After Slavery: Educator Resources

Exhibit Splash Image

1. Black Charleston Reacts to News of the Confederate Surrender

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Ten: Freedpeople and the Republican Party in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

In the decades leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, Charleston's white elites had become notorious for leading the intellectual defense of slavery. John C. Calhoun was only the best known of a circle of white politicians and intellectuals that based their political reputations on countering the abolitionist sentiment increasingly popular in the North. But even in this city, the citadel of slavery, there were cracks in the power of slaveholders. Since the uncovering of Denmark Vessey's insurrectionary plot in 1822, Charleston whites had been on edge worrying about clashes with African Americans, especially in a region where they were vastly outnumbered. Repression was one solution, but by the late 1840s the city had a large free black population, and depended on the labor of hundreds of slaves who were 'hired out' and enjoyed a degree of independence and mobility. In taverns and grog shops along the waterfront and at illicit trading posts along the lowcountry riverways, slaves and poor whites fraternized, threatening the stability required by slavery. Masters liked to imagine that their slaves were loyal, and would not desert them once the war came, but the reality was that many took the first viable opportunity to escape. In the document below, S. Willard Saxton, brother of Union general Rufus B. Saxton, reports on the intense reactions of Black Charlestonians to the news that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox.

Black Charleston Reacts to News of the Confederate Surrender

Friday April 14, 1865.The pen falters and the language fails when they come to tell of the great and glorious doings of this day, one of the most eventful of the war, and one that will be recorded on the page of history as one of the brightest... [continued April 15th]. There was a great meeting in Zion's church, which was crowded, in the forenoon. Senator Wilson, Mr. Garrison, Judge Kelley, of Penn, Theodore Tilton, and Mr. George Thompson, of England,a were the speakers, and that is enough to make a great and splendid meeting. A large crowd had gathered on Citadel Square, and speakers were sent out to entertain them. Such Abolition talk was then and there held as Charleston never before heard, and there must have been loud amens spoken in the other sphere to the eloquent truths that there found utterance. It was splendid indeed, and filled the heart and eyes full to overflowing. There was great enthusiasm among the immense throng of blacks, and 'white-blacks' and they felt, with justice, that it was their day, and that they had a night to hold up their heads and rejoice with exceeding great joy.

A touching scene occurred before the meeting opened. A black man came forward, with two little girls and in an earnest speech, short, eloquent, and powerful, thanked Mr. Garrison for his long labors for the slave, and that he had lived to see this day; after which he presented a beautiful wreath of flowers, and two elegant bouquets through the little girls. It was a proud and happy day for Mr. Garrison and for all who have ever labored in the holy cause. There was singing interspersed, the whole audience joining, and it was altogether the most affecting meeting, and the most glorious enthusiasm, among the freedmen, and genuine, heartfelt joy, expressed in many ways.

After the meeting, there was a procession formed on the square, headed by our colored band, and the speakers and some of us more humble ones, were escorted to the Charleston hotel. Some two or three thousand happy school children joined in the procession, and passed in review before us singing, "We'll hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree."

aMassachusetts Senator Henry Wilson was a prominent Republican closely associated with antislavery; Garrison was the most prominent abolitionist in the United States; William 'Pig Iron' Kelley was an antislavery industrialist centrally involved in Pittsburgh's iron industry; Tilton was the abolitionist editor of the New York-based Independent; and Thompson, a close personal friend of Garrison's, was a self-educated abolitionist prominent in social reform in Britain.

Source: S. Willard Saxton Journal, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library


Questions to Consider

  1. Why does Saxton believe that the kinds of speeches he heard in Charleston had "never before" been heard?

  2. Why might the city's blacks and 'white-blacks' have felt that this was their day? What does this suggest about their attitude towards the war? Why might they have refrained from outward expressions like this previously?

  3. Saxton does not report on the attitude of the city's white population to this display. Why do you suppose they do not figure in his account? How might they have responded to the news of Lee's surrender? What were their expectations for the future?

  4. How did Charleston schoolchildren know who 'Jeff' Davis was, and why might they have been 'happy' singing this song?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Ten