Feb. 2, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 11

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    Saville: Ex-slaves' fight for political recognition

    Ex-slaves' newly granted right to vote further stimulated the myriad forms of political mobilization that had been burgeoning among African Americans in the South in the wake of the Civil War, according to research by Julie Saville, Associate Professor in History. Eager to defend the visions of work and community life that blossomed with emancipation, the freed slaves relished and pursued their voting rights and formed highly organized and visible political units, Saville found.

    Saville will discuss her research in a lecture titled "Ex-slaves and the Invention of Political Ritual in the Post-Civil War South" at 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, in the tea room of the Social Science Research Building. The lecture is part of the Social Sciences Dean's Inaugural Lecture Series, which gives new senior-level faculty members an opportunity to share their research with the University community. Saville came to Chicago last quarter from the University of California, San Diego, where she had been on the faculty since 1986.

    To recreate the era in which African Americans first exercised their rights as citizens, Saville studied the voluminous records left by federal military and civilian agencies, as well as plantation documents and newspaper accounts.

    The high level of voter participation among ex-slaves led to strong support for Republican candidates in states undergoing Reconstruction, placing the ex-slaves in deep conflict with former slave owners who supported Democratic candidates. Although harassment, physical intimidation and outright murder were components of Reconstruction's deadly political contests, ex-slaves persisted in their efforts to take full advantage of the franchise, Saville said. She found that despite their long exclusion from civil society, the former slaves embraced their newly won rights of citizenship with enthusiasm and developed strategies to protect those rights.

    A portrait of the ex-slaves' political participation emerges in Saville's book The Work of Reconstruction: From Slave to Wage Laborer in South Carolina, 1860-1870, published recently by Cambridge University Press.

    "Tantalizing puzzles surround ex-slaves' broad political participation," Saville writes. "People largely bereft of animal transport showed up at meetings and at registration and election sites. Men, most of whom could neither read nor write, cast written (pre-printed) ballots in large numbers."

    The destruction of slavery as a central institution made the time after the fall of the Confederacy in April 1865 a period of great confusion in the South. Union armies were slowly establishing control, and plantation owners, former slaves and returning Confederate soldiers were trying to form their futures under unprecedented conditions.

    Although Union forces had confiscated some plantation lands as sites of wartime farming by former slaves, the bulk of such property was eventually restored to antebellum landowners. New labor arrangements reflected the problems associated with the death of one social order and the creation of a new one, as ex-slaves and ex-masters struggled to establish wage-based work relationships.

    The situation, though chaotic, brought some previously unknown opportunities to African Americans in the South. In many cases, families that had been divided by slavery were reunited. The ex-slaves also developed a system of organization based on the military system they had witnessed during the Civil War.

    The organized units were particularly strong in South Carolina, where Saville concentrated her research. The voting issue was especially troublesome for many whites in that state because blacks were in the majority. South Carolina also had a particularly long history of plantation slavery, Saville said. Unlike their counterparts in states farther west, South Carolina slaves had been a majority of the state's population since Colonial times.

    For the ex-slaves in South Carolina, the military rituals they adapted did more than provide organizational discipline -- they also made visible the bid for power by an organizing laborers' movement of ex-slave workers.

    Groups of ex-slaves formed marching units in towns throughout South Carolina, with units in the city of Charleston performing particularly elaborate processions and coordinated drills.

    The marching units provided the freedmen with a means of establishing political claims at a time when no civil institutions recognized their political voice. The groups exercised a collective power unknown to white agricultural workers at the time. They held assemblies, made attempts to collectively regulate working conditions and drew on national legislation to help improve local conditions.

    The organized efforts begun by African Americans heightened in intensity when the Union League began forming Republican clubs in the spring of 1867. The league, which was formed to support the federal cause in northern and border states, provided funds to help elect Republican congressmen from the South.

    The league sent speakers on tours to generate interest in voting and in voting Republican.

    "Politics vibrated with the urgency of spiritual salvation and the mass appeal of the frontier camp meeting," Saville writes. "At times, crowds too large for any local meeting house to accommodate awaited an arriving lecturer."

    Although organized, the freedmen had other challenges to face in casting their votes. Ballots were printed and clearly identified -- people who wanted to disrupt voting could easily spot their targets.

    "To approach a ballot box was sometimes to begin a strenuous athletic march. A crowd surrounded the bearer of an unfavored ticket, who then had to run a gauntlet of blocks and shoves in order to deposit his ballot," Saville writes. "The object often was to occupy the polls early and thereby impede the opposition's access to the ballot box."

    African Americans were as adept as whites in employing vote-blocking tactics. During a November 1867 election, 400 freedmen, some wearing old army uniforms, grabbed control of one South Carolina polling place, and 800 freedmen occupied another in the state, Saville writes.

    The organizational skills the ex-slaves learned in exercising their voting rights also served their interests in fighting for their rights as workers. In 1868, for example, rural marching clubs organized a movement to establish a daily wage of $1.75 for workers harvesting rice. They also chose strike organizers.

    The pressure of dealing with the growing political power of African Americans became overwhelming for white plantation owners.

    "As the direct employers of their political opponents, planters wielded labor discipline as an immediate means of stemming political mobilization in the countryside," Saville writes. Among the tools the planters used against their former slaves were fines for unexcused absences and threats of eviction. African Americans used their organizational structures to resist the pressure, but ultimately they were not able to stave off the onset of Reaction.

    During the 1870s, restored Democratic legislatures enacted new laws throughout the South that restricted the economic rights of ex-slave agricultural laborers. Northern Republicans began to draw away from enforcement of Reconstruction congressional legislation, and a new social order that exploited African-American laborers was established throughout the South.

    Even though the rights of the African Americans were limited following the initial triumph of emancipation, stories of the time of slavery and the events following the Civil War were kept alive by African Americans. Among those who kept the memories alive was Saville's grandmother, whom Saville credits in part for her interest in the period.

    "My maternal grandmother knew how to tell a story," Saville said. "She told long, involved stories with as many characters and plots as a Faulkner novel.

    "And," she added, "most of the time, we listened."

    -- William Harms