Excerpts for Traveling the Freedom Road : From Slavery & the Civil War Through Reconstruction

TRAVELING the Freedom Road

From Slavery & the Civil War Through Reconstruction
By Linda Barrett Osborne


Copyright © 2009 The Library of Congress
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8109-8338-0


The Civil War.......................57
Time Line...........................118
Image Credits.......................123

Chapter One


On the night of April 15, 1848, thirteen-year-old Emily Edmonson, her fifteen-year-old sister, Mary, and four of their brothers secretly boarded a schooner named Pearl docked at a wharf on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Though their father was a free man, the six siblings were slaves because their mother was enslaved. According to the laws of Washington, D.C., and many states, children born to an enslaved mother were also slaves.

The Edmonson children had good jobs in the capital city, but their wages were not their own-what they earned belonged to their masters. They were well treated, but they were not at liberty to live where they wanted to, or to work at what they chose. And what they chose that rainy night in April was freedom. The plan was for the Pearl to sail down the Potomac, then up the Chesapeake Bay to a place where the seventy-seven slaves aboard would be picked up to then travel by land to the free-state city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Edmonson girls hid in the schooner's hold with the others. They knew the risk they were taking. If they were caught trying to escape, they would likely be sold to a slave trader. They would be forced to leave their D.C. home and would be taken farther south, where the chances of escape diminished with each mile. The Edmonson sisters might never work as household servants again. Instead, they might toil endlessly in the hot cotton fields of the Southern states. Like many other enslaved people who had been sold at the whim of an owner, they might never see their parents or their other brothers and sisters again.

This is what did-and did not-happen to Emily, Mary, and their brothers. Before it reached the Chesapeake, the Pearl was captured by those who enforced the slave laws. A slave trader bought them all and took the siblings to New Orleans. There they would have stayed, except that a yellow fever epidemic broke out in the city. To make sure the sisters did not catch the disease and die-leaving the trader without profitable young and pretty female slaves to sell-they were sent north to Virginia, while their brothers remained in Louisiana. In the meantime, their father, Paul Edmonson, had been trying to find a way to purchase their freedom. He met the minister Henry Ward Beecher, a white man, who had a church in Brooklyn, New York. They raised enough money to buy the Edmonson sisters and set them free. Eventually, two of their brothers were freed as well. A third, sold to a new owner, successfully escaped in 1859.

Emily and Mary were sent to school in Cortland, New York, and then to Oberlin, Ohio. The sisters began to speak out against slavery. They became abolitionists-people who demanded that slavery become illegal everywhere in the United States. Mary died from tuberculosis at a young age, but Emily lived to teach at a school for young African American women in Washington, D.C., and to marry, have children, and raise them as free Americans. She also lived to see the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by Congress and ratified by most states in 1865, forever ending slavery in this country.

Why did the Constitution, the basic rules that govern the United States, allow slavery in the first place? Like the signers of the Declaration of Independence, some of the men who wrote the Constitution in 1787 lived in the Southern states and owned slaves. These drafters of the Constitution were convinced that they could not afford to grow and harvest crops without slave labor. In the 1700s, people had also owned slaves in the North, but in the Northern states, slavery eventually died out. It was less practical and not as affordable to have slaves work in the small shops and businesses and on the farms of the North as it was on large Southern plantations.

Vermont's constitution was the first in the North to ban slavery. In 1777, it stated:

[N]o male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent ...

Vermont's law went much further than the U.S. Constitution would. Although it was intended to "secure the blessings of liberty" to Americans and their children, the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1787, never said that slavery was wrong. The best it did was to give future lawmakers the power to ban the international slave trade-the business of bringing slaves from Africa. But this did not occur until 1808, which allowed slave traders and owners twenty-one more years to increase the number of Africans enslaved in this country-twenty-one more years to force tens of thousands more people to leave their homes, to pack them into crowded ships to cross the Atlantic, and to sell them on auction blocks.

The slave trade was cruel and brutal. Imagine being kidnapped from your home and family and brought to a different country, never to return again. Olaudah Equiano was born in Guinea, in the western part of Africa. When Equiano was eleven, "one day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, ... stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood." He was soon separated from his sister and worked as a slave in several African households, before he endured the horrors of a slave ship sailing to America-chains, filth, illness, whippings, and for some aboard, death. He eventually arrived in Virginia and was later sent to England. Equiano published his life story in 1789.

Just two years before Equiano's book appeared, white Americans had written the Constitution and accepted it as the law of the land in 1787. In another concession to slavery, the Constitution stated in a clause that a slave who ran away from his owner-a fugitive slave-could not be freed even if he or she reached a free state. According to this clause, Emily and Mary Edmonson would have remained slaves, even if they had reached Philadelphia. What's more, they would have had to be returned to their owner. The Fugitive Slave Clause, as it was called, was unpopular in the free states of the North, which did not want to act as police for the slave states or send anyone back into slavery.

For a while it appeared that slavery might gradually end in the South on its own. Before 1800, many of those enslaved worked in the tobacco fields of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. The land was overused and was damaged during fighting in the American Revolution; fewer plants grew, and tobacco farming brought in less money. Some masters began to free their slaves so that they would not have to pay to clothe and feed them; others did so because they came to believe that the liberty promised by the Declaration of Independence was for all.

Then one invention changed everything. Eli Whitney designed and built a cotton gin in 1793. Now planters could make a huge profit by growing and selling what was known as "short staple" cotton. The gin quickly separated the seeds of this plant from the fibers used to make cloth. It had once taken a person working by hand a day to clean a pound of cotton, but with a gin, he or she could clean fifty pounds. Cotton planted in the lower South-Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana-could make a man or woman rich. But who would sow, harvest, and process the plant? Thousands upon thousands of slaves. A Virginia planter who once grew tobacco could make much more money by selling his slaves to work in the cotton fields than by freeing them. After 1808, domestic slaves-slaves born in the United States-became even more valuable because new slaves could no longer be brought from Africa.

Buying and selling people for profit was an ugly business, with men, women, and children treated harshly and handled and displayed like animals. "I remember a man named Rough something or other who bought forty or fifty slaves at the time and carried them to Richmond to resell," said Cornelia Andrews of North Carolina, who was sold to a new owner as a child. "He had four big black horses hooked to a cart, and behind this cart he chained the slaves, and they had to walk, or trot all the way to Richmond. The little ones Mr. Rough would throw up in the cart and off they'd go.... They say that there was one day at Smithfield that three hundred slaves were sold on the block.... People came from far and near, even from New Orleans to those slave sales." Sold to a third master, Cornelia Andrews was "whipped in public ... for breaking dishes and being slow." At age eighty-seven, she still bore the scars.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the domestic slave trade flourished, as more and more slaves were needed to work on cotton and other plantations. These plantations were springing up farther and farther west. The United States was growing. In 1803, the government bought from France the Louisiana Purchase, a large stretch of land that expanded U.S. borders beyond the Mississippi River. New settlers came to this territory, some with their slaves, some who opposed slavery. Expanding settlement raised the issue of slavery again. Should slavery exist in the states that were forming from this territory, which reached from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains? Should slavery spread with the growth of the country? Slave states said yes-they were afraid that slavery would be abolished if too many free states joined the Union and voted against it. Free states worried that if slavery was allowed to spread, it would take away the jobs of paid white workers moving to those states. Many could see that slavery was simply wrong: inhuman, unjust, and completely at odds with the spirit of the country. Others thought it was more important to keep all the states together in one union even if they had to accept slavery to appease the South.

The first crisis came in 1820, when Missouri wanted to enter the Union as a slave state. In order to keep the number of slave and free states even, Congress reached the Missouri Compromise: Missouri became a slave state, but Maine, in the Northeast, was admitted as a free state. Slavery was banned in the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase. Americans were coming to accept a dividing line between the free North and the slave South. The feelings of Americans on both sides would become stronger as time went by. Both sides would try to influence Congress. But Congress made its deals and passed its laws with no advice from the enslaved. Yet its decision to allow the growth of slavery according to the Missouri Compromise affected every single slave who lived through the toil, hardship, and tragedy of being owned by someone else.

What Was Slavery Like?

"Come daybreak you hear the guinea fowls ... and the roosters ... then purty soon the wind rises a little, and you can hear an old bell donging away on some plantation a mile or two off, and then more bells at other places and maybe a horn, and purty soon yonder goes old Master's old ram horn with a long toot and then some short toots, and here comes the overseer down the row of cabins, hollering right and left.... Bells and horns! Bells for this and horns for that! All we knew was [to] go and come by the bells and horns!"

This was what Charley Williams remembered about waking up when he was an enslaved child in Louisiana. Work, work, work. Every minute there was work to do and there were rules to follow. A slave could not sleep late or take his time eating breakfast or stop for a break when the sun beat down on the fields. His life was not his own. Many slaves were forced to work so hard that they were almost always exhausted; there was little rest during the endless days.

James Abbot was an enslaved child in Missouri. If Missouri had become a free state, James might have gone to school, done chores for his parents, and played with other kids. Instead, he worked from sunrise to sunset and beyond. His master was sick and "lay from the opening o' spring, 'bout the time flies come, 'til wheat-sowing time in the fall.... All that time he made me stand [at the] side o' his bed-keepin' the flies off him. I was just seven years old but there I had to stand, day and night, night and day. Course I'd sleep sometimes when he was sleepin'. Sometimes when I'd doze, my brush would fall on his face. Then he'd take his stick and whack me a few across the head and he'd say, 'Now I dare you to cry.'"

Although some owners did not beat their slaves, violence was a part of everyday life for most. If a slave seemed slow or disobedient, he or she would often be hit or whipped, even if too sick or hungry or tired to complete a task. Slaves were punished for not doing exactly as they were told. Harriet Tubman, who guided more than two hundred slaves to freedom between 1849 and 1860, was an enslaved teenager when she refused to tie down another slave so he could be beaten. The overseer-the man who managed the slaves for the owner-hit her in the head with a heavy weight. The blow caused her to suffer from bouts of unconsciousness for the rest of her life.

"Lord! I've seen such brutish doings-running [slaves] with hounds and whipping them till they were bloody," recounted Lucretia Alexander, who was a twelve-year-old slave when the Civil War started. "I remember one time they caught a man named George Tinsley. They put the dogs on him and they bit him and tore all his clothes off.... Then they put him in the stocks. The stocks were a big piece of timber with hinges in it.... They would lift it up and put your head in it. There were holes for your head, hands and feet.... Then they would shut it up and they would lay the whip on you and you couldn't do anything but wiggle and holler." David Blont, enslaved in North Carolina, saw an "overseer beat some of the half grown boys till the blood ran down to their heels."

Fear kept most slaves in line-fear of pain, fear of permanent injury, fear of death. Slaves were whipped until they bled and sometimes beaten until they died. Owners had the right, under the laws and codes of the slave states-and through custom-to treat slaves in any way they chose. Slaves had no rights-after all, they weren't considered to be people, but property. They were forbidden to leave their homes without permission, and if they were caught without a pass from the owner, they would be whipped. They could not legally marry, and they often lived separated from other family members.

Owners decided what and how much food slaves would eat and what clothes they would wear. By keeping their slaves afraid, undernourished, and poorly clothed, slave owners were better able to control them. A tired, weak, and cold slave was less likely to cause problems or try to escape. Charles Crawley of Virginia was one of many who had no shoes in the winter. "I 'member one time the snow was a foot deep and I had to gather the corn," he recalled. "I was barefooted and barehanded. My feet hurt so bad and my hands got so stiff I couldn't work my fingers.... That night my feet cracked open and next morning when I had to make the fires I left a track o' blood across the floor."

But the cruelest thing about slavery was that the owner tried to control not only a slave's body, but his or her heart and mind as well. Slavery encouraged ignorance. In every Southern state, slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write. Owners feared that writing and reading would open up a whole new world to enslaved people. It would help them to understand what was wrong about slavery, give them ideas for how they might better themselves, and enable them to write letters to other slaves and to abolitionists for support and help. Although a slave caught trying to learn was severely punished, some slaves thought it was so important to read and write that they taught themselves secretly or found a kind white person to teach them. Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become a great abolitionist, wrote of his childhood in Baltimore, Maryland: "[My] lessons in reading were learned from little school boys in the street and out of the way places where [I] could not be observed or interfered with. In fact, the street became [my] school and the pavements and fences in [my] neighborhood became [my] blackboard."


Excerpted from TRAVELING the Freedom Road by Linda Barrett Osborne Copyright © 2009 by The Library of Congress. Excerpted by permission.
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