Author Archives: samrhunter

Reconstruction: The Search for Reuniting African American Families in Postbellum America

Life for African Americans can never be characterized as one of freedom, acceptance, and ease. Despite Fox News’s Eric Bolling recent assurances, racism still exists and permeates the fabric of American society. For example, New York’s Stop and Frisk policy has, according to statistics, a racially motivated agenda. But as frustrating and unjust as the treatment of African Americans can be considered today, life was far bleaker for blacks before the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which, as we know, abolished slavery and other forms of forced servitude).

One brutal aspect of reality faced by those captured or born into slavery was the absence of a biological family unit on plantations or other properties. Rather than be allowed to grow up and work with their parents, slave children were often sold to the highest white bidder for a decent sum of money. Solomon Northup’s narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, illustrates well the devastation around such a separation:

“The same man also purchased Randall. The little fellow was made to jump, and run across the floor, and perform many other feats, exhibiting his activity and condition. All the time the trade was going on, Eliza [Randall’s mother] was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought her self and Emily [Randall’s sister]. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively . . . A great many times she repeated her former promises – how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together. But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it. The bargain was agreed upon, and Randall must go alone. Then Eliza ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her – all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.” (Northup, Twelve Years)

 

Example of Information Wanted Advertisement in The Christian Recorder. Photo courtesy of Accessible Archives.

Example of Information Wanted Advertisement in The Christian Recorder. Photo courtesy of Accessible Archives.

The image that Northup paints describes a heartbreaking, yet common occurrence. According to the American Methodist Episcopal Church’s newspaper, The Christian Recorder, his account of the slave auction was the norm. Although created to be a community newsletter for African Americans, The Christian Recorder became far more than a simple tool for notification of events. Along with community announcements, The Christian Recorder printed ‘Information Wanted’ advertisements. In these advertisements, hundreds of people paid for a small section of a paper in order to request information regarding the whereabouts of a lost loved one. Details that the advertisers included in the articles varied, but several citied the reason for separation as the result of being bought or sold in the slave system.

After a brief recount of the broken nature of African American families, we can assume that, with emancipation, former slaves and even freedmen were desperate to reconnect with their loved ones. For many, placing advertisements in newspapers like The Christian Recorder served as the solution for this period of ‘great reuniting.’ Fortunately, as student of Villanova University, I have access to several years worth of Information Wanted advertisements. So, once I was able to get my hands on these documents, I started to research the people who were placing these ads and their relationships with those for whom they were searching.


Advertisements and Gender

The first step I had taken in my relationship analysis was in deciding the overall scope of the study. As I was interested in learning more about family reconnections post-Civil War, I felt that the proper starting point was the April 29, 1865 issue, or the first publication after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union forces at the Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9th. As the Information Wanted advertisements continued to the last issue transcribed by the newspaper’s host site (Accessible Archives) on June 12, 1869, I thought that ending my research there would be appropriate. With those dates as my scope, I found two hundred and thirty-one advertisements transcribed by both Accessible Archives and my peers in Villanova’s Digital History class. 

In order to tackle my research project, I decided to narrow the data categories that my classmates and I had collected from those two hundred and thirty-one ads. Rather than using all forty-two categories my class had agreed upon for our communal document, I focused on four in particular: gender and location of advertiser, gender of searchee, and the relation of the advertiser to searchee. After creating my document, I thought an interesting starting point in data analysis would be in the gender of those placing the wanted advertisements.

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As we can observe from the graph, men placed one hundred and seventeen advertisements during the months and years of my research scope; in comparison, women filed one hundred and twenty-six. Although the difference is slight, we can see that more women were placing ads than men in this postbellum time period. By now, you are probably thinking one of two things: what could be the reason for more women placing advertisements in the newspaper; or, the numbers I have given do not add up to two hundred and thirty-one. Well, both of those questions can be answered in the next area that I explored during my research.

 The reason that the total of male and female advertisers exceeds the number of Information Wanted ads placed is because multiple people could file a single advertisement. For example, I had several instances where a mother and father placed an ad together. That, then, brought me to the next aspect of my research (and a possible answer for why more women had placed ads than men), which, as we have discussed, was what were the connections of the advertiser to the searchee.


Advertisements and Relationships

            Although the analysis of these relationships was certainly a more involved and time-consuming endeavor, the information I learned from this aspect of my project was a bit more thought-provoking than simply comparing gender results.

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As the above graph shows, the majority of those placing advertisements looking for long lost loved ones leans unquestionably in the direction of parents (94 ads). With what we’ve learned from Northup’s account, this parental majority does not come as much of a surprise. What was a bit of a shock, however, was the group who placed second in filing the most ads. Rather than children searching for the parents they had been stripped from (which, if I was a betting woman, would have been where I placed my chips), siblings were more likely to file ads looking for one another. Surprised, I could not help but wonder:

  • How long did a siblings typically stay together under slavery?
  • How often were separated siblings in contact with one another?
  • Were siblings searching for each other because they mostly likely served in war?
  • Were siblings searching for each other based on probability of being alive? 

Although these questions are outside the scope of my project, further research could certainly shed more light on the reason behind siblings being the second most likely group to place advertisements in The Christian Recorder

 


 

Gender and Relations

After discovering which groups of relatives were placing the most advertisements, I felt that another practical form of analysis for my new data interpretation was to, once again, add gender into the mix. So, my questions now became what parent was searching the most? What sibling, or child? 

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What we can observe:

  • Wives and Husbands are searching for one another with the same amount of frequency.
  • Fathers, Daughters, Sons, and Sisters have similar advertisement placing trends.
  • Mothers are the most prevalent advertiser filing Information Wanted ads. Give the data presented from the previous two charts, this fact is certainly no surprise.

Interestingly, the second group with the highest numbers of ads placed are men in search of their long lost sibling. Again, the questions I posed in the previous section remain: why are siblings placing a large portion of the ads and, given this new data, why are the sibling advertisers mostly men? These questions inspired me in my research for the last leg of my project, a focus on a particular sibling Information Wanted advertisement. 


Further Research

 When I had been in the planning stages of my project and just began to formulate the questions I wanted to research, I could have never imagined I would find such interesting results. Although I am fascinated with the fact that mothers placed advertisements far more than any other relative group, I have to admit that I became personality invested in one particular sibling story and, thus, decided to research their story a bit more.

On February 16, 1867, Amanda E. Andrew placed an advertisement requesting information regarding the whereabouts of her brother, Jacob Andrews. The ad included information about Jacob’s service in Pennsylvania’s 8th Reserve Regiment and his last known location. But, what drew me to Amanda’s advertisement was the town she gave – Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania – for her location. Wilkes-Barre just happens to be my hometown!

Once I had made that personal connection with Amanda’s advertisement, I was determined to find more information about Jacob and to see if the two had reunited at some point in time. To begin my search for Jacob, I decided to plug the information garnered from the advertisement to Ancestry.com’s search criteria. The search for a ‘Jacob Andrews’ resulted with a plethora of possibilities. Needing to narrow my results, I then searched for only those who had served in the military during the Civil War. Again, I received far more results then I had expected. Unfortunately, none of the second phase results specified James’s race or matched with Amanda’s assurance of him fighting with the 8th Regiment.

As I became more than a little frustrated with the overabundance of unsure possibilities, I decided to move on and try to locate Amanda through Ancestry’s search. Unlike Jacob, there was just one result for an ‘Amanda E. Andrew.’ Excited, I opened that result to find our advertiser in the 1850 census. For me, this find was golden. The census record gave me Amanda’s birth year (c. 1845), her location (Franklin, Pennsylvania), and race (Mulatto). The true gem, however, came in the section of the census titled “Other Household Members,” where one Jacob Andrew was listed.

Jacob Andrew service record. Photo courtesy of Ancestry.com

Jacob Andrew service record. Photo courtesy of Ancestry.com

After finding Jacob Andrew in the 1850 census (recorded as being ten years old, just the right age to serve in the Civil War), I decided to edit my search on Ancestry to ‘Jacob Andrew’ rather than ‘Andrews.’ Once I had, again, narrowed my search to those that had served in the military, I found Jacob within no time! There he was, Jacob Andrew from Franklin, PA, who served in the 8th United States Colored Infantry. Although the result I found was missing the ‘s’ on Andrew, I felt safe in assuming that I had found Amanda’s brother.

Finding Jacob’s record was such a breakthrough because I found information connecting him to Amanda, as well as was able to discover when he had enlisted in the Union army (1863). After finding out Jacob served in the 8th U.S. Colored Infantry, I decided to further research how involved the regiment was in the actual fighting. From the group’s establishment in 1861, the 8th Regiment fought in their fair share of battles ranging from the collisions at Mechanicsburg, Fredericksburg, South Mountain, and even the Second Battle of Bull Run. Fortunately, those high casualty (and Confederate victory) battles occurred before Jacob had enlisted. That said, Jacob likely fought in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864.

Although the 8th Regiment did suffer hundreds of casualties due to fighting and disease, I do know that Jacob survived the war. According to Family Search’s accounts on the 8th United States Colored Infantry, Private Jacob Andrews (again, potential last name discrepancy) was drafted on August 14, 1864 and “mustered out with Company C on November 10, 1865.” From that point, I have a feeling that Jacob eventually went on to find Amanda in Wilkes-Barre. Unfortunately, I was unable to find more census or tax records from Jacob on Ancestry, but I did find two potential leads for continued research. By just searching ‘Andrew’ and ‘Wilkes-Barre,’ I found two women that could be Jacob’s daughters. Laura B. Hazen (née Andrew) and Mary C. Neff (née Andrew) were both born in Franklin, PA, with a Jacob Andrew listed as their father. Oddly, both Laura and Mary were documented to have died in 1909 in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Although I would love to claim that these women were our Jacob’s daughters and that he lived a nice life in Wilkes-Barre, I cannot be certain. However, this is definitely a nice thought and something that I would love the opportunity to research further.


Future Work?

Truth be told, my heart has been captured by the Andrew family and I plan to continue researching into this family’s history until I am able to find information regarding how the lives of our Jacob and Amanda unfolded. If I do continue Andrew family research, I would extend my focus to incorporate the other family members listed in that 1850s census. Through this, I would attempt to answer those sibling relation questions I posed previously. 

Another area that I would be interested in continuing to research is more about the mother’s who placed the majority of the Information Wanted advertisements. I am curious to discover the reasoning behind more mothers posting ads than fathers. Were women more literate than men and could therefore place ads themselves? How many mothers were also searching for husbands? From there, further research could incorporate the location of these women. Did the mother’s placing advertisements live near one another? If so, could that lead to more research about African American women communities? While I am not sure these questions all have answers, I do intend to continuing researching to find out! 


Sources

8th United States Colored Infantry 

13th Amendment

Accessible Archives

Battle of Spotsylvania

Family Search – 8th U.S. Colored Infantry 

Family Search – Company C

Fox News’s Eric Bolling

Stop and Frisk

Twelve Years a Slave Excerpt 

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African American Occupations in Reconstruction America

Although the reasoning behind southern secession and the Civil War seems to be a convoluted mess of issues regarding states’ rights, taxation, and good ole’ fashioned territorial tension, what is clear and understandable is the significance that a Union victory brought to those enslaved. Despite popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation did not give slaves their sought after freedom (Worry not! We have all thought so at one time or another). Instead, concrete freedom and undeniable American citizenship came to all African Americans with the adoption of the consecutive Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments (passed in 1865 and 1868, respectively). But, what came next?

Although those two amendments both abolished slavery and required all rights and privileges belonging to United States citizens to no longer be withheld from African Americans, these pieces of legislation were mute on just how States were to incorporate thousands of new citizens into every day life. So, what had life been like for African Americans during the Reconstruction Era of U.S. history?

As we have learned in our high school history classes (and still witness, even today), being black and living in America can be characterized as a constant uphill struggle for freedom, rights, and respect. Yes, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments may have promised to fulfill the American creed – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – for African Americans, the fact remains that racism was (and is) embedded in our culture. Understanding, then, that the assimilation of these new citizens was going to be hard, the U.S. government had the foresight to create the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (shortened to just Freedman’s Bureau) in March of 1865. The purpose behind the Freedman’s Bureau, originally intended to operate for just one year, was to ensure that African Americans were given proper food and medical attention, as well as education and protection in the workplace. The efforts of the Freedman’s Bureau became even more essential when, later that same year, Mississippi and other southern states enacted legislation known as the Black Codes.

Although the Black Codes are considered the precursor to the intense and violent Jim Crow Era of the South, the laws enacted by these codes packed a definite wallop. Born from a necessity to reinforce white supremacy, the Black Codes served as the behavioral outline for what African Americans could and could not do within the boarders of their state. For the most part, the codes were concerned with the issue of integrating African Americans into the existing labor market. Thousands of men and women joined the free labor market pool and white southerners, wishing to kill two birds with one stone, detailed the rights that African Americans had in regards to work and contracts in the Black Codes.

So, with all focus on labor, we are left with a question: what kinds of jobs did African Americans have in Reconstruction America?

Church and Publication

Richard Allen, Founder of American Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of AME Social Action Comission.

Richard Allen, Founder of American Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of AME Social Action Comission.

Richard Allen, a former slave once owned by famed Philadelphian lawyer Benjamin Chew, founded the first independent black denomination in the United States just fourteen short years after he bought his freedom in 1780. The church, American Methodist Episcopal of Philadelphia, became an invaluable resource for African Americans to be involved with both politics and the black community. During the Civil War, numerous African Americans participated in the proliferation of the abolition cause through their positions in the AME. Through the AME, African Americans served in traditional and non-traditional church roles that united the black community. The non-traditional positions had African Americans creating and publishing the AME’s official newsletter, The Christian Recorder. According to Eric Gardner, The Christian Recorder became a widely read and subscribed to newspaper that reached both African American civilians and soldiers fighting in the war.

After the war, the nature of The Christian Recorder somewhat shifted. While still printing interesting articles and notices of community events, the weekly newsletter began to publish with more frequency ‘Information Wanted’ advertisements. Hundreds of people, in desperate hopes of reuniting with a lost love one (who had been sold, fought in the war, etc.), wrote to The Christian Recorder with information usually detailing the lost person’s name, appearance, and even last known location. Along with being responsible for printing those wanted advertisements in the newsletter, those working for the AME often served as liaisons, or contacts, between those searching for loved ones and the people who might have information and possible leads about the missing.

Although the work completed by those of traditional church positions was rather different than those with more non-traditional roles in the AME, both occupations required African Americans to do meaningful and, at times, difficult work.

Farmers

Once the successful Atlanta to Savannah leg of his legendary March to Sea had come to an end, Gen. William Sherman met with several black leaders of Savannah to discuss the idea of appropriating the confiscated southern territory to African Americans who fought for Union or had previously worked the land while enslaved. From Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, issued on 16 January 1865, comes the well-known order for African Americans to receive “forty acres and a mule” as reparation for the injustices done to them by slavery. Although Sherman’s order is admirable, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination put the proverbial nail in the coffin of the former slaves owning the confiscated land. President Andrew Johnson, a Southern sympathizer, returned the land to the properties’ original owners.

Although the reinstated plantation owners were given back their land, the workforce needed to care for the property was no more. While anxious to reclaim their lost fortune, plantation owners realized that they could capitalize on the poor African Americans who, because of the Black Codes, needed work but could not afford the land and tools necessary to create a successful farm or business. As a deceptive cure for all ills, plantation owners offered these freed blacks a portion of their land in return for percentage of the crops produced. This process of renting land in exchange for goods became known as sharecropping.

Sharecropping and Its Prevalence

Although the premise of sharecropping sounds fair, albeit opportunistic, the truth behind the exchange was for less reasonable than we would like to think. As we have discussed, sections of the Black Codes detail African American employment. The portion, “An Act to Confer Civil Rights on Freedmen, and for Other Purposes,” requires that all “freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes” to live in previously designated areas (so, African Americans could live only in towns that the government deemed proper) unless holding a license to live and work someplace else. For most African Americans, purchasing property in those designated towns was unrealistic. Truthfully, what former slave had money to spend on land or a home?

Armed with this knowledge, plantation owners appealed to these freedmen and offered them the gold plated opportunity of sharecropping: for a small portion of the profit (one-third of the crop harvest), one could rent the land needed to both live on and farm. Again, sharecropping does not sound all that bad. But, tagged on to the fine print of the deal were stipulations and charges. As previously mentioned, most freedmen were poor and, thus, could not afford the seeds and tools required to cultivate a successful farm. Once more, plantation owners had the solution: for an additional third of the crop harvest, one could rent the tools and seeds (picked by the plantation owner) needed.

So, after months of hard labor, what would those who entered the contract with the plantation owners receive as profit? One third of their crop harvest that must be disbursed in two ways: consumed by the family or sold for monetary gain. Suddenly, sharecropping does not seem like such a good idea. Yet, during Reconstruction, nearly 90% of all African Americans were sharecroppers.

Percentages of farms sharecropped during Reconstruction Era.

Percentages of farms sharecropped during Reconstruction Era.

The story of freedman Luther Mills exemplifies the conundrum faced by many African Americans after the Civil War. Mills, a husband and father of three, searched for odd jobs and other ways to provide for his family. Unable to read or write, Mills understood that his options were limited and, when presented with the opportunity to obtain the necessities his family needed, agreed to become a sharecropper. Signing a contract with a plantation owner, becoming a sharecropper, was not a perfect solution to the troubles that faced newly freed African Americans, but the contract was certainly enough to provide for the basic needs of daily life. Unfortunately, once the deal was made and contract signed, the sharecropper was stuck working for his employer for at least a year. According to the Black Codes, a deal was a deal and could not be terminated by the employee. If a contract had been agreed upon to last a year, then the employee was required to work for that time period. The employee, or sharecropper in this instance, could not quit and, if caught trying to leave the employment, would be returned and punished. Sounds an awful lot like the various fugitive slave legislations of the past, right?

Domestic Work

As we can see, conditions for African Americans in the South had not improved and, one could argue, began to resemble a quasi-slavery institution. Fortunately, freed black men and women were now able to travel to find better employment opportunities.

Since the North had fought for the freedom of those enslaved, southern African Americans believed that northern towns and workplaces would be the answer to their problems. Black women, in particular, were eager to trek North for the possibility of working outside the domestic sphere that they had been limited to for so long. These women were especially hopeful in finding better wage work given the economic climate of the North during Reconstruction.

During the later half of the Civil War and immediately following the fighting, the North and West experienced an industrial boom that has been unparalleled in American history since. This explosion of industry and business was primarily due to the proliferation of electricity, as well as railroad expansion (the Transcontinental Railroad opened in 1869). As a result of this remarkable boom in production, more people were needed to perform manual labor tasks such as attending to the new assembly lines or hammering in the metal steaks on railroad ties. Because of the high demand of labor, business looked to capitalize on an underutilized resource to save money; women, of course, represented that rarely tapped reserve. Once women began to be hired in bulk for these factory jobs, a hierarchy of female workers was created. Atop the labor pyramid were the white, Anglo-Saxon females, followed then by the Irish women, and ending with black females who, instead of factory work, found themselves designated to performing jobs only in domestic services. According to Sharon Harley in The Afro-American Women: Struggles and Images, as “all blacks were despised and hated by whites, there can be little doubt that black females were excluded from the northern factory system.” So, once again, African American women found themselves working as maids, dishwashers and, for a lucky few, unskilled factory workers.

 Government

Although I have created a rather bleak image of life for African Americans in the South during Reconstruction, not all suffered under the sharecropper regime. Scholars of African American history have identified over one thousand black men who held political office in both state and federal government. Surprising? Given what we learned about the Black Codes, most definitely. The first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress was a man named Hiram Rhodes Revels.

Hiram Rhodes Revels. Photo courtesy of Knox College.

Hiram Rhodes Revels. Photo courtesy of Knox College.

Interestingly, Revels began his career as a minister in the AME church. Serving in a traditional church role, Revels spoke often to those in his congregation and often put his formal education to more use by tutoring youngsters. Born a free man in North Carolina, Rhodes was tutored himself at an early age and continued with his education at the Union County Quaker Seminary in Indiana, as well as Knox College in Illinois. After leaving AME to join the Methodist Episcopal Church, Revels was stationed permanently in Natchez, Mississippi in 1866. In just three short years, Revels was elected to present his county in the Mississippi State Senate. There, Revels flourished and was soon voted to replace Albert Brown in the U.S. Senate in 1870. Revels became not only the first African American to serve in the Senate, but in Congress itself.

Oscar James Dunn.

Oscar James Dunn.

Another first to serve was Oscar James Dunn of Louisiana. Unlike Revels, Dunn was born into slavery and, after working as a skilled laborer for years, was emancipated in 1819. Dunn, while a skilled laborer, had also been tutored in music and was a talented violinist. In 1868, Dunn became the first black man to serve in state government as Louisiana’s lieutenant governor. Once Reconstruction ended, however, men like Revels and Dunn were no longer able to serve in government on a local, state or federal level. Although their terms in political office did not last long, these men created a legacy and should be remembered as true pioneers of the time.

Concluding Thoughts

After the Civil War, African Americans help a wide variety of jobs ranging from the sharecroppers in agriculture, women as maids and dishwashers, and even so far as political office. The accomplishments of these men and women were great, but still not equal or fair treatment that African Americans deserved under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment. Knowing about the kind of job opportunities (or lack thereof) that existed for African Americans during Reconstruction puts Civil Rights history into a new perspective, making the movement of the 1960s inevitable and even still continuing.


Sources

Books

Harley, Sharon and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images. New York: Kennikat Press, 1978.

Websites

13th Amendment

14th Amendment

40 Acres and a Mule

African American Women in the North

AME Social Action Commission

Black Codes

Hiram Rhodes Revels 

Oscar James Dunn

Sharecropping

William Sherman’s Field Order No. 15

Sharecropping Map and photograph of Oscar James Dunn are provided courtesy of Google Images.