On the porch, Pulaski, Arkansas, 1939, LC-USF33- 006025-M3 [P&P]

After emancipation, the vast majority of the 4 million newly freed slaves remained living near their former owners, if not working directly for them.

Some did leave the area of their enslavement. They left with the Union Army, migrated to nearby cities for work or left in search of loved ones who had been sold. But most remained.

This proximity means the 1870 census is a critical document for those researching former slaves. I can’t say that enough. Understanding that community is critical.

Why Proximity is Key

Proximity, along with surname, is one of the best clues in the quest to discover the identity of a former slaveholder. Over and over again, we see this pattern in the 1870 census.

Why would they stay so close?

The need to earn a living doing explains much of this. The formerly enslaved were largely illiterate and worked primarily as farmers. Their former owners still owned land that needed laborers. They certainly couldn’t be bothered to work their own land.

Freedmen quickly realized how few choices they actually had and how narrow freedom actually was.

What is often unappreciated is the long, multi-generational hold of slavery and the effects of its lovechild, Jim Crow segregation.

Waiting to pick cotton, LC-USF33- 006029-M3 [P&P]

Many descendants of enslaved people still lived in proximity to the where their ancestors were enslaved 30, 40, even 60 years later.

Some were still working for descendants of the slaveholding family.

In 1910, the African-American Prathers were still in Montgomery County, Maryland living in close proximity to their former owners.

1910 Census. Tobias Prather next to former Cooke slaveholding family

The African-American Benomens were still in 1940 in Kemper County, Mississippi, where their ancestors were enslaved. This was true all over the South.

Why did so many African-Americans remain locked into the place of their ancestor’s enslavement, even decades later?

Time Passes, Conditions Worsen

Reconstruction offered only a brief glimpse at the possibility of a truly multi-racial society. White supremacy and those in its sway quickly retook the state and local governments of the southern states.

They eventually removed the ability of African-Americans to vote through violence and intimidation. States enacted laws that eventually disfranchised the freedmen and their descendants.

The 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, contained a valuable exception: “except as punishment for crime.”

With this key phrase, southern states enacted convict leasing statutes in a fever pitch. This doomed thousands of southern blacks to literal enslavement and even death well through the turn of the century.

Oglethorpe, GA, 1941, Convicts, LC-DIG-fsa-8a35437

Moreover, the lynching that began in earnest in the 1880s would go one to kill over four thousand blacks through the 1930s.  This extralegal killing was not confined to the southern states.

Almost none of the perpetrators were caught and punished, even though their identities were mostly known.

This was not an abstract occurrence. My own ancestor George W. Holt was lynched in Hardin County, Tennessee in 1887. The local newspaper called it ‘suicide.’ But locals remembered otherwise:

Savannah Courier paper, April 1887

The Failure of Reconstruction

Part of the failure of Reconstruction was the inability of the federal government to give freedpeople their own land, the “forty acres and a mule” that became lore.

Lincoln’s assassination and the rise of Andrew Johnson to the Presidency portended their fate. An avowed white supremacist, Johnson favored a quick amnesty for the former Confederates who had committed treason.

The Freedmens Bureau retreated from advocating for landownership for former slaves. They instead encouraged and pushed freedpeople into year-long labor contracts.

Andrew Johnson

This failure—to give land to the people who had worked it– locked many of the descendants of enslaved people into sharecropping and tenant farming and poverty that became generational.

Former slave Bayley Wyatt spoke passionately in 1866:

“I may state to all our friends, and to all our enemies, that we has a right to the land where we are located.  For why?  I tell you.  

Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; for that reason we have a divine right to the land…”

How Much Freedom

Freedom was an elusive thing in reality.

Freedmen and their families were still, as they were in slavery, economically dependent upon white planters.

Yes, they couldn’t be sold away from loved ones.
Yes, they were not supposed to be whipped anymore.
Yes, they were supposed to be paid for their service.
They were now citizens and were supposed to be able to vote.

Former slave Willis Winn, Near Marshall, Texas,
LC-USF33- 012186-M2 [P&P]. Holds the horn used to call slaves to work every day.

But in reality, white terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan murdered, whipped and raped tens of thousands of former slaves. They burned the schools and churches that freedmen built.

In reality, former owners tried to keep their children enslaved even after emancipation.

In reality, slaveholders scoffed at the idea of paying people they used to own and cheated them or simply ran them off their property in droves after the crop came in.

Any African-American who dared achieve–by becoming landowners, by registering to vote, by complaining of being cheated, by leading the building of churches and schools, and especially former Union soldiers–ran an even higher risk of being lynched.

All of this, and remember that in most states, black people could not testify in court against anyone white. Freedmens Bureau documents attest to these and other atrocities.

And through it all, violence was the glue that held it all together. Generally, the freedmen could expect no justice and no safety in their person.

Daniel Price wrote to the Alabama governor in 1868:

 “I am afraid to leave town and in constant dread of being murdered….This state of things cannot long continue.  Either we must have protection or leave….We have fallen upon evil times when an American citizen can not express his honest opinions without being in great danger of being murdered.” 

Thomas Jones wrote to South Carolina’s governor in 1871:

“On Friday night, there came a crowd of men to my house…calling, knocking, climbing and shoving at the door….It is a plot to drive me out of the country because I am a school teacher.  They say that I shall not teach school any longer in this country.  Please your honor, send some protection up here.”

On the porch, Pulaski, Arkansas, 1939, LC-USF33- 006025-M3 [P&P]


Starting in the 1910s, the Great Migration began from the Deep South and by 1970 over 6 million had left the South for opportunities in the North and West.

Some African-Americans broke free and were able to escape the cycle of violent oppression and poverty.

But everyone did not leave. Everyone did not break free. 

And through the turn of the century and two World Wars, the cumulative effects of the lack of social, political and economic power achieved in many ways, its desired outcome.

The awful reality was that many, many African-American descendants of slaves were still living right there in the community with the descendants of their former owners, even half a century later. Even 80 years later, in 1940.

Slavery had a long, long hold indeed.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email