A life of freedom


On April 5,1865, President Abraham Lincoln toured the newly conquered Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. As he rode around the town, he was cheered everywhere by newly freed black men and women. Although the president had issued his final Emancipation Proclamation two years previously, the ex-slaves had only recently learned of it.

After more than two hundred years of bondage, America's slaves were freed when the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in December, 1865. However, by then slavery was already dead. More than six months had passed since the last fight of the Civil War. Across the South, black Americans wandered the countryside looking for a new start in life. To deal with these estimated 4 million people, the federal government established the Freedmen's Bureau. This agency set up villages to house and feed refugees, and schools to educate them. Meanwhile, opportunistic Northerners, called Carpetbaggers because they usually carried their few possessions in suitcases made of carpet material, tried to gain the political support of freedmen. Former slaves had been given voting rights under recently passed laws. To win their votes, some Carpetbagger politicians said black voters might get forty acres of land and a mule to start their own farms. This cruel lie created false hope among displaced Southern blacks. Many of them returned to their former masters' plantations and worked there again as poorly paid employees. Some headed for the Western territories or Northern cities. Others helped rebuild the South to make it a good home for themselves and their families.


Most slaves in the Deep South did not know of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation until Union occupation forces came to their communities and read the document to them. This old artwork showing a black Union trooper reading the proclamation to newly freed men and women recalls that experience. The news that freedom had finally come after centuries of pleading and prayer stunned most blacks who heard it. Many were overcome with joy and immediately set out for other parts of the United States, where they hoped to begin new lives.

Military-style tunic

Military-style tunic


This unidentified freedman had his photograph taken in a commercial photographic studio in Louisiana. That a Southern black man could walk into a white photographer's place of business, pose, and pay for his picture like a white patron did was a civil rights victory. This photograph is quiet yet significant evidence that life in the postwar South was changing.


After the war, there were many groups of hooded night riders that terrorized ex-slaves, federal officials, Carpetbaggers, and sympathetic Southerners. The lynchings and beatings that they carried out were documented in the Northern press with drawings such as this one. Some groups, such as the Knights of the White Camelia, broke up after their targets had understood that the messages these terrorists conveyed were to be obeyed. The Ku Klux Klan, however, rebuffed calls from many ex-Confederates to disband and set itself up as a powerful and violent underground government in the postwar South.


This settlement for homeless ex-slaves looks like a series of army barracks. Other settlements looked like a collection of cottages. Many of these first refugee "villages" were built either by soldiers or by government laborers. Later, the Freedmen's Bureau hired refugees to do some of the building themselves.


These South Carolina slaves have been freed by Northern army troops. But their former master's land, the Drayton Plantation, is producing nothing and they are without a means of supporting themselves. This was a common hazard that came with freedom. Some plantation owners ran away from advancing Union armies and left their slaves without food or clothing. But in the months after the war, some former slaves and slave owners reunited, working together as employers and employees.


When freedmen were given the right to vote, some former Confederates organized themselves into terrorist bands to intimidate them. The Ku Klux Klan was the most famous of these groups. Early in Reconstruction, its members would burst into the homes of black people and tell the men: Do not vote for any Carpetbaggers.

Lynching victim

Taxes Lynching Photos

Lynching victim

Kkk Capturing Black Man

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