A Fragile Freedom

Although the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, slaves wouldn't be emancipated until almost six decades later in 1863. And that long awaited emancipation proved fragile during the Civil War and Reconstruction period.


"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship." 
- Frederick Douglass

Bridgeman represents many collections rich in material from the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Among the best sources of imagery are regional historical societies such as VirginiaNew-YorkMassachusetts and New Orleans. Also worth perusing are large archives such as The Stapleton Collection and Peter Newark. If you need assistance in finding something specific, please email requests to newyork@bridgemanart.com.


The first shots of the Civil War sparked a rush of black men to enlist in the Union army, but due to a law dating back to 1792 stating that they could not legally serve in the military, they were turned away. Little more than a year later, with personnel needs increasing, the Union Army pressured Congress into reconsidering this age old law. After the Emancipation Proclamation was announced in January 1863, official recruitment of black soldiers could begin. Despite a slow start, when black leaders such as Frederick Douglass encouraged men to enlist as a path to full citizenship, the numbers grew in earnest. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army and Navy in artillery and infantry positions as well as noncombat support in the form of chaplains, cooks, scouts and nurses. Black women also served in a noncombat capacity. Perhaps most famously, Harriet Tubman served as a cook, nurse and spy for Union forces. Despite rampant prejudice and the dangers of falling into Confederate hands as a POW, many black soldiers served with distinction, such as the famed 54th Regiment of Massachusetts(depicted in the film Glory).

(source: National Archives)

Abraham F. Brown, of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry/ Massachusetts Historical Society
Male and Female Cotton Picker (oil on panel) both by William Aiken Walker/ The Historic New Orleans Collection
After ratification of the 13th Amendment in February 1865, full rights and equal treatment for former slaves in the post-war era was not always guaranteed. Starting in 1863, the Union instituted policies to reconstruct state government and Southern communities as well as integrate ex-slaves into society, with land grants for example. The Reconstruction period proved extremely difficult to mandate against strong resistance and eventually the government had to place the former Confederacy under rule of the Army. The Army dismantled existing civilian governments and oversaw new elections in which freed slaves would be guaranteed a vote. Many ex-slaves migrated from the former Confederacy to Northern states, but conditions were not much better. For many, sharecropping was one of the few options available to earn even a meager income. Unfortunately, sharecropping also became a legal way to maintain the economic status quo between black and white.

The Great Exodus westward began during the late 1870s, after the official end of Reconstruction and withdrawal of federal troops from the South. With federal troops now gone, racial oppression through segregation laws, such as Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, and terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klanwere unrestrained. Benjamin ‘Pap’ Singleton was just one of the fathers of this exodus, setting up several settlements in Kansas and marketing these towns to disenfranchised former slaves. It is thought that more than 50,000 fled in 1879 alone, and have come to be known as ‘Exodusters.’

(source: PBS.org)

Poster issued by Benjamin 'Pap' Singleton, 1878 (print)/ Peter Newark American Pictures


The Fifteenth Amendment, prohibiting the government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on 'race, color, or previous condition of servitude', was ratified on February 3, 1870. One month after ratification, Thomas Mundy Peterson, the son of slaves, became the first African-American to vote. During the next 15 years, more African-Americans were elected to public office than at any time in American history. Despite the historic nature of this amendment, it did not go far enough to prohibit further restrictions on potential black voters such as poll taxes or literacy tests. In fact, by the end of the 19th century, many Southern states had enacted strict voter eligibility laws. In addition to racially biased laws, a great deal of voter intimidation and violence occured, often under the implicit cooperation of law enforcement.

'The first vote' for black voters in the South during state elections (colour litho)/ Peter Newark American Picture


The First Colored Senator and Representatives in the United States by Currier & Ives/ Private Collection


The Jim Crow Era continued through the first half of the 20th century, with its most violent legacy: race riots. Dramatic changes in the civil rights of former slaves in the Reconstruction period, as well as attempts to legalize segregation in the South at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century caused tensions between whites and blacks to simmer and boil over. After World War II, a 'new' struggle for full first-class citizenship and all the rights that citizenship affords began in earnest, the Civil Rights Era.

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