"My Bondage and My Freedom"

Amistad Research Center

Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Emancipation Proclamation

Bondage in the U.S.
Although the history of slavery is tragically woven into the history of the United States, slavery as a practice predates the founding of the nation. It is an institution as old as recorded human history. What historians refer to as “modern slavery” has its origins beginning in the 1500s during the age of European exploration and colonization of the New World. The slave trade to the New World expanded with the establishment of colonies by England, France, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10 to 12 million Africans were forcibly transported from their homelands to the Americas between the mid-1500s and the mid-1800s during the horrific Middle Passage.

This 1857 bill of sale details a transaction between Lewis N. Shelton and John H. Randolph for the purchase of a slave named Jefferson, a 30 year old carpenter. Jefferson was purchased by Lewis N. Shelton for $2500.

The last known ship to bring slaves to America, the Clotilda, arrived in Mobile Bay, Alabama in 1859 carrying approximately 110 enslaved individuals. One of the Africans brought to Mobile, pictured here, was "Aunt" Zuma, a survivor from the Clotilda.

The last known ship to bring slaves to America, the Clotilda, arrived in Mobile Bay, Alabama in 1859 carrying approximately 110 enslaved individuals. One of the Africans brought to Mobile, pictured here, was Cudjo Lewis, a survivor from the Clotilda.

This document concerns the sale of four slaves, two men named Thomas Thompson and Lewis Hillen, valued at $1750 each, and two women named Maria and Robena, valued at $1550. The slaves are noted as being “free of the vices and maladies prescribed by the laws of Louisiana and to be slaves for life.” This sale took place between Walter L. Campbell, likely from New Orleans, and John H. Randolph of Bayou Goula in Iberville Parish, Louisiana.

Free Blacks: The Nancy and George W. Ruffin Family
By 1759, one-fifth of the inhabitants of England’s North American colonies were Black slaves. However, even from the early years of slavery in North America, a population of free Blacks existed. One example of such was the Ruffin Family of Richmond, Virginia. Nancy Ruffin (1816-1874) and George W. Ruffin (1800-1863) were free Blacks during the antebellum era. George W. worked as a barber. Both he and Nancy valued education and hired a tutor to teach their children English literature, Latin, and the classics. Nancy moved to Boston in 1853 along with their eight children, while George W. remained in Virginia and sent funds for the family’s support. Following the move to Boston, Nancy sold fish and fruit sent by family in the South.

Nancy’s letters to her husband, George W. Ruffin, often spoke of the financial difficulties she and their children faced living in Boston. In this letter, she admonishes George for not sending money and discusses their children’s desire to see their father.

George W. Ruffin, undated.

As free people, Nancy and George W. Ruffin were allowed to own property in Virginia as evidenced by this receipt.

George L. Ruffin (1834-1886) was the oldest son of George W. and Nancy Ruffin. In 1852, although a free person, the state of Virginia compelled George L., aged 17, to prove his free status in court before granting him permission to leave the state.

Abolitionists: Their Lives and Words
There was an abolitionism movement dedicated to eradicating slavery in America. Abolitionists made effective use of the printing press to spread their message. The movement produced slave narratives that provided first-hand accounts of the horrors of slavery, biographies, song sheets, newspapers, and more. In this chapter, explore some of the documents that gave voice to the abolitionist cause.  

Numerous abolitionist broadsides were printed prior to and during the Civil War. Many, such as the one shown here, contained songs or poetry to be sung to popular tunes. The Complaint of a Fugitive Slave, sometimes referred to as Song of the Free, was sung to the tune of Oh! Susanna.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) combined his vocation as a journalist and publisher to become one of the most vocal abolitionists of his time. His newspaper, The Liberator, which Garrison published from 1831 to 1866, became his main vehicle of opinion. While Garrison was a firm believer in the abolition of slavery, his views on pacifism and on the separation of free and slave states made him a divisive figure within abolitionist circles.

In June 1840, English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson was the key speaker at the first World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London. The convention was sponsored by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. This letter, written by Clarkson in July 1840, expresses thanks for the kindness shown to him in London. He comments that “you may count upon my services hereafter if I can be made useful to you in any way” in “promoting the good cause.”

This page from the minute book of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society reflects the organization's activities. Highlights of reported discussions include the political aspects of the extension of slavery, a lawsuit in Maryland that resulted in the liberation of 15 slaves, the society's relationship to pro-slavery or slaveholding ecclesiastical bodies, and support for famed abolitionist John Brown.

American Emancipation 
The issue of slavery, as a moral and legal question, divided individuals, families, and the nation. These divisions eventually led to the American Civil War (1861-1865) which began shortly after the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. Historians have debated Lincoln’s views on slavery, and the eventual issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, from many angles. The Proclamation was limited in many ways since it only freed slaves in states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. In spite of these nuances, the Emancipation Proclamation is now considered one of the key documents in the history of the United States. 

Rachel G.C. Patten, a teacher with the American Missionary Association, wrote about the reactions of former slaves to the Emancipation Proclamation. She stated, "The first day of January was indeed a happy day to thousands; many thousands; of our colored people. In the camp there was much joy manifested by our freedmen. They cried we are no more slaves!"

James A. McCrea’s letter reveals the feelings of newly freed slaves in South Carolina when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. He stated, "The proclamation of the President was read and the people inspired by the spirit of the occasion sent forth their glad shouts of joy, and their cheers for Gen. [Rufus] Saxton and the joyful sounds, “We are free. We are free.”

During the Civil War, African Americans began to leave their masters in the Confederate states, seeking protection behind Union lines. Major General Benjamin Butler of the Union Army classified escaped slaves as "contrabands of war." This term meant that once a fleeing slave crossed Union army lines, they were classified as property. All enemy property that fell into Union hands during the Civil War was constituted as "contrabands" and not returned.

The Struggle Continues Post Emancipation
While the end of the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the Reconstruction-era amendments to the Constitution provided freedom and greater opportunities for African Americans, struggles for acceptance and equality continued throughout the 19th century. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were established to perpetuate beliefs in the separation and differences of races, while the legacy of sharecropping led to continued economic disenfranchisement for Blacks. 

This is a copy of the act establishing the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, which was ratified on March 3, 1865. The second page of this document describes a provision for the Freedmen’s Bureau Commissioner to dedicate abandoned or otherwise confiscated tracts of land in “insurrectionary States” to be parceled out to freedmen in quantities up to forty acres. However, such parceling of land never materialized.

The history of the Ku Klux Klan in America is often divided into two, sometimes three, eras. The original Klan was founded in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, by veterans of the Confederate Army. Similar groups spread throughout the South as an insurgent movement during Reconstruction targeting freedmen and supporters of African American rights.

The Kloran was a ritual book published by the Ku Klux Klan office in Atlanta, which detailed the order of business for Klan meetings.

Esther M. Douglass was a teacher with the American Missionary Association. Her reminiscences written later in her life include a passage regarding Klan activity in North Carolina around 1871.

Edmonia Highgate, the daughter of freed slaves, grew up and was educated in New York. During the Civil War, in 1864, she traveled South to establish schools for the American Missionary Association. This letter, written after the Civil War while she was in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, describes her experience with eager students and hostile surroundings.

Sharecropping is an agricultural practice in which a landowner allows a tenant to work a piece of land in exchange for a portion of the profits or harvest realized from that land. It was a system that emerged in the U.S. following the Civil War and was one of few options available to poor freedmen. Sharecropping allowed wealthy landowners to maintain their concentrated ownership of land, while keeping African Americans in debt with little hope of moving beyond the land they tended.

This 1866 work agreement between S. Haas and the Freedman Josephus establishes wages in the amount of $50 for twelve months of employment. According to the contract drawn up in St. Landry Parish in Louisiana, Josephus agreed "to work and act in all things according to the regulations of the Freedman's Bureau...."

Credits: Story

Exhibition curated by Andrew Salinas and Christopher Harter. Digital exhibition created by Chianta Dorsey. This digital exhibition is an expansion of the physical exhibition, “Am I Not a Brother, Am I Not a Sister?: An Exhibition to Commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation,” held at the Amistad Research Center in 2013.

The Amistad Research Center is committed to collecting, preserving, and providing open access to original materials that reference the social and cultural importance of America's ethnic and racial history, the African Diaspora, and global social justice movements. As the nation's oldest, largest and most comprehensive independent archive, the Amistad's holds 800 manuscript collections which include over ten million documents from the 1780s to present, 250,000 original photographs dating from 1859, 1200 audiovisual recordings, 40,000 book titles, 2000 periodicals titles, and over 400 pieces of fine art dating from the 19th century.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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