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“I felt like a bird out of a cage. Amen. Amen. Amen. I could hardly ask to feel any better than I did that day…. The week passed off in a blaze of glory”
Houston H. Holloway, former slave, on the emancipation proclamation in 1865
“I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”
Attributed to Harriet Tubman, on the emancipation proclamation in 1865
There have been many significant events that have happened in the history of America: from the first European settlement in North America in 1565, to the Seven Years’ war and to the American Revolutionary war in 1775. But few would rival the rippling effects the end of the Civil War inflicted on America. After years of agony, humiliation and psychological pain inflicted by the white Americans on the helpless African Americans who were made to be slaves, the centuries in which they had to endure this pain admirably, seemed to have finally ended towards the end of the Civil War. That is, Lincoln’s controversial decision to proceed with the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that stated that “all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, …. Shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.” The initial impact that drew from this major turning point in the war was stark, not due to the change in the sanctity of life for African American slaves themselves, but on the outcome on the war. Upon this declaration, there was an increase in slaves escaping from their white owners in the South, enlisting and strengthening the Union army but at the same time, weakening the Confederacy, whose economy largely relied on the use of slaves but to also, dissuade potential European imperial powers from supporting the Confederacy. Whether or not it was Lincoln’s priorities to abolish slavery before the Civil war does not matter, but rather it was inevitable that there would be a transitioning period, a period now known as the Reconstruction era (1863-1877) in modern times. The Emancipation Proclamation turned the war from a political war, where by Lincoln’s main priority was the preservation of the Union, to a moral war, inducing revised, existing perceptions and widely held beliefs from the white Americans, about whether their mistreatment of former African Americans were justifiable or not.
As the war came to a definitive end, the introduction of the Emancipation Proclamation breathed new life into the freedmen, who finally had this unveiling that left them in an open playing field. But what is most interesting are the events that followed after the Emancipation Proclamation, particularly the Reconstruction Era, where former African Americans were looking many answers to different problems such as integration but a commonality between virtually all former African American slaves was the solution to to an extremely, difficult philosophical question. What is freedom? And more importantly, what freedom would compensate about a century’s worth of humiliation, torture, suffering the prideful black community had to endure?
Although the expectation among many slave abolitionists at the time was the longing for a clear future, in reality the Emancipation Proclamation transformed a war of armies into a conflict of societies, with slavery at the heart of it all. Former slaves were legally set free, but a lack of identity and a sense of direction led to a stagnant progression that was dreamed of, but never acted on, with society as a whole, unable to replicate the same ambition and desire shown by these former slaves. It is important to state that this brief yet hugely significant era must be acknowledged and remembered as the potential dangers of not learning the changes that followed the Emancipation Proclamation, especially in the lives of African American slaves would inevitably divide racial groups even further and isolate ourselves from fully understanding the significance of slavery. But also, perhaps emotionally, dismissing slavery as something that occurred as a outlier to humanity’s advancement would be brutal and sickening to those who sacrificed themselves and who died as martyrs such as John Brown, where if mankind does pursue this method of thinking, they would have died in vain, failing to accomplish their dreams to spark conversations and the coexisting between racial groups.
My thesis to the question, “To what extent did the lives of African Americans change following the Emancipation Proclamation?”, is that following the Emancipation Proclamation, although conditions harbored similar treatments to slavery, there was the repairing of dignity among former African American slaves and the birth of a well-developed black community build on pride, strength and will that was adamant on becoming viewed as an equal to their once white masters. One thing to note is that although the Emancipation proclamation did not impact cultural factors directly, merely the idea of freedom emitted from it, was an underlying trigger that sought to repair a diminished identity among African Americans ever since they were slaves.
An assumption that will be made in this essay is that any changes in the lives of African Americans lives were constant and general as it is important to acknowledge that changes to African American lives varied differently from state to state and there is simply not enough time to examine all changes in all states but rather the most evident ones that occurred in America.
Perhaps the most dramatic difference between pre-emancipation proclamation and after emancipation proclamation is the introduction of the idea of freedom. But before proceeding it must be made clear as what the definition of freedom is. The problem is that defining such an ambiguous concept with a definitive outline would be extremely inaccurate, and through historical events and the natural order of time, definitions and terminologies stand to be altered and assigned an alternative value. The most sensible and intuitive approach to take in this scenario is to define what freedom meant during the Reconstruction Era, but particularly to the former African American slaves.
For many, the definition of freedom was to be presented with a fair opportunity to reunite with family lost through years of slavery, either by selling or escaping, to ensure their children had education to gain a deeper insight into life and develop as an individual and this should come to no surprise but to be abstained from ever experiencing violence and sexual exploitation that was an overwhelming presence in the institution of slavery and to also be able to secure occupations that could provide for one’s family.2 This, it turns out, is an effective definition and concept of freedom. Unfortunately, even with the most ambiguous term such as freedom, will have limitations. An example of this would be that freedom does not protect itself from racial hatred, unequal opportunities or a factor that escalated even further than the reconstruction era, discrimination which continued towards the tail end of the 20th century. The realization of this newly found freedom that a former slave possessed was incredible, with a wide array of opportunities on offer such as controlling one’s occupation but unfortunately, they faced an equal amount of problems that came with freedom. An analogy of this complicated, frustrating dilemma would be if one offered them
to unleash their sealed wings and fly only to find out that there is a wider cage representing itself as an obstacle, one that cannot be escaped even with the power of freedom. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that as much as freedom had its advantages, there were also disadvantages that was arguably worse than the advantages.
Few factors were more essential than the enlistment into the army, which was fortunately recognised by the former African American slaves as the key to understanding life and more importantly how to better use their freedom, with the admittance that to fulfill the desire to be placed on equal footing with their fellow white Americans, they must first undergo the same educational procedures as the white Americans had experienced. The opportunity of education first arose through enlistment in the army where 180,000 blacks served in the Union Army, providing further evidence that the Emancipation proclamation would be a success. Although former African American slaves were still subjected to abuse, the army gave former slaves a dignified sense of purpose, knowing that their actions could contribute in determining the Civil War. In the army, former slaves learnt how to read and write in the army from teachers employed by the Northern aid societies or in classrooms and literary clubs established and funded by the soldiers themselves. The importance of education was heightened further when many black soldiers would come from the army to become black political leaders of Reconstruction, including dozens of delegates to state constitutional conventions, sixty legislators, three lieutenant governors and four congressmen. Soon, many African Americans understood that for their community to progress as far from slavery as possible, they must obtain knowledge that had been accessible to white Americans. But for them, the accessibility of education was largely restricted bar a few blacks who were taught by the minority of white masters who felt sympathetic to them. Lives of African Americans changed immediately after the civil war when they were exposed to the creation of schools. One of the ways that this was achieved was through the Freedmen’s bureau. The Freedmen’s bureau was created in 1865 by President Abraham Lincoln, where one of the many ways that it aimed to aid former slaves was through the exposure of education to them. However, the involvement of blacks themselves could not be understated, as many schools were created by themselves. This involved a long and gruelling process where they would pool they resources which were meagre at the time, to hire teachers and they would create schools by finding buildings, building buildings, or using abandoned buildings, to create schools. In this schools, it was not just children who went to these schools, but adults and elderly people who seeked education to understand experiences they have gone through and to expand their knowledge as well. Blacks understood that education was essential in becoming American Citizens and learning to read, as they now could acquire skills to combat racism that had oppressed them for centuries through law and other means. Overall, lives of African Americans changed massively in terms of education as they could now access education, helping expand their knowledge and to have an opportunity to help combat the racism that oppressed them by fighting laws and policies through courts. But perhaps more generally, education was the gateway for the average African American to integrate themselves to mainstream society and to achieve the American dream that their ancestors and themselves had been barred from for centuries. Thus, education changed African Americans lives for the better following the Emancipation Proclamation.
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