Negotiating Emancipation in the Reconstruction South

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 1:30 PM - 2:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Civil War and Reconstruction; Politics


While the federal abolition of slavery resolved many of the questions that had started the Civil War, it also created a host of new controversies and opportunities. This panel explores emancipation as a process that continued well after the war. The three papers in this session show how white and black southerners abolished slavery while contesting the extent to which antebellum ideas should define the meanings of citizenship, incarceration, and property. The authors ask how white and black southerners maneuvered>—with varying degrees of success—to dictate the process of emancipation in law and politics. Their movements helped shape the new state governments that emerged during Reconstruction. The first paper examines South Carolina’s experiment with skilled labor training in the nascent state penitentiary. Radical Republicans in the state legislature sought to design an institution for reform, but the program ultimately failed. This short-lived experiment in skilled carceral labor offers a unique window into the muddled politics of the postbellum South: a vision of incarceration quite unlike the later convict leasing system, but one that nevertheless relied heavily on a perception of the labor economy rooted in the antebellum era. The second paper highlights how Americans struggled to resolve questions regarding slavery’s economic afterlife beyond abolition. Southern politicians debated who should pay the price of emancipation and what should happen to former slaveholders’ debts. In particular, some white southerners argued (unsuccessfully) that white widows and children were “innocents” who deserved financial relief. The debates explored in this paper reveal that, counter to prior historians’ arguments, white southerners did not quickly acquiesce to emancipation after the Civil War. The third paper explores how a cohort of black officeholders mobilized to make new state governments in the postbellum South an ally in the campaign to establish public black colleges. These men not only relied on new rights to hold office, but they also expanded citizenship claims further by promoting higher education as a right states owed every person. Centering black officeholders provides a different view of southern state politics and institution-building in the Reconstruction era.

Papers Presented

Crafting the Post-Emancipation Penitentiary: Incarcerating Artisan Labor in Reconstruction South Carolina

This paper explores the origins and early years of South Carolina’s state penitentiary, focusing specifically on the attempt by lawmakers and prison authorities to train inmates in the artisan trades as a means of revenue and reform. Originally established by conservative lawmakers as a way to control the African American population after emancipation, the penitentiary’s construction and early management fell to the state’s Republican legislature. Even as other Southern states shifted towards convict leasing, South Carolina's Radical Republicans staunchly resisted farming out convicts to private individuals, fighting for a centralized public carceral system that might offer some hope for the reformatory possibilities of incarceration. In doing so, they sought to transform the penitentiary into a training ground for artisan trades. Through skilled labor, they hoped, convicts would pay the costs of their imprisonment while also acquiring valuable skills for life in freedom. By the end of Reconstruction, however, the program was a near total failure, quickly replaced by unskilled labor and convict leasing. Exploring the theory and reality underlying this labor experiment helps us to see more clearly the complicated calculations employed by lawmakers and state officials in the aftermath of emancipation.

Presented By
Anne E. Kerth, University of Massachusetts Amherst

To Protect the Innocent: Abolishing Property Rights in Slaves after the Civil War

This paper reveals that debates over whether the U.S. government secured slaveowners’ property rights in slaves continued after the Civil War. White southerners seceded from the U.S. in 18601861 to create a national government that protected their rights to own humans. Politicians and lawmakers of the time, as well as today’s historians, could not agree whether the U.S. government or slave states’ laws secured investments in slaves. As early as 1864, border state politicians who remained in the U.S. and southern politicians who sought re-entry into the Union challenged wartime emancipation and debated: who should pay the price of abolition? These debates granted a new meaning to emancipation, enabling the federal government to claim control over slavery’s legal and economic afterlife. Seeking federal compensation for the value of freed slaves and relief for outstanding debts for the value of slaves, these politicians argued that the U.S. Constitution protected their investments in human property and positioned widows and children as "innocents" who neither participated in the war nor the slave economy. Their strategy failed when the federal government nullified all claims for compensation in the Fourteenth Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court recognized all outstanding contracts for human property in 1871.

Presented By
Amanda Laury Kleintop, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts

“Their Just Education Rights”: Black Officeholders and the Campaign for Public Black Colleges

This paper positions a cohort of Reconstruction-era black southerners not only as respondents to the state, but also as members of growing state apparatuses and partners to grassroots educational activists. It frames their campaign for public black colleges, as many nineteenth-century African Americans themselves did, in terms of citizenship. After Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts in 1867, black leaders across the U.S. South used their new political rights to expand state support for black education. During constitutional conventions, for example, African Americans capitalized on their political representation and white Republicans’ support to make public education a priority. Then, officeholding black men, including Peyton Finley in Alabama, James Walker Hood in North Carolina, and William Brown in Louisiana, helped create and direct education policy in their states. With advocates of black education working inside growing central administrations, school leaders saw opportunities to make the state an ally in establishing public black colleges.

Presented By
Leigh Soares, Mississippi State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Laura Edwards, Princeton University
Laura Edwards is the Peabody Family Distinguished Professor of History at Duke University. Her award-winning research focuses on women, gender, and the law in the nineteenth century, particularly the U.S. South. In addition to articles on these topics, she has published four books: A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights (2015); The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (2009); Scarlett Doesn't Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era (2000); and Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction (1997). She is now working on a new book project, entitled Only the Clothes on Her Back: Textiles, Law, and Commerce in the Nineteenth Century United States.

Presenter: Anne E. Kerth, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Anne Kerth is an Assistant Professor in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She holds a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University and a B.A. in History from Williams College. Her research interests include the history of slavery and emancipation, labor history, the history of gender and sexuality, and carceral history. Her current book project examines the lives and labors of African-American artisans, enslaved and free, in nineteenth-century South Carolina, exploring how the work performed by these skilled men and women shaped their experiences of the most important social, political, and economic transformations of the nineteenth-century American South.

Presenter: Amanda Laury Kleintop, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
Amanda Laury Kleintop is an assistant professor of US history at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA). She is a historian of the US Civil War and Reconstruction, and slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World. Her manuscript project, The Balance of Freedom: Abolishing Property Rights in Slaves after Emancipation, explores how white southerners attempted to delimit the meaning of emancipation in law and politics by seeking compensation for and relief from debts for the value of slaves freed during the Civil War. The Balance of Freedom has been supported by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (Yale University), the American Society for Legal History, the American Bar Foundation (Chicago, IL), and the American Historical Association, among others.

At MCLA, Kleintop coordinates the public history minor and leads public-facing digital humanities projects like the North Adams Archives. Her work in public and digital history began in Richmond, Virginia, with the University of Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab and the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission.

Presenter: Leigh Soares, Mississippi State University
Leigh Soares is an Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University. Her research focuses on black politics and institution building in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. She is currently developing a book manuscript about how black political and educational leaders mobilized throughout the post-Civil War South to establish and maintain public black colleges. Dr. Soares is the recipient of several awards, including the Africana Research Center Postdoctoral Fellowship for the Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State, and the NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship.