The Emancipation Proclamation: How Far Did it Really Change the Position of African-Americans?

The path to emancipation can be seen through the American Civil War which was in effect fought over slavery. The conflict procured a sense of rebelliousness amongst the slaves as they began to sense their impending liberation. Many became uncontrollable as they refused to obey orders and challenged to their masters. This resulted in approximately 100,000 former slaves fighting as soldiers for the Union cause with a further 500,000 fleeing from their plantations as refugees seeking aid from the Union armies. The fact blacks became soldiers altered the whole concept of slavery, with Howell Cobb suggesting in 1865, ‘if slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong’. Moreover, those who fled experienced a wide range of free and semi-free circumstances as slavery transformed into free labour. Many worked under contract for planters rather than being an object of property. This symbolized a breakdown of slavery and came to represent the emancipation of thousands of former slaves before the war itself had ended. As a result conditions changed for those who chose to remain in bondage with slavery crumbling in parts of the South as the wars aim became evident. This led to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

However, this new legislation did not instantly end slavery, the decree only applied to rebel regions of the US where the government could not administer the law. Slavery remained a legal practice in states that remained loyal to the government. As Peter Kolchin suggests ‘drawing its legal justification from the Presidents power as commander in chief of the armed forces to take whatever action he deemed necessary to win the war’. This promotes the idea that the abolition of slavery was a political, as well a military measure, in order to ensure the victory of the war by destabilising rebel states and gaining grateful military aid in those who had been freed. Nevertheless, this transformed the war from conservative to revolutionary, and represented how a Union victory would ensure the end to slavery.

Emancipation brought newfound freedoms to the lives of formerly oppressed slaves which gave way to considerable changes to American society as a whole. However, despite this newfound independence, emancipation also brought with it continued privation, exploitation and repression. As a result, within a generation of formerly hopeful and enthusiastic peoples the longing for freedom gave way to indignation and often despair.

The end of the war saw slavery abolished which in turn meant former slaves were legally free, however their status within American, and especially Southern society was far from the concept of true freedom. Former slave holders, including the new President Johnson, sought to deny true freedom to blacks. Once slaves were freed from the restraints of bondage they struggled to maximize their newfound independence and battled to avoid falling into the same reliance comparable to the days of legal slavery. The years following emancipation saw Southern whites deny the reality of liberation to former slaves. These Southerners clung on to the notion that blacks would remain less than free and inferior to whites. Abolitionists such as Carl Schurz discovered that most Southern whites rejected the idea that blacks would work, except under enforced circumstances. He came to the conclusion that although blacks are no longer considered the property of a master, they are nonetheless ‘a slave to society’. Southern state legislatures went so far as to enforce new ‘black codes’ which downgraded blacks into a position between slave and free. Employment, property ownership, and access to the legal system were denied to blacks during the years following emancipation in the South. The codes even permitted forced labor on homeless or jobless African-Americans, the same applied to children whose parents lacked the financial support to care for them. They went so far as to regulate rights such as marriage and restrict the movement of African-Americans unless they provide a note from their employer. These codes were enacted to restore the prewar conditions on blacks as closely as possible. Slavery was abolished, however it was made possible through these black codes to keep former slaves in privation and ignorance. This projects the idea that blacks were forced back into a situation comparable to slavery. The fact families were still forcibly, but legally, able to be separated though a legal system that enforced poverty and racism mirrors the situation that blacks had been subject to for centuries. However, the ideology behind these ‘black codes’ was not to force blacks back into slavery, the South recognised that slavery was over. These codes were sanctioned to keep blacks inferior to whites and enforce racism to its extremes. This symbolises the limitations of emancipation. Simple gestures such as an African-American refusing to pull down his hat to a white man led to violence, especially in the South. Being familiar with ordering blacks around and convinced of their inferiority, whites could not cope when they were expected to treat blacks as equal. Slavery conveyed a clear set of rules which blacks were forced to follow, however freedom discarded this, which the South was not ready to deal with.

These conflicts that arose can be seen as a consequence over the dilemma of what to do with former slaves and how they should be viewed and treated. Despite emancipation largely freeing blacks from servitude it was the attitude of many Americans that once freed blacks should be left alone to succeed or fail in a world of racism and prejudice. This attitude was even shared by strong supporters of civil rights as well as Northern sympathisers. Many Northerners did not want free blacks flocking to their states and competing for jobs, in their eyes slavery was wrong, however a black person remained unequal in their minds, an indication that racism was strongly felt in both the North and South. The North proved to be too cautious and conservative. This, added with no welfare programme to support former slaves, it is of no surprise that many fell back into a system that mirrored slavery. Even before the South introduced the black codes in 1865 there are instances where blacks sold themselves back into slavery for economic benefit. In 1864 a free man sold himself for five hundred dollars in order to free his wife. Moreover, in states such as Florida, blacks who broke labor contracts could be sold off for a year. This shows how not only were free blacks still able to be bought and sold in the years following emancipation, but that slavery still existed with family members trying to buy each others freedom. The one difference that can be drawn from this is the fact the majority of blacks were not forcibly sold, it was their choice. However, with no welfare system for former slaves and family members still being unlawfully held, it is debatable how far this situation was optional.

However, despite the governments and societies uncertainty of what a free African-American should be, the former slaves had idealised roles for themselves which had been defined in their minds well before they achieved freedom. During the first wave of freedom blacks craved the reunion of families, education, farms, full citizenship and the recognition of their equal humanity. According to J. Williamson blacks were able to fall into the lives they craved ‘familiarly and comfortably’. Blacks were able to achieve these idealised goals of freedom by securing farms either by purchase, many had saved money from the civil war, or by renting as tenants from their former owners. This destroyed the former plantation system in the South, with blacks leading this breakup by refusing to work under white supervision. Furthermore, former slave quarters were literally pulled away from plantations to new farms, a symbolic indication of the breakup of this system as well as the freedom blacks now possessed. Despite this, W. Dunaway highlights, ‘for most, enslavement was replaced by the bondage of a legally protected debt peonage system.’ This suggests that the dream of sharecropping for many African-Americans was not achieved. Furthermore, wages were extremely low, former slaves could expect to earn fifteen to thirty cents per day, which on occasions employers refused to pay. Moreover, sharecropping households also found it difficult to survive. Once money had been paid to the landowner many found it difficult to support their animals and themselves. This shows how the image of slavery still existed following emancipation, many African-Americans still worked and lived in the same conditions that they were accustomed to before.

Despite these limitations placed on the black population by the South, ’The Reconstruction’ programme was eventually enacted and guaranteed both civil and voting rights to former slaves. The first Civil Rights Act was passed in 1866 despite President Johnson’s best efforts to veto the bill. This ensured that all people who were born in the US were recognized as American citizens and would be treated as such by law. This suggests that rather than being pushed back into slavery blacks were being recognised as American peoples by the government and by law. However, a further ten acts were passed in the coming decades before true equality was met, with the last being passed in 1991. Therefore it is debatable how far the act of 1866 really changed the position of blacks in American society. They were however now able ‘to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property…and have equal benefit of all laws’, as well voting rights for black men.’ This suggests a huge step forward in the years following emancipation. Furthermore, the Fifteenth Amendment which was passed in 1869 declared, ‘the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied…by any state on account of race’. This in many ways was the last major stand for the radicals who believed the right to vote for blacks was a way of assuring full rights of citizenship and equality in law, moreover for many Northerners this was the last stage of Reconstruction. However, discrimination could still exercise itself on racially impartial grounds though literacy tests and property requirements, denying blacks the opportunity to vote. In addition, Southern Democrats were recovering political control and were using terrorist groups to frighten and control. Those African-Americans who tried to exercise their right to vote were at risk of being murdered. This brought Reconstruction to an end. Southern blacks were abandoned by the federal government leaving them unprotected amongst their former masters. African-Americans now faced continued deprivation and the persistent struggle of Southern whites to deny black men the vote.

With this increased hardship in defiance of the law, and with the Ku Klux Klan being organized and active by 1868 in every Appalachian county, the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 were enacted by congress to cover organized violence and racial discrimination in elections. If two or more people were found to be violating these acts they could expect to face large fines and imprisonment. Moreover victims of violence could sue in federal court for injuries and loss of rights. However this too faced its limitations, with thousands of charges being reported there were few convictions. Therefore it is debatable how far this helped blacks due to the intense racism felt in the South and the conviction of thousands of whites to keep blacks in poverty.

Overall, during the years following emancipation former slaves were oppressed legally, financially and morally, with civil rights acts and amendments making little difference to their position. The South undermined and manipulated legislation from the government in order to ensure African-Americans were kept in a position that mirrored slavery. By the enforcement of black codes and the long process of disfranchising black men, the legislation that declared blacks free and equal citizens of the United States were sabotaged, leading to decades of continued racism and struggle. The poverty and way of life for former slaves reflected the lives they lived before, with many still working for their old masters and living in their old slave courters. The dreams of emancipation and reconstruction were not fulfilled in the years following the liberation of blacks, despite them being recognised as equal by the government and by law.

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