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Collection African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection

Abolition and Slavery

In the debate over whether new states and territories should be free or slaveholding, few spoke more passionately than Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner. In this speech, delivered before the Senate in 1860 when Kansas applied for statehood, Sumner makes clear his abolitionist stance. Decrying slavery as barbaric, he criticizes various pro-slavery arguments and offers statistics to show how, in his opinion, slavery rendered the South economically inferior to the North.

The Barbarism of Slavery. Charles Sumner (New York, 1863)

First-person accounts of American slave life appeared in print as early as 1760. In the early and mid-nineteenth century abolitionists encouraged their publication and often used slave narratives to elicit support for their cause.

Life of James Mars was written by an aging former slave at the encouragement of his sister, who was born after the family was free. While many slave narratives focus on slavery and cruel abuses in the South, Mars tells of slavery in Connecticut and of the complex relationships he had with the people who owned him. As Mars puts it, "Many of the people now on the stage of life do not know that slavery ever lived in Connecticut."

Life of James Mars, a Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut. James Mars (Hartford, Conn., 1866)

The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was created at the end of the Civil War to provide aid to newly-freed African Americans and displaced whites. The bureau distributed rations, built schools, ran courts, and attempted to find employment for former slaves. The bureau failed to effect any real change in land ownership, however, and many African Americans were ultimately pressured into exploitative sharecropping agreements with white landowners. The bureau was closed in 1872.

The Freedmen's Bureau: Reports of Generals Steedman and Fullerton on the Condition of the Freedmen's Bureau in the Southern States. James Barrett Steedman (1866?)

Reports of Generals Steedman and Fullerton offers valuable information about the bureau's powers and responsibilities and on the living conditions of Southern African Americans immediately after the war. The generals' goal was to "ascertain, by a thorough and impartial investigation, the manner in which the Bureau has been administered and conducted . . . and to observe the effect produced by it upon the relations between the white and black races." They found that in places where bureau affairs had been "faithfully and impartially" administered, harmony reigned. In some districts, however, they discovered corrupt bureau agents. Of one North Carolina agent, they note:

"This agent has exercised the most arbitrary and despotic power, and practiced revolting and unheard-of cruelties on the helpless freedmen under his charge. The outrageous conduct of this man was brought to our attention by a delegation of freemen from the settlement, who called upon us and made statements in relation to his oppressions and outrages which we could scarcely credit. After hearing their statements we visited the settlement, convened the freedmen, investigated the charges against this man, and ascertained that he had been guilty of even greater wrongs and oppressions than had been complained of."