We Had a Chance With Emancipation, but the United States Quickly Failed the Black Men and Women It Freed

For a brief moment, it seemed as though freedmen could be provided with a true path to success. Then Abraham Lincoln was killed, the military stopped providing protection and the racists started calling the shots

On January 11, 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman, the man who famously cut a flaming trail of plantations across Georgia and the Carolinas on his March to the Sea, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton visited with 20 Black clergymen in Savannah, Georgia. The question before them: How to make ex-slaves free? 

After all, these freedmen and freedwomen were starting their new lives with absolutely nothing. Their worldly possessions were the clothes on their back and whatever they could carry in their arms, strap to their bodies, or if they were lucky, saddle over a horse or pile onto an oxcart. Moreover, they had no formal education, as it had been illegal to learn how to read. Thus, they were most likely illiterate. It was also highly likely that they were alone, with little idea of where their family might be. Finally, everyone they knew was in a similar position, so they could offer each other little to no help. If anything, they were now competition for resources and influence. 

The ministers that Sherman and Stanton met with knew all of this firsthand. Three of them had been able to purchase themselves from their old owners, but the others had only become freedmen with the arrival of Sherman and the Union Army. One of them — 67-year-old Garrison Frazier — was selected to speak on behalf of the gathering. When asked by Sherman for his thoughts on how to make Black men free, he responded, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor — that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare. And to assist the government, the young men should enlist in the service of the government, and serve in such manner as they may be wanted. We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”

Convinced of the necessity of Frazier’s request for land so that Black people could become self-sufficient, Sherman used his war powers to issue Special Field Order 15, stipulating that “each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground.” And to ensure that their former masters didn’t deprive them of this land, Sherman explicitly stated, “The military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”

“In order to carry out this system of settlement,” the order continued, “a general officer will be detailed as Inspector of Settlements and Plantations, whose duty it shall be to visit the settlements, to regulate their police and general management, and who will furnish personally to each head of a family, subject to the approval of the President of the United States, a possessory title in writing.”

None of this, of course, happened. Once Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and once Sherman was recalled from the South and sent to fight in the genocide of the ongoing Indian Wars, his field order was replaced with a bunch of bureaucracy — namely, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, or Freedmen’s Bureau. 

It was created by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865. The act wasn’t solely for the formerly enslaved either; it was designed “to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical services and land to displaced Southerners, including newly freed African Americans.” It was originally planned to last one year after the end of the war, but after that year elapsed, Congress recognized that the millions of displaced wartime refugees and newly freed citizens would require more than 12 months of basic support. 

As part of this extension, military governors were given the power to “enforce provisions to protect African Americans.” Every legislator knew this would be key to the success of a new power arrangement in the South. But President Andrew Johnson, who reportedly fathered a few children via the rape of the enslaved people he owned, vetoed the bill. Congress drafted a more moderate version, but Johnson vetoed it as well. The bill still passed by a two-thirds majority — enough to override the president’s veto — but it had far fewer protections and guarantees, making it effectively toothless. 

Very quickly then, the formerly enslaved learned that America wasn’t the nation it promised to be. Or as freedman Bayley Wyat argued before the Freedmen’s Bureau, “The United States, by deir officers, told us if we would leave the Rebs and come to de Yankees and help de government, we should have de land where dey put us, as long as we live; and dey told us dat we should be see’d after and cared for by de government, and placed in a position to become men among men.” 

“De Government furder promised to protect us from de rebels, as long as we lived,” he continued. “And we sacrificed all we had, and left de rebels and came to the Yankees. Some of us had some money to buy our freedom, and some of us had a house, and some of us had cattle with which we hoped sometimes to buy ourselves; but we left all depending on de promises of de Yankees.”

Worse yet, due to its indifference, the U.S. government also helped the ex-Confederates conspire to cheat Black Americans out of the equality they’d been promised as well — yet another catastrophic betrayal of our humanity. This time, it was called “Reconstruction.” 

“On Monday night, I was waked up by some men shooting into my house,” Louisiana freedman Green Jones relayed back in August 1866. “I jumped up and tried to get away but they caught me and threatened to blow my brains out if I moved an inch.” Next, Jones was dragged outside and whipped with 300 lashes of “a leather strap fastened to a stick.” After the whipping, “they asked me if I could be obedient to every little white child and could call every white man and woman ‘master’ and ‘mistress’ and raise my hat to every white man I met, and never to leave home without a pass.” 

His terror was sealed with the certainty of calendar time: “They said they would be round once a week.”

Meanwhile, laws were quickly enacted to restore racist order in the South, and former Confederate soldiers joined the local police to enforce them. Here, for example, is an ordinance from July 15, 1865 — a little over three months after the end of the Civil War. It was published in a local New Orleans newspaper, an announcement by the Board of Police of Opelousas, Louisiana. In short: Newly freedmen and freedwomen were legally forbidden from owning or renting a home in town; they were subject to imprisonment and forced labor if they were caught on town streets after 10 p.m.; and there were explicit rules against public meetings of any kind.

Further, any type of commerce was also forbidden: “No freedman shall sell, barter or exchange any articles of merchandise or traffic, within the limits of Opelousas, without permission in writing from his employer or the Mayor or President of the Board, under the penalty of the forfeiture of said articles, and imprisonment and one day’s labor, or a fine of one dollar in lieu of said work.”

By 1877, all of this coalesced into the Jim Crow South, sealing the fate for Black people in America and reducing us to second-class citizenship for nearly the next century. 

In Abraham Lincoln’s final speech as president — the one that actually inspired his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth — he warned what would happen if the U.S. government didn’t uphold its promises to Black Americans and if the nation failed its own ideals and the intent of its laws. “To the Blacks we say, ‘This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where and how,’” he cautioned.

That obviously is where we now live — in that “vague and undefined when, where and how.” That is what’s been left to us by Andrew Johnson, William Tecumseh Sherman, the Freedmen’s Bureau and the silent ghost of Abraham Lincoln. One hundred and fifty-five years later, we still must define the “when, where and how.” 

The thing is, despite the extreme complexity and messiness of these questions, they aren’t unsolvable. They just require something we’ve never really seen before from White America — a truly good faith effort. It could all start, too, where Sherman left off: with 40 acres and a mule.