Reconstruction Amendments: Rebuilding America’s Free Black Community

The passage and ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, also known as the Reconstruction amendments were the first sutures designed to sew together the wounds left by the years of fighting on the battlefield and home-font during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. The amendments, by ending slavery, enfranchising and enterprising newly freed blacks, and establishing new and stronger federalism, respectively, left many to wonder what the next chapters of American federalism, economy, and freedom would bring. With Federal troops stationed throughout the South immediately following the war and later to enforce this new moral and legal code of equality, blacks, namely former slaves, began to claim a new lifestyle of citizenship in the land where they had previously been enslaved. For these individuals, the first step in creating a new life in freedom was the reconnection and re-cultivation of social networks destroyed by slavery and war.   Slaves were constantly moved away from federal troop advances or raids to discourage runaways.  This, compounded with the ever present break up of families by the sale of slaves (especially during the economic depression faced by the South during the latter portions of the war) spread these friend and familial networks across the country.

Some Social and familial networks were more easily repaired as the individuals were not separated over great distances. Many slaves became “contrabands of war “ as they ran away to refugee camps run by the Union Army and thus remained in nearby environs. Others were sold away and taken great distances still others joined and traveled with the Union Army. These networks that were torn asunder by conflict or other tragic circumstances required other means to restore communities that would help freed slaves in the post-war, reconstruction period. Factors like literacy, access to money, and larger communities all played into one’s ability to connect to greater networks of individuals in the hope of reconnecting with friends and loved ones. Many former slaves placed missing persons ads in newspapers read in black communities across the United States and Canada. One example of a newspaper that carried several hundred of these missing persons ads both during and after the war is the Christian Recorder, published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These ads, often placed by one or two individuals would give information based on the missing person or persons last known location, full name, known nicknames, their familial or friendship ties, how the person placing the ad could be reached, their address, and the location from where the ad was being published. This variety of information meant that any of a number of individuals could read or come across this information and communicate any part or segment to any of the parties listed in hopes of reestablishing a connection. It was also common to see ads posted by church groups or by other individuals on behalf of another person, who perhaps did not have the means or literacy to post the ad.

The 700 wanted ads from the Christian Recorder compiled during Villanova University’s Graduate Digital History Practicum offer innumerable research opportunities to historians interested in the Civil War, Reconstruction, Gender studies, African-American history, as well as other fields like Geography and Politics. For my project, I wanted to test the data to see if there was a significant connection between the ratification dates of the first two Reconstruction amendments: the Thirteenth and Fourteenth and a rise in the placement of ads from the states where the amendments had recently been ratified. More specifically, I looked at border and Southern or (formerly) Confederate states and the dates they ratified and adopted each amendment. The hypothesis being: if there was a marked uptick in the amount of ads submitted during this time period it could be deduced that free blacks, more specifically, individuals looking to rebuild social networks, and even more specifically, individuals posting ads in the Christian Recorder felt more comfortable doing so after the amendments were adopted by Southern and border states who otherwise would not assume these protections on their own at the state and local level. Through examining and data-basing 700 wanted ads placed in the Christian Recorder between 1863 and 1869 the following information was gathered:

Below are two timelines, created with the online tool dipity. The first timeline tracks every state’s ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Thirteenth Amendment, which was highly contested in the House of Representatives, was passed on January 31, 1865 by that body, certifying its passage and subsequently sending it to the states for ratification. The amendment made slavery illegal in the United States and was a political and military goal of both Radical Republicans and Abraham Lincoln. That is, both wanted to see the amendment passed before the imminent surrender of the South, who would rejoin the Union and the House of Representatives and veto any attempt at the passage of a freedom bill.

Thirteenth Amendment Timeline

The second timeline tracks the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment was a response to the almost immediate resubjugation of recently freed slaves in the South to Black Codes passed in many former-Confederate states. These laws sought to install a system of white supremacy and non-citizenship for blacks. Though Congress attempted to act through the passage of a Civil Rights Act in 1866, it quickly became clear that an amendment enfranchising blacks, granting full citizenship to freed slaves would be necessary. The amendment was adopted July 9, 1868 with little support from Southern states. Later Congress would stipulate that ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment would be required for congressional representatives from former-Confederate states to be readmitted to Congress. The timeline shows both border and Southern states and the time it took to ratify the amendment, even after adoption. One can infer the bitterness with which this amendment was accepted by the Southern states with full ratification taking fully four years.

*Both Timelines exclude extreme outliers like Mississippi or New Jersey who rejected and failed to re-certify the 13th and 14th Amendments, respectively

Fourteenth Amendment Timeline

After establishing a timeline for both amendments two maps were created using the Google map creation tool. The first map looks at ads placed during the timeline representation of the Thirteenth Amendment. More specifically, it looks at ads placed within this time period from individuals reporting their address within border and former-Confederate states. That information comprises layer one which had a total of 55 hits in the entire Christian Recorder wanted ads database from February 1865 to June 1866. Layer two of this data, illustrated by ‘yellow stars’, represents the ads where the month and year of ad placement were significant- within five or six months- to the time the state ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. For example: on February 3, 1866 an unknown male placed an ad looking for Henry Collins. This man listed his address as Princeton, New Jersey—a State that ratified the Thirteenth Amendment on January 23, 1866.   Allowing for some time for communication, or over seasons like winter, I found the total result of this database to be 18 significant hits of 55 or roughly 33 percent of all ads placed during this time coincide with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Similarly, the second map looks at ads placed during the second timeline for ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, July 1866 to June 1869, and excludes outliers like Texas and Mississippi who did not ratify until 1870. Strictly speaking, the timeframe that the amendment took to be ratified took much longer; therefore, layer one, which records all ads from the Christian Recorder from the aforementioned time period lists 84 ‘hits’ for ads placed from individuals listing their address in border or former-Confederate state—roughly 30 more than all ads placed for the Thirteenth Amendment. More significantly, however, is layer two which is, again, illustrated by ‘yellow stars’. This layer records fourteen individual ‘hits’ of ads placed at a date very near- five to six months- ratification date of the state listed by the advertiser. For Example on November 28, 1868 Alice Mitchell posted an ad for her mother, Polly Clark. Alice Mitchell listed her address in Glenville, Barbour County, Alabama—a state where the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified on July 13, 1868. Again allowing for some margin of communication and seasonality I found the total result of the two layers for this database to be 14 significant ‘hits’ from a total of 84, or roughly 17 percent of all ads placed during these years to coincide with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Geographically, these ads are more spaced out than ‘layer two’ of the Thirteenth Amendment map and show coinciding trends in New Jersey, Washington D.C., Virginia, and the Deep South. Perhaps with more data this geographic information could be more insightful.

These numbers, 33 and 17 percent, certainly do not represent the type of ‘smoking gun’ for which historians and researchers aiming to publish books and peer-review articles would look. The overall sample size of 700 ads, though it took a team of graduate students half a semester to fully transcribe into a digestible document, is far too small a collection of ads, and other databases would have to be created from similar newspapers and publications from Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Although this project shows empirically that roughly 33 percent of ads posted around the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment and 17 percent of ads posted around the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment appear significant to the original question and hypothesis this project was likely never going to fully draw a parallel between the thought processes of free blacks looking to rebuild communities in the former-Confederacy and border states and the importance or trust in the federal government to guarantee the rights and liberties which had been so viciously fought for over from 1861 to 1865. I hope this project will inspire other researchers, particularly those looking at contraband camps and the rebuilding of black communities after the war, to continue exploring newspaper wanted ads and the window to the past they offer.

 

 

For More Information:

National Trust for Historic Preservation: The Forgotten- The Contraband of America and the Road to Freedom

 National Park Service: Living Contraband- Former Slaves in the Nation’s Capital during the Civil War

The Christian Recorder

 Our Documents 13th Amendment

 Our Documents 14th Amendment

Our Documents 15th Amendment. History: Reconstruction

National Humanities Center: Emancipation, 1864-1865

List of States in Order of Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment

List of States in Order of Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment

PBS: Slavery by another Name- Black Codes and Pig Laws

History, Art and Archives: The United States House of Representatives, “Historical Highlights: the Civil Rights Bill of 1866”

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