Ready for Freedom
Black Suffrage

Today, we are happy to feature a post by UVA Press author Paul D. Escott on Black political organizations in the Civil War period. This is the final post in our three-part blog series for Juneteenth 2022. You can read Part I here and Part II here.

We can rejoice that June 19th is an official federal holiday, for until recently most white Americans had not heard of Juneteenth. The Associated Press tells readers that Juneteenth was “the effective end of slavery in the U.S.” and explains that on that date in 1865 “Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas,” a full “two months after the Confederacy surrendered in the Civil War and about 2 ½ year after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Southern states.” Juneteenth deserves to be remembered and observed.

But it is important to recognize Juneteenth’s significance fully and correctly. Black people in Galveston, Texas were not the only slaves who had to wait for emancipation. Lincoln’s proclamation on January 1, 1863, had no practical benefit for the vast majority of slaves in the Confederacy, where owners tried to deny them even news of Lincoln’s proclamation. Not until the war ended could most slaves start to pry freedom from the grasp of resistant southern whites.

It also is important to combat erroneous assumptions about what came next. What were the freed slaves ready to do? Northern abolitionists had argued that slavery brutally degraded enslaved men, women, and children and deprived them of education, morality, and competency. Racists North and South insisted that African Americans were unfit for and incapable of self-government. Some readers today probably assume that slavery’s end meant that former slaves emerged, totally unprepared, into a world they did not, and could not, understand—a world in which they were incapable of acting as citizens and voters in a democracy.

Black Suffrage: Lincoln’s Last Goal documents how mistaken such assumptions would be. In 1865 (and before), Black Americans in every part of the nation, South as well as North, spoke out repeatedly and made a powerful case for their rights. Two hundred thousand Black soldiers had fought to save the Union. At war’s end, African Americans organized, wrote petitions, claimed the right of suffrage, and demonstrated their fitness for equal rights as citizens.

In the North, the National Convention of Colored Men decided in 1864 to form the National Equal Rights League, with chapters in every state. From the beginning of 1865, assemblies of the League demanded the right to vote and appealed “to the minds and consciences of the American people” to recognize “our rights as American citizens.” Black people had sacrificed for the Union, and Black northerners documented their communities’ achievements “in morals, education, industry, wealth and religion” and called for “complete enfranchisement” and equal rights as citizens. In at least eleven state-wide conventions and assemblies during 1865 northern Black leaders petitioned lawmakers, issued addresses to the public, and demanded “equal political rights without distinction of race or color.”

Equally impressive were the initiative, energy, and eloquence of southern Blacks. By August 1865 Black people had assembled in at least five cities of the upper South and held meetings in Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and North Carolina to call for justice and the right to vote. Later that fall additional conventions met in Vicksburg, Charleston, and other southern cities. There they warned northern lawmakers that southern whites were planning a “practical re-enslavement” and were passing laws that would be “but another name for slavery.” The South Carolinians assured whites that they had “no hatred or malice,” appealed to Christian morality, and asked “only for even-handed Justice.” But they also rejected discrimination, called for “good schools,” and insisted that “we are not freemen till we attain to all the rights and privileges of freemen.” North Carolina’s Blacks made similar moral appeals and spoke of their desire to live in harmony with whites. Rather than rely on northern “troops,” they sought to prove their “industry, sobriety, and respectful demeanor” as citizens. But “oppressive laws” and “unjust discrimination” must be “wiped from the statutes of the State.” The right to vote and equality before the law were essential parts of citizenship.

Former slaves and the free Blacks of the North showed that they were knowledgeable about democracy and ready for freedom. Our understanding of Juneteenth should include these points, and we should remember that neither Juneteenth nor the adoption of the 13th Amendment brought an “effective end of slavery in the U.S.” Tragically, debt peonage, convict labor, disfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation, and persistent racism extended injustice through many later decades.

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