How did former slaves begin their new lives in freedom?

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Freedman plowing with a primitive plow. from a sketch by Jas. E. Taylor, 1866. (Library of Congress)

Freedman plowing with a primitive plow. From a sketch by Jas. E. Taylor, 1866. (Library of Congress)

With the end of the Civil War, white and black lives that had once been joined, if on unequal terms, now separated.

How did former slaves begin their new lives in freedom?

With the abolition of slavery we unfortunately lose the ability to track the lives of the Poore family’s five slaves, now freedpeople, and any further connection they may have had.

Small Mississippi farmers, such as the Poore family, and who owned only a few slaves, didn’t keep extensive records such as those kept by the owners of large plantations and many slaves. So we don’t have a detailed list of accounts and names for the bondsmen.

Because we don’t know even the first names of these former slaves we can’t use those as possible clues in searching census and other records for information about them after emancipation.

It is useful to consider their opportunities after the end of slavery to understand what may have happened to them and how they may have continued to be a part of their former masters’ lives. Their choices would have been influenced, among other things, by their attitudes toward their former masters, and by their former masters’ attitudes toward them.

If the Poore family had treated their former bondservants kindly, the freedpeople may have decided to remain near the family’s farm. Other freedpeople continued to work for their former masters. Staying put offered a measure of safety plus housing, work and food.

If the former slaves received harsh treatment, they probably left as quickly as possible.

Many freedmen took to the roads, and not always because they had been ill-treated. Tens of thousands of blacks jammed train depots and country roads in Mississippi for no other reason than to demonstrate their new status. More often they traveled to reunite with family members or to find work at better wages and conditions.

The four freedpeople (one seems to have left during the war), three women and one man, from the Poore farm also may have been among the thousands of ragged and hungry blacks who streamed into the region’s towns and cities in search of help from victorious Union forces or to celebrate the “day of jubilee.”

They may have found their way to a local office of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Here they could have received food, medicine and clothing. The nearest Freedmen’s Bureau office to the Poore family’s Jasper County farm was in Meridian.

Many freedpeople from the region moved to the Southeast Mississippi town where they lived in wretched quarters. Cholera and smallpox swept through these areas and killed many blacks.

If the freedpeople from the Poore family stayed in Jasper County, they may have received aid from the local federal relief commissioner. Jones County had a commissioner and Jasper County probably did as well, or they may have been one in the same.

In fact, the military authorities had appointed Jasper County resident Newton Knight to obtain relief for the destitute of the region. The appointment undoubtedly galled the Poore family and others in the Piney Woods because Knight had been the leader of the irregulars who bedeviled Confederate authorities in the region during the war.

Perhaps the four freedpeople married others, set up their own homesteads, and farmed in Jasper County. By some grace they may have managed to own farms rather than work as laborers on others’ land.

Even if they managed to obtain some land by homesteading or purchase, the four freedpeople from the Poore family faced the same problems as other farmers. Farmers needed money or credit for stock and equipment, and to feed themselves until harvest. Consequently a farmer needed a minimum of $600 and probably more to start up. In 1860, for example, an 80-acre farm in Illinois had required a farmer to lay out nearly $1,700 to start, a price too steep for many free white men in that state at the time.

While a white Mississippian had trouble getting the cash or credit needed to start operating, a newly freed slave without a record as an independent operator found it nearly impossible to get funds or advancements of supplies.

And, unless they had a very large and extended family as a labor pool, black farmers had the same labor issues as white farmers. They somehow needed to hire and pay farm labor. Some freedmen solved both their financing and labor problems by settling in groups or colonies, or they formed cooperatives, joint-stock companies, or partnerships to purchase and farm the land.

We don’t yet know where and how the three women and one man who had once been slaves to the Poore family began their new lives in freedom. Their part of this story will have to wait until we can discover more about them.

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