After the Civil War, more than 3.9 million African Americans gained their freedom. In this incredible transition period, the freed slaves reacted by first establishing their families. They also sought ways in which they could manage their working environment. Apart from that, they looked for ways in which they could establish their own churches and schools as well as unique ways to participate in public life not as slaves but as citizens. However, these objectives were not easy to attain at that point in time. Their transition from a life of slavery to that of freedom was as astonishing as it was multifaceted. The freed slaves experienced a mixture of joy and disappointment in their efforts to establish themselves as free people.
The former slaves encountered challenges in their efforts to ascertain themselves as free citizens and paid workers. Most of their owners refused to accept them as free people. They not only lacked places to call home but also could not support themselves or their families.
However, over 20,000 former slaves had joined the army during the war for freedom. This was evident when 40% of Tennessee’s union troops comprised African Americans. Most of these men initially worked as military labourers. They assisted in the completion of the Johnsonville and Nashville railroad before gallantly fighting in the 1864 Nashville battle. Most of the African American soldiers also had families that followed them to seek their freedom behind the union lines. The renegades, especially women and their children as well as the elderly, were perceived as a big burden by the union, thus they were not welcomed in the union jurisdictions. Most of these women attempted to look for work in union camps. Even though there were limited opportunities in the camps, some of them eventually succeeded to work as hospital workers, cooks, tailors, and laundresses.
The freedom during the war was disastrous for families that lived behind the union lines because of the unbearable conditions. By the end of the war, the hurriedly erected contraband camps that spread all over Tennessee became very poor asylums for the freed slaves. The fragile shelters in the union encampments offered little protection from hazardous elements and the congested conditions resulted in shocking rates of diseases and deaths. Apart from that, white soldiers sexually exploited women in those camps. Consequently, most slaves decided to stick with their former owners after they heard about the heart-rending conditions in the Union camps. The slaves who had stuck with their owners in the entire war period began to experience some form of freedom. They obtained some leverage from their owners due to the potential threat they had of escaping. Some of the concessions they received from their masters included having quality time with their families and doing enough work for their own families.
Most of the landowners had fled after the war and the Union Army seized their land. The Union General, William Sherman, promised some of this land to the freed slaves. However, this was reverted when President Andrew Johnson pardoned the former landowners in 1865; hence, they repossessed their property. Most of the former slaves pushed to the wall with no other way of fending for themselves or their families, decided to go back to their former owners. Even though they were at the time paid a monthly salary, some of them were made to sign contracts whose conditions were similar to slavery. For instance, they could be fined for a foul mouth and could not leave the farms without seeking permission.
Since they were no more in slavery, a fundamental concern for a majority of the freed slaves in the south was to locate members of their families from whom they had been detached under bondage. Given that they had long been deprived of mobility while still in bondage, the freed African Americans took to their feet. They travelled across cities and towns as they searched for each other and sought any leads that could assist them to reunite. They took detailed adverts in newspapers in an attempt to find each other. The families that managed to reunite experienced both the delight of reconciliation as well as the tension of constructing the cut off relationships.
The desire to ensure that their families were established kept on motivating former slaves at the end of the war. However, several peripheral pressures curtailed their efforts to keep their families intact. Inadequate resources, miserable economic situations, and constant manipulation by their former owners, who were searching for cheap labourers, made some African Americans to franchise their children to the white employers. Most freed African Americans worked for their former owners on the farms but for very slight compensation. They often clashed with their white employers because they wanted their own independence and control of their time. Consequently, the effort to guarantee that freedom was indeed distinct from slavery was a daunting task in the reconstruction years.
- Robert. Divine America: Past and Present, Volume 1 Brief Edition. Pearson: New York, 2009.
- James, Anderson. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Gavin, Michael T. Maury County African-American Heritage Tour Guide. Columbia, TN: Middle Tennessee Visitors Bureau, 2008.
LeForge, Bussell. “State Colored Conventions of Tennessee, 1865-1866” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 65, 231-235, 2006.
Lovett, Bobby L. The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930 Fayetteville, AR: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 2007.
Van West, Carroll. Tennessee History: The Land, the People, and the Culture Knoxville, TN: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2010.
Bussell LeForge, “State Colored Conventions of Tennessee, 1865-1866,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 65 (2006). 231.
 James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press. 2005), 123.
 Michael T. Gavin, Maury County African-American Heritage Tour Guide (Columbia, TN: Middle Tennessee Visitors Bureau. 2008), 3.
 Carroll Van West, Tennessee History: The Land, the People, and the Culture Knoxville, (TN: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2010), 100.
 Bussell LeForge, “State Colored Conventions of Tennessee, 1865-1866,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 65. (2006), 232.
Bussell LeForge, “State Colored Conventions of Tennessee, 1865-1866,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 65. (2006), 235.
 Robert A., Divine America: Past and Present, Volume 1 Brief Edition. (Pearson: New York, 2009), 320.
 Bobby L. Lovett, The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930 (Fayetteville, AR: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 2007), 59.
 Michael T. Gavin, Maury County African-American Heritage Tour Guide (Columbia, TN: Middle Tennessee Visitors Bureau, 2008), 15.
 James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press. 2005), 125.
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