Based on the best in recent scholarship, the After Slavery project presents the conflict that developed in the wake of emancipation not simply as an attempt by African Americans to overcome racial injustice, but also as a profoundly important chapter in a broader history of America’s working people. Many of the historians who have written about Reconstruction and its aftermath over the past generation have emphasized its place in a long and continuing series of struggles to end racial inequality—and this was certainly a prominent and necessary aspect of freedpeople’s struggles in the period after the Civil War. Attempts to remake society had an important cultural impact as well: the sharp reversal of fortunes brought on by Confederate defeat meant that even the most trivial, everyday interactions between ex-slaves and their former owners were charged with significance.
As leading Reconstruction scholar Eric Foner notes, in the new dawn of freedom former slaves “relished opportunities to flaunt their liberation from the innumerable regulations . . . associated with slavery. Freedmen held mass meetings and religious services unrestrained by white surveillance, acquired dogs, guns, and liquor (all barred to them under slavery), and refused to yield the sidewalks to whites. They dressed as they pleased, black women sometimes wearing gaudy finery, carrying parasols, and replacing the slave kerchief with colorful hats and veils.” Hardly any aspect of southern custom or tradition was left untouched by the revolution in everyday life set off by emancipation.
Still, the process of emancipation was most fundamentally about bringing an end to an unjust system of forced labor. The bitter conflict that developed after 1865 between freed slaves and their former masters revolved around crucial questions of what freedom would mean and who would define its boundaries. For the most part, ex-masters accepted that legal slavery was gone for good, but they hoped to rebuild a society that kept blacks “in their place”— poor, landless, and dependent on whites. In many ways, they sought to resurrect a labor system as close to the condition of slavery as possible. Freedpeople aspired to the exact opposite: they wanted independence from their former masters, land ownership to ensure this independence, and a measure of prosperity. They aspired to a life free from the indignities and privations they associated with slavery. Former slaves sought not only an end to racial discrimination or relief from southern white cultural domination, but also a fundamental change in the social and economic order that had underpinned slavery. They wanted a full revolution in social relations.
As the After Slavery exhibition and educational resources make clear, ex-slaves were by no means passive bystanders in this attempt to "achieve democracy for the working millions." In the weeks, months, and years after slavery ended, the black laboring poor of the U.S. South attempted to carve out a new society that conformed to their aspirations. This transformation took place in a range of contexts—on plantations, artisan workshops, urban households, and port-city docks; in churches and on the stump at outdoor mass meetings; and in state legislatures and local meetings of the Union and Loyal Leagues. Sometimes freedpeople were joined by poor whites bearing their own resentments and grievances against the planter elite; at other times they faced near-unanimous white hostility. On occasion freedpeople were aided by the determined commitment of Republican officials, army officers, and Freedmen's Bureau agents; but at other times federal authorities considered them a nuisance and did their best to undermine the ex-slaves struggles to build a new world from the old.