What was the emotional impact of Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, transforming four million Afro-Americans from slaves to free people?
The reaction - black and white, slave and slave-owners - was mixed, say historians Leon Litwack and Ira Berlin who're conducting separate studies of the complex effects emancipation, an unexplored subject in the recent plethora of scholarly research on the Afro-American slave experience.
In the brief flurry of excitement and anticipation at the moment of freedom, explains Litwack, there was talk among newly freed slaves of their living like white folks.
"It's de white man's turn ter labor now," an ex-slave preacher intoned.
A servant turned on her mistress and said: "I expect the white folks to be waiting on me before long."
But "that precise moment when a slave could think of himself or herself as a free person was not even clear," says Litwack, who's writing a book on the aftermath of emancipation.
He quotes Ambrose Douglass, a former North Carolina slave, who said: "I guess we musta celebrated 'mancipation about 12 times in Harnett County. Every time a bunch of Northern sojers would come through they would tell us we was free and we'd begin celebratin'. Before we would get through somebody else would tell us to go back to work, and we would go. Some of wanted to jine up with the army, but didn't know who was goin' to win and didn't take no chances."
Berlin, a history professor at the University of Maryland, says, "By looking at slavery on the eve of emancipation, we get a look at what slavery was really like."
He and several graduate assistants are combing through records at the National Archives. "We're trying to work from the bottom up," says the historian. "Emancipation was not a fragile process. We're learning a lot about friendship patterns. Those people who're writing letters who're being elected as convention delegates, will contribute to a reinterpretation of black life."
Whites, emphasizes Litwack, had different reactions to emancipation. Many couldn't believe that blacks were deserting after freedom.
A planter wrote: "We had thought there was a strong bond of affection on their side as well as ours. We have ministered to them in sickness, infancy and age. But poor creatures! They don't know what freedom is, and they are crazy. They think it the opening of the door of heaven."
Litwack, a history professor at the University of California at Berkeley, also quotes Mary Chestnutt, whose cousin had been murdered in bed in 1862. She wrote: "Hitherto I have never thought of being afraid of Negroes.I had never injured any of them; why should they want to hurt me? I feel that the ground is cut away from under my feet. Why should they treat me any better than they have done Cousin Betsey Witherspoon?"
While Litwack is using a variety of source materials such as letters, newspapers, magazines, diaries, journals and books, Berlin is relying to a large extent on letters - most of them from the records of the Freedmen's Bureau, the Army Department and Bureau of Colored Troops.
In addition, he's looking at depositions, petitions, formal reports, broadsides and directives.
"We're able to learn a lot about people through their complaints," says Berlin, pointing to a letter written to President Lincoln by Annie Davis in August 1864.
She wrote: "It is my desire to be free to go to see my people on the eastern shore. My mistress won't let me. You will please let me know if we are free and what I can do. I write to you for advice. Please send me word this week. Or as soon as possible."
In the vaultlike files is a letter to George Cardwell from his wife, Martha, in Mexico, Mo., on Dec. 20, 1863. She complains about his enlisting in the Union Army and says that she and their seven children are being abused.
"I have had nothing but trouble since you left. You recollect what I told you, how they would do after you had gone. They abuse me because you went and say they will not take care of our children and do nothing but quarrel with me all the time - and beat me scandalously the day before yesterday - oh, I never thought you would give me so much trouble as I have got to bear now.
"You ought not to have left me in the fix I am in and all these little helpless children to take care of. I was invited to a party tonight but I could not go. I am in too much trouble to want to go to parties. The children talk about you all time and wish you could get a furlough and come to see us once more . . ."
"These records tell us from the beginning that the emancipation was not a passive experience," says Berlin. "Black people carved out a role for themselves. We learn many things about blacks from these documents.
"There's the whole question of naming. Few black people took names of their former owners. It's important that they took the names of particular colors or people they admired."
Berlin, 37, the son of a New York City grocer, says he became interested in Afro-American history at the Universityof Wisconsin while studying under Herbert Gutman, author of "The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom."
Berlin has written "Slaves Without Masters," an account of blacks who lived in freedom before the Civil War.
Out of his current project Berlin hopes to publish a three-volume documentary history of emancipation and an interpretive work examining questions of family names, sexual mores, mobility, jobs, military service and attitudes toward law.
He and the staff are in the second year of a five-year project. So far the work has been absorbing, Berlin says.
He pulls out a letter from a white woman in Georgetown, Ga., married to a black man. She had written the Freedmen's Bureau asking for protection for her husband and herself.
"It's one of the most painful letters you've ever read," he says softly. "She's explaining to people who are probably not sympathetic to what she's done about how her husband loves her, how as an orphan girl she never had much affection and what the meaning of their relationship is."
In the letter, Carrie Hall wrote: ". . . though our marriage was somewhat [arranged] secrietly we are lawfully and honestly and truly husband and wife before god and man and would be one of the happest copple in the world if it was not for this.Some of the white people have learnt someway or other that we are married or at least that I have married this colored gentleman and I hear they are making grate talk of what they are going to do and my mind is in grate trouble fearing they may try to carry out some of theare planes . . .
"And now my Dear Sir the advise I ask of you is this, if you please to let me know has eney one eney rights or law or authority to interfeare with us and if not will you be kind enough to give each of us frome your hand a writing that will save [us] frome eney trouble . . ."
Berlin leans back in his chair and sighs, "Some of these letters just blow you off your chair."