Saturday, September 5, 2020

19C Freed Women's Work during Reconstruction

Most former slave women's lives did not change much after the Civil War.

Thomas P. Anshutz (1851-1912) The Chore 1888

The National Archives holds rich collections of records on 19C Southern African American women. ...Nineteenth-century African American women who had been enslaved did not leave (many) primary sources such as diaries & letters. 

...Over 100,000 African American men served in the United States Army during the Civil War, the majority of whom had been Southern & had once been slaves. 

During Reconstruction, all former slave states legalized the right of African Americans to contract & marry. The act of June 6, 1866, required no "other evidence of marriage than proof, satisfactory to the Commissioner of Pensions, that the parties have habitually recognized each other as man & wife, & lived together as such." 
Thomas P. Anshutz (1851-1912) Gardening 1879

Since formerly enslaved women could not simply mail in their marriage licenses to obtain their widow's pensions, they provided oral testimony on their marriages & the births of their children. Pension officials also relied on people within the pension claimants' communities who could identify them by recalling personal information... 

One example is the file of Lucy Brown. While enslaved to one of the wealthiest slave owners in Mississippi, Lucy Brown married fellow slave Thomas Brown & bore several children. According to Henry Young, who had resided on the same plantation as the Browns, "Thomas & Lucy lived together as husband & wife continually after they were married up to the time that he enlisted." During the war, while Lucy's husband, Thomas, served in the Union army, Lucy lived in a federal camp established for ex-slaves. Reunited in Vicksburg, Lucy & Thomas legally married with an Union army chaplain officiating. According to Lucy Brown, "We were married again by the chaplain of the regiment & he gave me a certificate." After her husband died during the war, Lucy, accompanied by her only surviving child, Clara, found work as a field hand & a domestic servant after the war... The testimonies within the pension file also describe the war experiences of African Americans who left their plantations to become free. Lucy's work after the war as a field hand & domestic are also mentioned...
.Thomas P. Anshutz (1851-1912) Aunt Hannah

...The Freedmen's Bureau (officially know as Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands) was established by a congressional act passed in March 3, 1965... 

Many of the labor contracts were standard forms that delineated wages & obligations of employer & employee. .. For example, one woman agreed in her labor contract "to do cooking, washing, ironing, & general housework & anything about the yard or garden that may be required of her." Charity Riley's employers expected her to be responsible for the dairying (including making the butter), feeding the chickens, cooking, washing, spinning, & weaving cloth. She also raised cotton, potatoes, & other vegetables, which her employer allowed her to sell for her own profit. As with Venus Williams, who was hired as a cook but whose employer also required her "to work in the field when necessary," many domestic servants were expected to provide agricultural labor at the discretion of the employer...

After the war, former slave women & men assumed they would have more autonomy over their working lives. For freed women, the fight for more control over their labor took on an additional urgency because they wanted & needed more time for their families. One contract signed by Thomas McArty for himself & his family indicated that his wife would be given "half of each Saturday to wash their clothes." Freedmen's Bureau records such as this contract shows the interconnections between labor & family.

Purchases from the plantation store documented by accounts in the Freedman's Bureau reflected the differences in women's & men's division of labor, functions within the family, & style of dress. On the Oakwood plantation near Vicksburg in January 1868, most men & women kept separate tallies. Men's accounts included pants, caps, shirts, boots, shot, fishing line, powder, hooks, & buckets. Women purchased cloth, such as cotton plaid, but no pants or shirts. Such accounts imply that men assumed responsibility for hunting & fishing equipment while women bought materials for clothes-making. Men & women both acquired whiskey, tobacco, lamp oil, & thread...

 The invasion of privacy of these women has given historians the opportunity to explore a world of family, marriage, sexuality, & friendships, often hidden by traditional sources. 

Noralee Frankel is the author of Freedom's Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi (1999).