Emancipated African Americans and Their Freedom Rights


By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University

African Americans developed their understanding of freedom rights over many generations. While in bondage, they could easily see the fundamental civil and human rights that their captors enjoyed and that they did not. Indeed, no one had a better grasp of what freedom meant than those without freedom who were forced to work for, and live among, those with freedom.

Illustration of slaves crushing coffee
One freedom right African Americans were after was controlling their own labor. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

Economic Freedom Rights

African Americans carried this experiential wisdom with them into the post-emancipation era, and when the Day of Jubilee dawned, they immediately pursued these rights. African Americans sought three types of freedom rights. 

Illustration of an African American man, woman, and child riding on a horse
African Americans wanted to be able to establish families and keep women and young children from working in the fields as part of their freedom rights. (Image: Eastman Johnson/Public domain)

The first centered on economics. Above all else, they wanted to control their own labor. They no longer wanted to work in gangs, toiling alongside scores of others, as was common practice during slavery. Instead, they wanted to work in family units and keep women and young children out of the fields. 

They also wanted to own land. And not just any land. They wanted to own the land they had worked while enslaved, land they had improved with their own blood and sweat, because they knew that land ownership was the key to economic independence.

The Right to Vote 

The second set of freedom rights that emancipated African Americans pursued centered on politics. Freed people wanted access to the ballot box. Speaking before the American Anti-Slavery Society in May 1865, the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who remembered the enslaver’s lash, said, “Slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot.”

Like Douglass, freed men and women knew that African Americans had to have a say in selecting lawmakers to guard against the passage of discriminatory measures designed to create slavery by another name. They also knew that they had to run for elected office, to represent themselves in local, state, and federal government. Similarly, they wanted due process under the law, which meant being allowed to sit on juries and testify in court.

The former Confederates who controlled Southern legislatures in the months immediately after the war initially blocked freed people from participating in politics. But Radical Republicans, knowing that African Americans would support the party of Lincoln, extended the franchise to Black men through the Reconstruction Acts, which passed over Johnson’s veto in March 1867. 

With the ballot in hand, African Americans elected close to 2,000 Black men to state constitutional conventions, county courthouses, state legislatures, and Congress.

This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Black Officeholders

Freed people sent a handful of African Americans to Washington DC. But the legislative effectiveness of Black congressmen was limited by their numbers; there were too few in Congress to make a substantial difference.

Black officeholders were more numerous at the state level; at various times, they held majorities in the lower legislative chambers of Mississippi and South Carolina. They were also more effective at the state level, where they were able to use their numerical strength to agitate for freedom rights. Sometimes this meant fighting discriminatory measures by introducing nondiscriminatory ones, including bills that would prohibit segregation in public accommodations.

Black officeholders did what they could, but the odds were stacked against them. Former Confederates filled the ranks of the Democratic Party and attempted to block every move the Black legislators made. Republican allies weren’t very helpful either. They, too, embraced white supremacy and found little use for laws that promoted racial equality beyond voting rights.

African Americans Wanted Literacy

The final set of rights that African Americans pursued revolved around social freedoms. African Americans wanted their marital and parental bonds recognized by the state and protected by law to prevent family separations. Losing a loved one to sale was devastating because there was almost no chance of seeing that person again; sale was a kind of social death. So, as soon as possible, freed people registered their marriages at county courthouses.

African Americans wanted to worship as they pleased, so they left white churches, where they had been forced to pray to a God who encouraged blind obedience to their tormentors, and they formed churches of their own, where they could pray to a just and merciful God. They wanted to be able to protect themselves against racial terrorism, including sexual assault, so they acquired guns when they could and agreed to defend each other when necessary.

Illustration of a school opened for African American children
Increasing literacy in the African American community was accomplished by lobbying state legislatures to open schools. (Image: Jas E. Taylor/Public domain)

And they wanted access to education. One of the great sins of slavery was denying African Americans the right to learn the fundamentals of literacy. They lobbied state legislatures to set up compulsory public education systems. They petitioned the Freedmen’s Bureau (the underfunded federal agency established to help African Americans transition from slavery to freedom) to open schools.

A Long Way to Go

After the dark days of slavery, African Americans were desperate for the light of freedom. But the promise and possibility of the years immediately following emancipation were disappointing. Beyond voting rights, what came to pass fell well short of what African Americans needed to thrive. 

Although the first years of freedom fell well short of Black expectations, disappointment did not lessen freed people’s determination to obtain their freedom rights. In the years ahead, African Americans continued to fight for the civil and human rights that white Americans denied them during slavery. In fact, obtaining these rights became the basis of the economic, political, and social agenda that they pursued for the next century.

Common Questions about Emancipated African Americans and Their Freedom Rights

Q: What was the nature of freedom rights that centered on economics?

African Americans who were after freedom rights wanted to own their own land on which they would work. They also wanted to control their own labor and not be bothered with working in gangs and forcing women and children to work.

Q: Why did radical Republicans support African Americans’ right to vote?

Radical Republicans knew that if African Americans had the right to vote, the chances of Lincoln staying in office would be higher, so they supported the notion that was part of a larger set of freedom rights.

Q: How did the political landscape look like for African Americans after the Civil War?

After emancipation, African Americans sought to secure freedom rights for themselves. Unfortunately, apart from the right to vote, things looked bleak in all other areas. The near future wouldn’t satisfy their expectations.

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