Blog Post

“Slavery and Freedom”: The Difference that Emancipation Made

Rita Roberts

While the topics were serious, the setting of the conference on the Future of the African American Past was like a homecoming. So many of us have known each other for decades and have read and appreciated one another’s work. Panel chair, Eric Foner (Columbia Univ.) opened the session on “Slavery and Freedom” with the following questions: Is emancipation, as pre-eminent scholar John Hope Franklin suggested in his popular textbook From Slavery to Freedom (1947), still the pivot upon which we understand the African American experience? Or was slavery, as some recent scholarship suggests, so devastating that former slaves couldn’t take advantage of freedom? Finally, was emancipation so limited that little changed for the more than four million formerly enslaved men, women, and children?

Panelist Walter Johnson (Harvard Univ.) addressed the first question with an examination of the commonplace notion in historical literature that slavery “dehumanized” enslaved people. Johnson argued that the idea of dehumanization had multiple problems including that of “separating a normative and aspirational notion of humanity” from the exploitative and violent history that may well be definitive of human beings. Scholars who use this familiar trope assert that slaveholders and other perpetrators of the system of slavery dehumanized slaves in order to engage in the horrific behaviors we recognize today as torture. Johnson also argued that the notion of dehumanization of enslaved people is misleading because slaveholders depended upon the human capacities of enslaved people—their ability to reproduce, to feel, to work, and to think—to make a profit. When this profit was threatened, perpetrators used violence as a means of control. They beat, raped, degraded, humiliated, and starved slaves, in order to assert their power over their immediate victims and the entire slave society.

Brenda Stevenson (Univ. of California, Los Angeles) and Thavolia Glymph (Duke Univ.) showed not only that enslaved people were not dehumanized but that they had developed key cultural elements to sustain them in slavery and immediately thereafter. Both demonstrated the importance of emancipation as perhaps one of several turning points in the African American experience. Glymph provided an assessment of how the ongoing generational “slaves’ war” against slavery eventually merged with the Union war. Indeed, many enslaved men, women, and children forced that merger by fleeing to Union lines, thus transforming the war into one of emancipation not only for black men fighting with the Union army, but for women as well as the children of the soldiers. Lincoln, Congress, and the commanders in the field, recognized that mothers, wives, and daughters would have to be offered freedom in exchange for black men fighting with or laboring for the Union.

Directly addressing the new revisionism that asserts that emancipation did little to alter African American life, Glymph showed that enslaved people knew that their continued war would be costly. They were determined to take advantage of the Union war to end slavery despite the possibility of significant casualties. They succeeded, though not in ending white domination, but in changing the political landscape. Glymph suggested that more work needed to be done on “what it meant to live in the in-between space of slavery and freedom . . .,”and especially on the experiences of the mostly women and children in the refugee camps and other spaces of containment, as well as on the “trauma, discipline, and surveillance” they endured. Enslaved people knew that making freedom was hard and arduous work, and scholars, Glymph asserted, do disservice to the difference freedom made when they state that it accomplished little. “No matter how hard it was to make, freedom did make a tremendously important difference.”

Stevenson, whose paper had to be read because her flight was stranded in Berlin, described how ritualization became a symbol of freedom. Marriage rituals, in particular, marked the former slaves’ new legal status as free men and women. But legitimization was not their only goal—public and private rituals had economic, sexual, psychological, and aesthetic significance. Many formerly enslaved men and women created elaborate marriage ceremonies to inform family and community as well as the southern white society that they now had control over the most intimate aspects of their lives. They would now choose whom they married, who controlled and socialized their children, and who owned their bodies. Marriage rituals drew the line between slavery and freedom.

Finally, Annette Gordon-Reed (Harvard Univ.) applauded today’s generation for rejecting symbols that celebrate southern rebellion through statues of Confederate generals, flags, and other monuments but some memorializations are more complicated, she asserted, and require serious discussion about what should be erased and what should be placed in context.


Rita Roberts is the Nathaniel Wright Stephenson Chair in History and Biography at Scripps College. She teaches and researches topics in 19th-century US history with special focus on the African American experience.


SESSION 2: Slavery and Freedom