Slavery was abolished in this country over a hundred years ago but the consequences of this dark page in America’s history are felt even today. This site was created to address those consequences, the political, social and cultural life of today’s and yesterday’s African Americans. What affect did the Civil War have on African Americans in the United States? Were they, as some argued, better off before the Civil War, or do the advances that blacks have made since then proved that the Civil War was indeed the turning point in the lives and opportunities of African Americans? These questions and more will be addressed in the following pagesWhen slaves were purchased off the ships from Africa, they ended up on plantations. The size and location of landholdings depended on the crop and the owner who purchased the slave. Most plantations were of the smaller variety and it was rare for an owner to have more than 20 slaves. Most housed only a handful of slaves, but no matter what the numbers, plantation life was pretty much the same for most slaves. Slaves were usually divided into two groups, the gang crew (usually male and did the field work) and the task crew (usually female and worked in the “big house”). The workday began around sunrise and always ended before dark except at busy times such as harvest. Slaves were not worked after dark for a number of reasons. First, the owners feared that escape would be easier; second, working after dark was considered an unwarranted burden on the slave; lastly, they believed that it impeded efficiency by reducing the hours of sleep the slave received. This is not to say the slave owners were compassionate. They saw the slaves not as humans but a business investment and only wanted to protect that investment. Slaves were not required to work on Sunday, as it was denounced as irreligious and a flagrant violation of the slave’s deserved day of rest. However, they worked every other day, rain or shine. A reasonable day’s work meant a daily chore that while not back-breaking required a brisk pace to finish. Although whites believed that slaves could neither do as much nor continue to work as long as whites, both crews worked anywhere from 12-14 hours a day, with an hour or so for lunch at midday.After a long day in the field or the master’s house, slaves were allowed to return to their families, a family much different than those African Americans enjoy today.Order now
For the most part, marriages were arranged. To couples in arranged marriages, the idea of falling in love and having children was not even considered. Most slave owners agreed that ideally slave unions should be among the slaves on the same plantation and that marriage should be a way of breeding and promoting morality. The master would most often officiate at the wedding. They were then sent off to their quarters for a couple hours alone together. It was not unusual, and indeed expected, for slave women to have a child every year. Indeed it was not unheard of for slave women to have 25 children in the span of their lives, usually beginning to give birth at 12 or 13 years of age. These children rarely lived with their parents past the age of eight or nine. At this time they were either sold to another plantation or moved into the women’s or men’s quarters. Some states had laws forbidding taking children nine or under from their mothers, but this law was often ignored and rarely enforced. All in all, the lack of recognized marriage ties and the constant separation of families through sale, made the slave family a temporary and fly-by-night affair, destined for broken hearts and the auction block.
Scholars generally agree that although slaves were considered something less than human, they were valuable property and thus often lived better than free families. The average slave quarters housed 5.3 persons and consisted of dirt floors, boarded windows, and were usually made of logs. Adult males’ clothing consisted of four shirts, four pairs of pants, and one or two pairs of shoes. Adult women were issued four dresses per year, and headkerchiefs. Rarely, plantation owners also issued such items as petticoats, socks, underwear, jackets and overcoats. It is also believed that some slaves were allowed to earn a little money outside of the plantation and used this money to supply some of their clothing needs.
In 1861 the Civil War began, and African Americans would never be the same again. At first, many whites did not want to arm blacks for fear the blacks would rise against them. As the war raged on and thousands of lives were lost, it became more and more obvious that allowing blacks to fight was the correct course of action. Once blacks were permitted to fight, they did so bravely and with honor. The black man went into the war with one determination, that once learning the use of arms, he would never be again made a slave. This idea created a drive to succeed where others failed, the desire to advance and procure their freedom was all the incentive needed. It is often said that these men were the bravest group ever to fight a war. They were never known to flee the scene of a battle, it was, rather, as much as the white officers could do to restrain them till the order to fire was given. In the end, the Civil War was worth it, for the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 procuring the eventual release of millions of slaves. Blacks were finally free, but a new and difficult challenge awaited them.
Family life and living conditions did not change much after the war. However, there were some differences: marriages were recognized and legal, and families could live without the fear of being separated by the sale of another family member. Most African Americans lived in small shacks that were provided for them by the plantation owner that they had a sharecropping agreement with. The shacks were one room houses that were in poor condition and non-insulated. Often, they only had three walls. Most of the families who lived in these shacks consisted of an average of four to five persons. There were also many couples who lived together and were not married. Families relied on their food, clothing, and health care from the plantation owner. Children of African American families were largely uneducated, as there were few schools for the colored. Few opportunities existed for them to enrich or better their lives or conditions.
The vast majority of African Americans in the South following the Civil War worked for the same plantation owners who they had previously called “Master.” They worked under a condition known as sharecropping. “In January 1865, General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, setting aside the Sea Islands Off the Georgia coast and a portion of the South Carolina low-country rice fields for the exclusive settlement of freed people. Each family would receive forty acres of land and the loan of mules from the army–the origin, perhaps, of the famous ‘forty acres and a mule’ idea that would soon capture the imagination of African Americans throughout the South” (Faragher, 514). In this arrangement, the sharecropper would work a given section of plantation land. At the end of the harvest season, the owner would give the worker his “share” of the crop. Unfortunately for the African Americans, this ideal arrangement almost never worked out as it was designed due to manipulation of the system by the owner. During the year, the owner provided the worker and his family with housing, as described earlier, food, clothing, and medical care. Then the owner would make the worker pay for these “services” using his part of the harvest. More often than not, the worker ended up with nothing. Also, there was no system of verification for the worker. When the owner presented the worker with his share of the harvest, the worker had to take the word of the owner that it was the actual share agreed upon.