The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed African Americans in rebel states, and after the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment emancipated all U.S. slaves wherever they were. As a result, the mass of Southern blacks now faced the difficulty Northern blacks had confronted—that of a free people surrounded by many hostile whites. One freedman, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.”

Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, two more years of war, service by African American troops, and the defeat of the Confederacy, the nation was still unprepared to deal with the question of full citizenship for its newly freed black population. The Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a nonslave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it.

During the years after the war, black and white teachers from the North and South, missionary organizations, churches and schools worked tirelessly to give the emancipated population the opportunity to learn. Former slaves of every age took advantage of the opportunity to become literate. Grandfathers and their grandchildren sat together in classrooms seeking to obtain the tools of freedom.

After the Civil War, with the protection of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, African Americans enjoyed a period when they were allowed to vote, actively participate in the political process, acquire the land of former owners, seek their own employment, and use public accommodations. Opponents of this progress, however, soon rallied against the former slaves' freedom and began to find means for eroding the gains for which many had shed their blood.

Forever Free

Celebration of Emancipation

Thomas Nast's depiction of emancipation at the end of the Civil War envisions the future of free blacks in the U.S. and contrasts it with various cruelties of the institution of slavery.

Thomas Nast. Emancipation. Philadelphia: S. Bott, 1865. Wood engraving. Prints & Photographs Division Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-2573 (5–9)

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Victorious Soldiers Return

Alfred Waud's drawing captures the exuberance of the Little Rock, Arkansas, African American community as the U. S. Colored Troops returned home at the end of the Civil War. The victorious soldiers are joyously greeted by women and children.

Alfred R. Waud. Mustered Out. Little Rock, Arkansas, April 20, 1865. Drawing. Chinese white on green paper. Published in Harper's Weekly, May 19, 1866. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-175 (5–1)

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Black Exodus

Black Exodus to Kansas

During Reconstruction freed slaves began to leave the South. One such group, originally from Kentucky, established the community of Nicodemus in 1877 in Graham County on the high, arid plains of northwestern Kansas. However, because of several crop failures and resentment from the county's white settlers, all but a few homesteaders abandoned their claims. A rising population of 500 in 1880 had declined to less than 200 by 1910.

A page of photographs and a township map from a 1906 county land ownership atlas provide evidence that some of these black migrants still owned land in and around this small village. Their impressive determination in an area with few good natural resou rces has resulted in the only surviving all-black community in Kansas.

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  • Standard Atlas of Graham Co. Kansas, Including a Plat Book of the Villages, Cities, and Townships. Lithograph map. Chicago: A. Ogle, 1906. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (5–8a)

  • Standard Atlas of Graham Co. Kansas, Including a Plat Book of the Villages, Cities, and Townships. Index of families in Nicodemus. Chicago: A. Ogle, 1906. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (5–8b)

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Ho For Kansas!

The Nicodemus Town Company was incorporated in 1877 by six black and two white Kansans. It was the oldest of about twenty towns established predominately for blacks in the West. After the Civil War there was a general exodus of blacks from the South. These migrants became known as "Exodusters" and the migration became known as the “Exoduster” movement. Some applied to be part of colonization projects to Liberia and locations outside the United States; others were willing to move north and west. Benjamin Singleton led an exodus of African Americans from various points in the South to Kansas.

Ho for Kansas! Nashville, Tennessee, March 18, 1878. Copyprint of broadside. Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (5–13)

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African American Population Distribution, 1890

African American population distribution and migration patterns can be traced using maps published in the statistical atlases prepared by the U. S. Census Bureau for each decennial census from 1870 to 1920. The atlas for the 1890 census includes this map showing the percentage of “colored” to the total population for each county. Although the heaviest concentrations are overwhelmingly in Maryland, Virginia, and the southeastern states, there appear to be emerging concentrations in the northern urban areas (New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toledo, and Chicago), southern Ohio, central Missouri, eastern Kansas, and scattered areas in the West (Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California), reflecting migration patterns that began during Reconstruction.

Statistical Atlas of the United States Based on the Results of the Eleventh Census. Plate 11. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1898. Lithograph. Geography and Map Division , Library of Congress (5–18)

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Fruits of Reconstruction

Freed Persons Receive Wages From Former Owner

Some emancipated slaves quickly fled from the neighborhood of their owners, while others became wage laborers for former owners. Most importantly, African Americans could make choices for themselves about where they labored and the type of work they performed. This account book shows that former slaves who became free workers after the Civil War received pay for their work on Hampton Plantation in South Carolina.

Hampton Plantation Account Book, 1866–1868. South Carolina. Handwritten manuscript. Page 68 - Page 69. Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (5–20)

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A Hunger to Learn

Prior to the Civil War, slave states had laws forbidding literacy for the enslaved. Thus, by emancipation, only a small percentage of African Americans knew how to read and write. There was such motivation in the African American community, however, and enough good will among white and black teachers, that by the turn of the twentieth century the majority of African Americans could read and write. Many teachers commented that their classrooms were filled with both young and old, grandfathers with their children and grandchildren, all eager to learn. In this image, one aged man is reading a newspaper with the headline, “Presidential Proclamation, Slavery.”

Henry L. Stephens. [Elderly black man with spectacles reading a newspaper by candlelight]. Watercolor, ca. 1863. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-2442 (5–12)

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Glimpses of the Freed Women

Northern teachers, many of whom were white women, traveled into the South to provide education and training for the newly freed population. Schools from the elementary level through college provided a variety of opportunities, from the rudiments of reading and writing and various types of basic vocational training to classics, arts, and theology. This school in Richmond shows women of color learning the fine points of sewing.

James E. Taylor. "The Freedmen's Union Industrial School, Richmond, Va." From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 22, 1866. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-33264 (5–5)

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African Americans And The Franchise

The Fifteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, ratified March 30, 1870, provided that all male citizens were entitled to vote. Because the black population was so large in many parts of the South, whites were fearful of their participation in the political process. Nevertheless, the Radical Republicans in the U.S. Congress were determined that African Americans be accorded all of the rights of citizenship.

Alfred R. Waud. "The First Vote." From Harper's Weekly, November 16, 1867. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-19234 (5–21)

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The Fisk Jubilee Singers

A series of tours by the Fisk Jubilee Singers was one of the most important factors in the spread of the spiritual. The first tour in 1871 was to raise money for Fisk University. It was the hearing of these spirituals as sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers that first made general audiences conscious of their beauty.

The first collection of the Fisk Singers' spirituals was published in 1872. An expanded and reset collection appeared in 1875 as an appendix to a history of the Jubilee Singers. These editions, which were sold as souvenirs at concerts, spread the spirituals in print as the Jubilee Singers themselves spread them in performance. This publication includes only a single spiritual sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, although the Library's music collections include many recordings of the Singers, as well as published music.

“I Am the Door.” From Songs of the Jubilee Singers from Fisk University. Sheet music. Cincinnati: John Church & Co., 1884. Music Division, Library of Congress (5–16)

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Teaching The Newly Freed Population

Published by the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association, this broadside is illustrated with a picture of “Sea-island School, No 1—St. Helena Island [South Carolina], Established April, 1862.” May 1863 letters from teachers at St. Helena Island describe their young students as “the prettiest little things you ever saw, with solemn little faces, and eyes like stars.” Vacations seemed a hardship to these students, who were so anxious to improve their reading and writing that they begged not to “be punished so again.” Voluntary contributions from various organizations aided fourteen hundred teachers in providing literacy and vocational education for 150,000 freedmen.

“Sea-island School, No. 1,—St. Helena Island. Established in April 1862.” Education among the Freedmen, ca. 1866-70. Broadside. Page 2. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-107754 (5–2)

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An African American Majority in the South Carolina Legislature

Because blacks in South Carolina vastly outnumbered whites, the newly-enfranchised voters were able to send so many African American representatives to the state assembly that they outnumbered the whites. Many were able legislators who worked to rewrite the state constitution and pass laws ensuring aid to public education, universal male franchise, and civil rights for all.

Radical Members of the First Legislature after the War, South Carolina. Photograph. 1878. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-28044 (5–11)

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Freedmen Navigate Legislative Shoals

In order to regulate the activities of newly freed African Americans, national, state, and local governments developed a body of laws relating to them. Some laws were for their protection, particularly those relating to labor contracts, but others circumscribed their citizenship rights. This volume, compiled by the staff of General Oliver O. Howard, the director of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—usually called the Freedmen's Bureau—provides a digest of these laws in ten of the former Confederate states up to 1867.

Laws in Relation to Freedmen, U.S. Sen. 39th Congress, 2nd Sess. Senate Executive Doc. No. 6. Washington: War Department, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1866-67. Pamphlet. Law Library, Library of Congress (5–17)

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Nineteenth Century Leaders

The only two African Americans to serve as United States Senators in the nineteenth century were Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels, both of Mississippi. Frederick Douglass was appointed to several important governmental positions in the years after the Civil War, including Minister Resident and Counsel General to Haiti, Recorder of Deeds, and U. S. Marshall.

J. Hoover. Heroes of the Colored Race. Philadelphia, 1881. Color lithograph with portraits of Blanche Kelso Bruce, Frederick Douglass, and Hiram Revels. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-10180 (5–7)

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African American Men in Government

The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave the vote to all male citizens regardless of color or previous condition of servitude. African Americans became involved in the political process not only as voters but also as governmental representatives at the local, state and national level. Although their elections were often contested by whites, and members of the legislative bodies were usually reluctant to receive them, many African American men ably served their country during Reconstruction. Pictured here are Senator Hiram R. Revels and Representatives Benjamin S. Turner, Josiah T. Walls, Joseph H. Rainey, Robert Brown Elliot, Robert D. De Large, and Jefferson H. Long.

The First Colored Senator and Representatives, in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States. Washington: Currier & Ives, 1872. Color lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-2325, LC-USZ62-2814 (5–6)

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Distinguished Colored Men

This lithograph depicts not only African American leaders during Reconstruction, but also forebears who had distinguished themselves in earlier years of American history, such as Richard Allen, founding pastor and bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Also pictured are Frederick Douglass, Robert Brown Elliot, Blanche K. Bruce, William Wells Brown, Richard T. Greener, Josiah H. Rainey, Ebenezer D. Bassett, John Mercer Langston, P.B.S. Pinchback, and Henry Highland Garnett. These men served in a variety of positions, as government officials, politicians, ministers, educators, diplomats, lawyers, and businessmen.

George F. Crane. Distinguished Colored Men. New York: A. Muller, 1883. Hand-colored lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-1561 (5–10)

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The Role of the Black Church

The African American Church—A Bulwark

In many African American communities, large and small, the social, political, and economic life of the people centered around the church. The pastor was often the community leader, teacher, and business strategist. Families often spent many hours at the church each week or when the preacher came to their community, sometimes only once or twice a month.

Elizabeth White. All God's Chillun's Got Wings! Soft-ground etching and aquatint, ca. 1933. Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Foundation, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6164 (5–22)
Courtesy of the Sumter Gallery of Art, Sumter, South Carolina.

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Activism in the Black Church

This pamphlet discusses the history of this African American denomination, educational efforts among people of color in Ohio, and other issues vital to the African American community during Reconstruction. It provides important historical data about the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.), especially in Cincinnati, discusses the church's diverse ministries, and outlines the denomination's numerous uplifting and charitable endeavors in the Cincinnati community. There is also historical information about Wilberforce University in Ohio, an institution of higher education purchased by the A.M.E. Church in 1863.

Proceedings of the Semi-centenary Celebration of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Cincinnati . . . February 8th, 9th, and 10th, 1874. Edited by Rev. B. W. Arnett. Cincinnati: H. Watkin, 1874. Daniel A.P. Murray Pamphlet Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (5–3)

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An African American Institution of Higher Learning—Wilberforce University

A group of Ohioans, including four African American men, established Wilberforce University near Xenia, Ohio, in 1856, and named it after the famous British abolitionist, William Wilberforce. When the school failed to meet its financial obligations, leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church purchased it in 1863.

The articles of association of Wilberforce University, dated July 10, 1863, state that its purpose was “to promote education, religion and morality amongst the colored race.” Even though the university was established by and for people of color, the articles stipulated that no one should “be excluded from the benefits of said institution as officers, faculty, or pupils on account of merely race or color.”

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  • The Wilberforce Alumnae: A Comprehensive Review of the Origin, Development and Present Status of Wilberforce University, 1885. Compiled by B. W. Arnet and S. T. Mitchell. Xenia, Ohio: Printed at the Gazette Office, 1885. Pamphlet. Daniel A.P. Murray Pamphlet Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (5–4)

  • The Wilberforce Alumnae: A Comprehensive Review of the Origin, Development and Present Status of Wilberforce University, 1885. Compiled by B. W. Arnet and S. T. Mitchell. Xenia, Ohio: Printed at the Gazette Office, 1885. Pamphlet. Daniel A.P. Murray Pamphlet Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (5–4)

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