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Thulani Davis Reconsiders the Geography of Freedom During Reconstruction


By Thulani Davis

On May 24, 1861, the fate of the Civil War was unclear. The Confederacy was formed in large part to defend slavery, but the Union was not yet committed to ending the chattel regime. That did not deter three enslaved people—Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory—from doing their part to change the meaning of the conflict. Leased out to construct Confederate defenses in Virginia, they fled at night, rowing a boat four miles north along the Chesapeake coast to Fort Monroe, the Union’s only base in Virginia at the time. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, the Union should have returned the three men to their enslavers. The commanding officer of the fort, Benjamin Butler, thought differently: Secession had invalidated any Union responsibility to Confederate property, he insisted, and the men could be kept as “contraband of war.” Butler still justified the emancipation of the enslaved by treating them as property—the Emancipation Proclamation was still about two years away—but the three fugitives’ escape marked the point at which Black people began to turn the conflict into a war for freedom. Over the next 19 months, some 500,000 people, fleeing to Union lines, would join them in self-liberation.

Black self-liberation helped turn the tide of the Civil War and shaped the demands for equality by the newly emancipated in its aftermath. But during the dark days of Jim Crow that would follow, the history of Black self-emancipation was replaced by a set of racist fictions designed to justify the regime and demonstrate that Black people were unfit to govern.

Beginning in the 1930s, the story of Black self-liberation was recovered in W.E.B. Du Bois’s monumental history Black Reconstruction in America. The story of Black freedom, of Emancipation and Reconstruction in the United States, Du Bois insisted, was not one of disaster but rather of moments of heroic—even revolutionary—achievement followed by lost opportunity. Had the work of Reconstruction persisted into the 20th century, the United States would have become a more egalitarian and liberated society. The fall of Reconstruction, unfortunately, spelled the end of this promise. More than 50 years after Du Bois’s book, Eric Foner, in his own monumental account of the era, agreed with this premise. Demonstrating how the Reconstruction period marked an “unfinished revolution,” Foner documented how the newly freed worked to create more egalitarian societies in the South. For many radicals, including Angela Davis, this era begun by Black self-liberation continued to offer a rich set of resources for the struggle for freedom in the 20th century—from the civil rights movement to prison and police abolitionism.

While many archives have been plumbed to recover the liberatory character of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era, Thulani Davis argues in her new book, The Emancipation Circuit: Black Activism Forging a Culture of Freedom, that historians have often missed the geographic element of these periods of freedom politics. When Black people fled to the Union lines, assembled en masse, and sought to make and organize new lives, they did so through “a system of regional networks built on labor sites and shipping routes with local routes that created ties between communities as well as ties to other networks.” After the war and until the end of Reconstruction, missionaries, Republican Party agents, fugitives, and everyday people looking for work or long-lost kin traveled these paths, which formed “a roughly horseshoe-shaped route around the periphery of the South, encompassing internal routes and connections.” In the hands of the formerly enslaved and their allies, infrastructure like rail lines and the social networks forged in Union camps became a means for turning local efforts into regional, collective organizing. They created what Davis calls the Emancipation Circuit, noting that “for most African Americans,” emancipation began “without assistance” through acts of self-liberation. This “created the need to develop resources from within communities to provide all the benefits and services commonly available in other regions—or in the South, for whites—either by purchase or from municipal agencies.” These resources included “housing, food, clothing, access to water and sewage, jobs, medical service, education,” and more; the struggle to distribute these resources led to the creation of an underground mutual aid network—and when the war finally came, followed by Reconstruction, these resources were what helped awaken the era’s revolutionary promise. While this promise has never been completely fulfilled, Davis argues, the achievements of this era demonstrate the importance of grassroots organizing on multiple fronts. Through the Emancipation Circuit, enslaved people won their freedom and then, as freed people, achieved many immediate victories, like better wages, the erection of schools, the ability to assemble—all of which gave new meaning to the political status of freedom.

Read entire article at The Nation