them as property—the Emancipation Proclamation was still about two years away—but the three fugitives’ escape marked the point at which Black people began to turn the conflict into a war for freedom. Over the next 19 months, some 500,000 people, fleeing to Union lines, would join them in self-liberation.

Black self-liberation helped turn the tide of the Civil War and shaped the demands for equality by the newly emancipated in its aftermath. But during the dark days of Jim Crow that would follow, the history of Black self-emancipation was replaced by a set of racist fictions designed to justify the regime and demonstrate that Black people were unfit to govern.

Beginning in the 1930s, the story of Black self-liberation was recovered in W.E.B. Du Bois’s monumental history Black Reconstruction in America. The story of Black freedom, of Emancipation and Reconstruction in the United States, Du Bois insisted, was not one of disaster but rather of moments of heroic—even revolutionary—achievement followed by lost opportunity. Had the work of Reconstruction persisted into the 20th century, the United States would have become a more egalitarian and liberated society. The fall of Reconstruction, unfortunately, spelled the end of this promise. More than 50 years after Du Bois’s book, Eric Foner, in his own monumental account of the era, agreed with this premise. Demonstrating how the Reconstruction period marked an “unfinished revolution,” Foner documented how the newly freed worked to create more egalitarian societies in the South. For many radicals, including Angela Davis, this era begun by Black self-liberation continued to offer a rich set of resources for the struggle for freedom in the 20th century—from the civil rights movement to prison and police abolitionism.

While many archives have been plumbed to recover the liberatory character of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era, Thulani Davis argues in her new book, The Emancipation Circuit: Black Activism Forging a Culture of Freedom, that historians have often missed the geographic element of these periods of freedom politics. When Black people fled to the Union lines, assembled en masse, and sought to make and organize new lives, they did so through “a system of regional networks built on labor sites and shipping routes with local routes that created ties between communities as well as ties to other networks.” After the war and until the end of Reconstruction, missionaries, Republican Party agents, fugitives, and everyday people looking for work or long-lost kin traveled these paths, which formed “a roughly horseshoe-shaped route around the periphery of the South, encompassing internal routes and connections.” In the hands of the formerly enslaved and their allies, infrastructure like rail lines and the social networks forged in Union camps became a means for turning local efforts into regional, collective organizing. They created what Davis calls the Emancipation Circuit, noting that “for most African Americans,” emancipation began “without assistance” through acts of self-liberation. This “created the need to develop resources from within communities to provide all the benefits and services commonly available in other regions—or in the South, for whites—either by purchase or from municipal agencies.” These resources included “housing, food, clothing, access to water and sewage, jobs, medical service, education,” and more; the struggle to distribute these resources led to the creation of an underground mutual aid network—and when the war finally came, followed by Reconstruction, these resources were what helped awaken the era’s revolutionary promise. While this promise has never been completely fulfilled, Davis argues, the achievements of this era demonstrate the importance of grassroots organizing on multiple fronts. Through the Emancipation Circuit, enslaved people won their freedom and then, as freed people, achieved many immediate victories, like better wages, the erection of schools, the ability to assemble—all of which gave new meaning to the political status of freedom.

Davis’s history looks to the stars: In the fall of 1859 and the summer of 1860, a comet was visible in sky. It arrived “unannounced, out of the north, flaring in heaven,” as Walt Whitman recounted in “Years of Meteors.” But its timing was peculiar and even suggestive. Charles Grandy, an enslaved person in Mississippi, considered it a harbinger of things to come. As he recalled, “a gra’ big star over in de east come right down almos’ to de earth. I seed it myself. ‘Twas a sign o’ war alright…. So glad God sendin’ de war.”

By the time people saw another comet in July of 1861, colloquially called the war comet, the stars were no longer prophesying the future. Fighting had been under way for three months, and enslaved people had begun fleeing to the Union lines, where, after Butler declared that they would not be returned to their enslavers, they now became Union “contraband.” In North Carolina, for instance, an enslaved man named Jordan witnessed the arrival of Union soldiers on his plantation and their capture of his enslaver. He then traveled to a nearby plantation to reunite with his wife and four children. (Their 12 other children had been sold.) Together, they made their way to an estuary on the Carolina coast, where Union soldiers directed them to another town; there, they boarded a boat and joined other refugees in a settlement. Many others fled before seeing a Union soldier. Having spent their lives denied the right to mobility, they now traveled at will. “Enslaved people were not meant to be moving around,” Davis notes. “Black movement was dangerous.”

The enslaved often depended on waterways for this swift and dangerous movement. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln ordered the Union forces to blockade 3,500 miles of the Confederate coast. The following year, the Union Army captured ports from New Bern, Va., to Jacksonville, Fla. News of these victories traveled the same route from ports to hinterlands that commodities had traveled during the antebellum era, and it bore with it a powerful message: By water, one could find freedom. This information compelled enslaved people to travel to Union territory by any means they could. In Beaufort, S.C., some of the newly freed met Harriet Tubman, who was assisting fugitives, gathering information from the formerly enslaved, and recruiting some to work as “scouts and pilots” in northern Florida. The same ports and harbors that saw the arrival of the ancestors of the enslaved in chains now became sites of freedom.

The coastal struggle for freedom was paralleled by an inland one. In 1862, the Union fought for control of the Mississippi River, capturing cities from Memphis to New Orleans, and again the Emancipation Circuit emerged as a vital weapon in the war for freedom: Information spread along preexisting routes, and the enslaved flocked to Union lines. Though the Emancipation Proclamation had not yet been issued, enslaved people were liberating themselves and congregating via the same river that had once transported so many of them for sale. As Davis shows, agreeing with Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, the loss of their labor in the Confederate states, their sabotage against the Confederacy, and their assistance to Union soldiers helped change the trajectory of the war.

On arrival at the Union lines, enslaved people sought to make new lives for themselves. Around ports and waterways, in cotton and rice regions, and in the Mississippi Valley, camps were set up to house this so-called contraband, leading to extreme population growth. “The ten thousand Blacks who eventually gathered at Fort Monroe,” Davis writes, “represented more souls than most slaves could ever have seen in one place, more than the population of many towns on the East Coast. Such sights must have shocked everyone, Black and white, Southern and Northern, who caught a glimpse of the enormity of the slavery business: for if they saw ten thousand in one town where soldiers landed, they knew there were a dozen towns with similar sights.”

The Union Army was ill-equipped to handle the number of arrivals. Many enslaved people needed food and health care, but they usually found overcrowding and poor shelter. As one of the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission organizers wrote of Nashville in 1863, “I conjecture there cannot be less than four thousand contrabands who need help and instruction about this city. I find over 40 crowded into one small house.” Along the Mississippi, that housing could sometimes be the slave pen that had held people captive prior to the war. But in other places, enslaved people built their own settlements or occupied abandoned buildings on the periphery of Union camps. They helped create their own social services and reallocated goods as needed. In time, their efforts to house themselves formed another pillar of the Emancipation Circuit.

The Union Army often received the liberated, but it did not always welcome them. Some soldiers took the freed people’s supplies, refused to intervene when white people assaulted them, and forced them to labor. Of such work, a formerly enslaved man named David Billiops said: “I have been laboring faithfully and patiently for [the] government since the troops landed in Hampton [Va.]—about 5½ months, and I must say that I have fared harder than in slavery.” The soldiers even conscripted the unwilling into their ranks: The Union Army in Virginia forced formerly enslaved men out of their dwellings and into military service; the same occurred in Louisiana.

Given the magnitude of the need, the camps became sites of mutual aid, where not just housing but all sorts of necessities were redistributed. According to Davis, African American groups tended to be the first to help aid the newly liberated. In Nashville, Black people created a Good Samaritan Society that provided clothing and medicine. Northern Black organizations like the Contraband Committee of the Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia also provided relief, as did such groups as the American Missionary Association. And, of course, the so-called contraband helped themselves. Once-secret mutual aid societies, which had operated covertly during slavery to avoid repression, surfaced to aid the newly liberated alongside charitable fraternal associations and new benevolent societies like Louisville’s United Brothers of Friendship and the Sisters of the Mysterious Ten. These groups often provided food and clothing; they also helped people purchase land and save money through organizations like credit unions.

These new aid groups also gave Black people the opportunity to organize for better conditions after the war. Abraham Galloway, who escaped slavery in North Carolina in 1857, returned in 1862 as a spy based out of Fort Monroe. In 1863, army recruiter Edward Kinsley contacted Galloway for help in enlisting Black soldiers in New Bern. Galloway and another Black man met Kinsley at night. They told Kinsley that Black people would not enlist if the Union planned to use them as pawns for reunification; if the Union wanted to fight for Black freedom, however, it would find many soldiers. They also demanded equal pay for Black soldiers, provisions for their families, and education for their children. Kinsley agreed. The next day, hundreds of men gathered to enlist. Like Galloway and his confrere, Black people—both free and enslaved, those enlisted in the army and those who remained civilians—transformed a fight for the nation’s stability into a fight to end slavery and to change the lives of the newly freed.

In April 1865, the war formally came to an end. But it lingered in isolated Southern regions, where some Black people were still held in slavery. Even then, men and women liberated themselves: In May of that year, three enslaved men from southern Georgia walked north along the rail lines that transported the goods they produced. They met other fugitives along the way. One had eaten only corn for two weeks. Some had been hunted by hounds. All had witnessed whippings. But they persisted in their search for freedom, using the same infrastructure that had made slavery profitable.

The Emancipation Circuit continued to grow after the war. As Davis writes, “86 percent of the sites on the circuit experienced US troop presence during the Civil War and the construction of refugee camps; both of these factors exposed fugitives to crucial information on citizenship rights and wage work and, often, to local Black activists and missionaries.” While many Southern states passed vagrancy laws and rewrote their constitutions with “black codes” aimed at reinstituting white dominance, Black people asserted their rights through networks of information and resistance. Across the South, Black people held mass assemblies attended by people of all genders and ages. Often, any person could speak, decisions were made by consensus, and armed Black people stood guard. At a meeting in Norfolk, Va., in June 1865, Black people wrote a statement—“Equal Suffrage: Address From the Colored Citizens of Norfolk, Va.”—that expressed concern about vagrancy laws, among other unjust and racist practices, and insisted on the right to vote. Afterward, people spread news of the document’s resolutions, and nearby communities held meetings that endorsed the Norfolk statement. “The old information highway along the James [River],” Davis writes, produced “a vetted political statement and additional local concerns from Norfolk, Hampton (and Elizabeth City County), Williamsburg, and Yorktown (plus York and James City Counties).” Sometimes, reports on the meetings spread through newspapers; other times, people memorized what was said and relayed it to those who were not in attendance. Through these efforts, local mass meetings became the basis for broader political organizing on a regional level.

Key to these efforts was labor organizing, which was made necessary by vagrancy laws, by labor discrimination, and by demographics: At the end of the Civil War, there were approximately 100,000 skilled Black workers in the South. Given the role of labor in the chattel slavery system, it is unsurprising that Black tobacco factory workers in Richmond, Va., in 1865 received exceedingly low wages. “They say we will starve through laziness that is not so,” the statement by those workers read. “But it is true that we will starve at our present wages.” The following year, they went on strike in pursuit of higher pay. In Fernandina, Fla., three years later, dockworkers also went on strike; two months later, dockworkers in Pensacola did the same. Like the resolutions passed in mass meetings, labor actions spread along the Emancipation Circuit.

These efforts were not without risk. In the spring of 1866, the mass assemblies were met with white violence across the region. As one pro-Confederate paper wrote, “Whites, blacks, soldiers, and former soldiers tangled almost nightly.” On one occasion in Norfolk in April of 1866, a white man shot at a crowd of Black protesters. Several of them caught and killed him. Hours later, a white mob in Confederate attire attacked the Black community as well as a local Union soldier. Further violence was prevented by the eventual arrival of more armed Union forces.

That same year, elections changed the racial makeup of state legislatures enough to lead to more progressive state constitutions. Those elections also changed federal representation enough to require the Southern states to pass the 14th Amendment and grant Black people the right to vote. And in 1867, the Reconstruction Acts led to the appointment of federal military officials to top state government positions across the South, beginning the period now known as Radical Reconstruction.

The Emancipation Circuit continued to grow in the early years of Reconstruction. Its networks were especially important to those who had fled slavery before the war and returned. George Teamoh, for instance, fled north from Norfolk in 1853. After the war, he returned to nearby Portsmouth—a hub for Black political organizing—to search for his family. In Richmond, he found his wife and daughter; he never found his two older children. George and his family then returned to Portsmouth, where he entered politics while working as a ship caulker. In 1865, he attended the Virginia freed people’s convention. That spring, he employed his literacy to help freedwomen in Portsmouth write a document protesting a tax that targeted their vending. And in 1867, he joined the Union League, which deployed agents across the South. Teamoh was even elected as a delegate to the 1868 Constitutional Convention and as a state senator.

Teamoh was not alone. Like many Black freed people in the South after the war, he came into contact with a number of institutions, groups, and individuals that enabled his achievements. This was especially true in the drive to organize the Black vote, because, as Davis puts it, “people on the ground knew organizing freedpeople to vote had to be done in person.” From 1867 to 1868, the Republican Party deployed field agents of the Union Republic Congressional Committee, who often worked alongside Union League agents, in the South. Both groups frequently collaborated with local Black associations such as “fire companies, fraternal groups, labor associations, educational groups, reading groups where people could have news and literature read aloud, and charitable societies.” And, as Davis points out, Black Southerners kept the organizers from both groups safe: “On several occasions in Yazoo City, [Miss.,] members of the Black community appeared without being asked and effectively protected the lives of white UL organizers Albert Morgan and his brother Charles, including forming a phalanx around the jail to prevent Charles Morgan from being lynched.” Through these efforts, the Union League gained thousands of new members in the summer of 1867, yielding such immediate results as helping people negotiate labor contracts and more abstract results like voter education.

Among the most famous achievements of the era was the creation of schools. Freedmen’s Schools were built—and, sometimes, rebuilt after being burned down—during and after the war. Many HBCUs were also founded during Reconstruction and endured even after its rollback, providing some of the only venues for Black conferences and art exhibits as well as training for nursing and other professional fields. They also eventually educated the organizers of the modern civil rights movement: Coretta Scott King, for example, attended a Black high school founded in 1867, and John Lewis studied at a seminary founded in 1866.

In the end, however, the radical work of Reconstruction was undone. Southern reactionaries triumphed with the Compromise of 1877, which granted the Republican Party the presidency in exchange for the removal of Union soldiers from the South, paving the way for revanchists to retake the secessionist states and for the abandonment of government support for Black citizens. “Those rights went across the horizon like Biela’s Comet,” Davis writes, “with no fiery blow striking earth, no sudden, mysterious biblical fires across cities and wilderness as attributed to Biela’s fragments in 1871. No popular imaginings of the omens or meanings. The disaster that occurred that year seemed only to affect Black southerners and the larger society moved on.”

The Emancipation Circuit offers a powerful reimagining of the networks that helped to secure Black freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction: It is a history about enslaved people’s efforts to free themselves and about their local struggles to give substance to their legal emancipation, as well as a mapping of the geography that enabled their achievements and the circuits that spread their political goals like pollen in the wind. Davis chronicles the myriad kinds of organizing and institution-building that freed people undertook, emphasizing that creating a “mobilized public” for these grassroots efforts on several fronts enabled freed people to make serious progress even in the face of great repression. Though many of these advances were eventually rolled back, and several of their greatest ambitions went unrealized, the ideas that freed people developed during Reconstruction—the eight-hour workday, an end to workplace violence, universal suffrage, and more—laid the foundation for later transformations of American society.

Like many other recent histories of Reconstruction, The Emancipation Circuit is a testament to the achievements of these formerly enslaved people. Of special note is Davis’s attention to Black families. Liberated from slavery, Black people worked to rebuild and maintain kinship ties. Many dedicated themselves to reuniting with long-lost loved ones. Joining such historians as Heather Williams in Help Me to Find My People, Davis reminds us that these efforts were both personal and political: They included winning for Black women “the right to be the heads of households and have custody of their children, dissolve a problematic partnership…earn equal wages, and, along with all others, have equal protection under the law.” Reconstruction was not only a period that sought to undo anti-Blackness; it also worked to end the kinds of sexism that assailed Black women in ways that, had it been successful, would have benefited all American women and families.

Like many other achievements of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, the promise of these struggles has yet to be fully realized. As Dorothy Roberts argued two decades ago in Shattered Bonds and again in this year’s Torn Apart, the child welfare system today disproportionately surveils Black people and in particular Black women. It also disproportionately separates them from their children, both of which demonstrate that the institution operates less to produce child safety and more to police Black families. And it is here that Davis’s chronicling of the Reconstruction efforts to secure Black family autonomy comes to the fore: In an era in which the state has consistently policed Black families and Black women, one path forward, her book suggests, is through a renewed set of Emancipation Circuits: through networks of Black parents (both those directly impacted by the system and otherwise), prison abolitionists, and more. An abolitionist politics—a politics in pursuit of actual and material liberation—will need not a state purporting to be beneficent so much as people working to erect new structures that provide a real basis for freedom.

Here, Davis’s attention to grassroots efforts, to collective organizing on many fronts, and to the ways in which geography can enable local organizing to spread beyond its specific confines to achieve greater change is particularly valuable. The Emancipation Circuit reminds today’s activists that any organizing for Black freedom must be multifaceted and must pursue local aims while traveling along preexisting networks to become a broader collective effort. The exact fruits of that movement may not be entirely clear now, just as the consequences of those three men rowing a boat to Union territory could not have been foreseen. But like the journey those three men undertook, such efforts are a beginning, an opening on the path to freedom.

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