"SLAVERY IS DEAD," intoned a Cincinnati newspaper in the spring of 1865, but "the negro is not. For the sake of all parties, would that he were."
All parties, of course, were the whites, North and South, who had promulgated the bitter Civil War but who would soon "reconcile" their differences at the expense of 4 million recently freed black workers. For a full century after the betrayals of Reconstruction, "all parties" would succeed in conveying to generations of schoolchildren a lily-white version of the Civil War era, in which slaves remained passive and ignorant onlookers, who were given greater freedom than they could properly understand or use. To this day, the word "Emancipation" conjures up for most Americans a picture of a plaintive, shackled slave kneeling before the stately benefactor, Lincoln.
Thousands of blacks who escaped enslavement saw the situation differently."Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it?" Thomas Hall of Orange County, North Carolina, asked an interviewer in the 1930s. Felix Haywood, a black cowpuncher in Bexar County, Texas, recalled of emancipation: "We all felt like horses and nobody had made us that way but ourselves. We was free."
Standard textbook images notwithsanding, for black Americans the Civil War was a liberation struggle, a war of independence which promised constitutional freedoms white men had taken for themselves nearly a century before. In 1865, when black leader Martin R. Delaney spoke at Zion Church in Charleston (the "Faneuil Hall" of the movement), he was introducerd as "the Patrick Henry of his race in this, the second revolution." Even now certain black communities across the South still celebrate their independence on "Juneteenth Day," the specific date - varying from place to place - upon which word of emancipation reached that locale.
Now this other war, this second revolution, has been brought to light as never before in a massive new work by a respected scholar of American race relations. Leon Litwack's new study reveals in rich detail the dramatic but fleeting redistribution of power which occurred in the South between 1863 and 1868 and was, in the author's words, an "epic chapter in the history of the American people." That it was also one of the most harrowing, far-reaching and distorted chapters never quite gets said outright, for Litwack follows in the Footsteps of his liberal mentors, Kenneth Stampp and Allan Nevins - clear, judicious, thorough historians who prefer to let the documents speak.
And what documents they are. The massive and valuable WPA interviews with ex-slaves provide the central core of evidence, graphic personal responses to the collapse of the slavocracy, the use of black troops, the arrival of northerners and the new "boundaries of black freedom." They reveal startling variations on traditional themes, and what impresses Litwack the most is the sheer diversity of the firsthand record. He stresses "the countless ways in which freedom was perceived and experienced by the black men and women who had been born into slavery," noting that "each black had a different way of recollecting" almost every phase of the struggle. While these varied, even contradictory, accounts show the complexities of the situation and the diversity of those caught up in it, each is highly personal, making it hard for the author to generalize about community ties and regional and group responses.
Generalization is made harder by the use of certain white sources. While conceding that "most whites preferred to romanticize about the martyred Lost Cause," Litwack quotes extensively from the journals and reminiscences of former slaveowners. Such "balance" may be admirable, but the author does not always distance himself far enough from those who viewed plantation existence as "glorious" and emancipation as "a most unprecedented robbery." When a slave-holder's daughter gives her version of the workers' submissive response to the announcement of freedom, Litwack describes it, presumably tongue in cheek, as "the perfect picture, embodying the notions of white nobility, black humility, mutual obligations, faifthful service and the extended family unit - black and white." And when the same woman is given space to observe that, after freedom, "the negro, en masse , relapsed promptly into the voodooism of Africa," he accepts her definition of independent church meetings as "orgies."
The richness of detail more than offsets Litwack's occasional reluctance to weigh his sources and analyze their implications. His clear and stirring chronicle leaves readers to form their own judgments about the degrees of planter depravity, the depths of northern racism, and the boundaries of worker endurance which lie revealed. And since he does not mention the preceding heritage or the long subsequent legacy, we are free to frame our own comparisons. When a plantation mistress suggests that blacks be eliminated "as rats & cockroaches are by all sorts of means when they become unbearable," I hear the ongoing bigotry of Skokie and Decatur. When a planter surrenders his paternalistic control by muttering, "Damn you, you are free now," I see a mill owner acknowledging momentarily the hard-won and problematical gains of a union struggle. And when the federal government retreats from a commitment to equal opportunity into a stance which defends the propertied status quo ante bellum , I see . . ..
One WPA informant, who should have known, said he "never saw a book that come up to what slavery was." His opinion probably would not be changed by the scholarly outpouring of the last decade. But Leon Litwack's painstaking and painful study of slavery's aftermath gives new insight into a crucial moment of social upheaval in America. This absorbing and resourceful book should be widely read.