Contraband slaves at Foller's Farm, Cumberland VA. May 14, 1862. (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.

— Attributed to Harriet Tubman

As soon as Hawkins Wilson, an enslaved African American from the region outside of Galveston, Texas, realized that he was free, he knew exactly what he would do. He would begin a search to find his family — a family he had not seen or heard from since he was sold from a plantation in Caroline County, Va., 24 years earlier. To facilitate his search, Wilson sent a letter seeking assistance from the Richmond office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a crucially important, though short-lived, federal agency created to assist the newly freed in this moment of challenge and possibility.

“I am anxious to learn about my sisters, from whom I have been separated many years,” Wilson wrote. “I am in hopes that they are still living.” He then explained that he “was sold at a Sheriff’s sale to a Mr. Wright of Boydtown Court House,” and that he hoped an additional letter that he enclosed could be delivered to his sister.

The pain of his separation and the strength of his desire to reclaim his family are evident in this second letter. “Your little brother Hawkins is trying to find out where you are and where his poor old mother is,” he wrote. “I shall never forget the bag of biscuits you made for me the last night I spent with you.” He added that he had lived an honorable life, so that if they did not “meet on earth, we might indeed meet in heaven.” He ended his letter by asking his sister to write back quickly and said she should not be surprised if “I drop in on upon you some day.”

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Wilson’s letter was delivered or that he ever reconnected with his family.

To the newly emancipated such as Wilson, freedom was never all that they had hoped, but it was much more than they had ever had.

Read the full Washington Post Civil War 150 series.

Nearly 150 years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment, the law that formally prohibited slavery in the United States. It is difficult to imagine the enormity of this change for those who suffered generations in bondage. With the joy of emancipation came a dizzying array of concerns and questions. What did freedom mean for the nearly 4 million African Americans who were enslaved when the war began? How would the freedmen and freedwomen find economic stability? Should they stay on the land they knew or seek the possibilities of new places? How would white Southerners react to their freedom? And would the nation embrace or ignore them now that the war was over?

What is clear is that emancipation was a long process, a process that is still unfolding — not simply a day or a moment of jubilee. The changes wrought by emancipation took generations to reveal, and more than a century would pass before African Americans began to reap the full benefits of freedom. While almost all formerly enslaved African Americans remembered the circumstances when they gained or seized their freedom, there was no single emancipation experience. Some self-emancipated by escaping to the Union lines or by joining the army; others learned of their new condition when former owners, often prodded by Union officers, announced that they were free; and others found the promise of freedom clouded by racial hatred, disease and death. Yet there is no denying the impact and emotion that accompanied emancipation.

Interviews with historians hired during the Depression to record the experiences of former slaves show the gamut of emotions they felt. “After surrender, I can remember the negroes were so happy,” recalled Hamp Santee, who had been enslaved in Mississippi. “They just rang bells, blowed horns and shouted like they were crazy. Then they brought a brand new rope, and cut it up into little pieces and they gave everyone a little piece. And whenever they look at the rope they should remember that they were free from bondage.” To Lafayette Price of Morgan County, Ala., the jubilation of emancipation meant that “I’m free as a frog because a frog had freedom to jump when [and where] he please.” Yet many newly freed realized that this was a time of great uncertainty and danger. To W.L. Bost, freedom meant being “just like a turtle,” cautiously peeking out of the shell to “understand the lay of the land.”

It is that sense of caution, that sense of the unknown that shaped the experiences of most African Americans when freedom came. While many defined freedom as a chance to reunite with kin, to ensure the education of their children and then themselves, to never again experience the violence and sexual exploitation that was so much a part of the institution of slavery and to have the economic wherewithal to provide for their families’ well-being, they also realized the limits of freedom and the vulnerability that accompanied emancipation. As the daughter of a freedman explained, “Daddy said he was proud of freedom but afraid to own it.”

To some, owning freedom meant embracing change. Many enslaved African Americans did not wait for freedom to come. Thousands took advantage of the war and self- emancipated by escaping to the Union lines whenever Northern troops appeared in their region. The sheer numbers forced the Union army and later the federal government to grapple with the question of what to do with those who demanded their freedom with their feet. Ultimately this migration forced the government to develop policies that culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation. Many who fled to freedom saw serving in the Union military as both a way to earn a living and to guarantee the freedom of those still held in bondage. Of the more than 200,000 African Americans who served in the Northern army and navy, the overwhelming majority were formerly enslaved.

Many who self-liberated found themselves in camps, called contraband camps by the military but labeled freedmen villages by more sympathetic people. Callie Washington from Mississippi described the lives of many when she remembered that “after the war, my mother came to get me. We lived where the soldiers camped and my mother worked and washed for them.” There were dozens of these camps located throughout the border states, in areas in the South that Union troops had recently liberated and in urban areas such as Arlington and Washington. While conditions varied, life in these refugee camps was difficult and tempered the joy of freedom.

True, some in the camps found work (usually menial or day labor), and various families were able to use the camps as a transition from bondage to freedom. But many more suffered from disease and malnutrition because the government and the nation were unprepared to grapple with the integration of millions of newly free men and women into a changing America. At the freedmen’s village on the site of the former plantation of Robert E. Lee, hundreds who escaped slavery could not escape the ravages of disease. When they died, they were buried in mass graves on land that is now part of Arlington Cemetery and that was, until recently, an unacknowledged and unappreciated part of that much-visited site.

As for those who stayed close to the farms, plantations and communities that they called home, the question facing them was how to make a living, how to earn enough to enjoy the benefits of freedom. The recently freed Jennie Webb captured the essence of the problem as she told historians years later that “when the war came on to set us free, we was told that we would get 40 acres and a mule. We never did. . .

Not providing for the economic independence of the formerly enslaved ensured that most would be confined to a new form of servitude: sharecropping. While there were examples of those who leveraged an education into middle-class status and of former slaves whose creativity and luck enabled them to open businesses, the overwhelming number of those just out of bondage grappled with the challenge of being landless. Many followed the pattern of the Mason family who said, “When freedom came, mother and father stayed with master. [They] farmed for shares. During the next 15 years, we moved from farm to farm” trying to earn a living. The lack of viable economic alternatives ensured that many freedmen and women would find that their hold on freedom was tenuous at best.

Part of that uncertainty was a result of a new, evolving racial paradigm in which the promise of emancipation encountered the unwillingness of many whites to relinquish, or even to share, the authority and control that had been central to the social and political structure of the antebellum South. While Reconstruction provided glimpses of a changed South — with a black male electorate, African American elected officials, and military and legal protections, much of the hope spawned by this brief period of federal attentiveness was fleeting or deferred. The failure to protect black suffrage and to ensure some sense of economic equity guaranteed that there would be a great chasm between the promise of reconstruction and the realities of life for the freedmen and freedwomen. This chasm was reinforced by the extensive violence and intimidation that cast such a shadow on black life. Confrontations large and small were a daily occurrence. In the years immediately after the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau recorded what it labeled racial “outrages.” These records are replete with assaults, arsons, riots, murders and sexual assaults, all of which suggest how violence was a key weapon in the attempt to limit the opportunities and aspirations of the recently freed.

More than anything else, the period immediately after the Civil War was a period of uncertainty. As Tony Cox, a newly freedman from Mississippi remarked about emancipation, “Us had a hard time getting adjusted and making a way for us selves.” Yet despite the difficulties one must never undervalue the impact and the importance of freedom. Rachel Adams of Georgia summed up the feeling of many formerly enslaved people when she said she could “live on just bread and water as long” as she was free. Despite the challenges, the men, women and children who emerged from bondage built schools, developed communities and “made a way out of no way.” Their struggle reminds us that change does not come without courage and without loss.

During the depression, an elderly African American man was asked by a WPA historian if slavery should still matter in the United States. Cornelius Holmes, who labored most of his life on rice plantations in South Carolina, said, “Though the slavery question is settled, the race issue will be with us always. It is in our politics, in our courts, on our highways, in our manners, in our religion, and in our thoughts, all the day, every day.”

As a nation, we have been made better by the lives of those whose experiences took us from slavery to freedom, all the day, every day.

About the writer

Lonnie G. Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.