The Meaning of Freedom

Series historical adviser, Daniel Czitrom, discusses the lives of freed slaves in 1865.

Hattie sees Sara and Matthew's home.

Hattie cannot believe what Sara and Matthew have earned in Five Points.


Sara Freeman is reunited with her long lost mother, Hattie Lemaster, a Virginia slave. The circumstances by which Hattie gained her freedom and arrived in New York were not typical: Elizabeth Haverford purchased Hattie’s freedom from her owner after making an arduous trip South. Nor did most freed slaves leave the South for the urban North. Yet as Hattie moves in with Sara and Matthew and tries to make her way in the strange new city, she experiences the mixture of joy and peril, disappointment and hope shared by so many newly freed African Americans in 1865.

African-American soldiers rest on a hill, 1864.  (via http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cwpb.02032/)

A group of African-American Union Army soldiers.
Aiken’s Landing, Virginia 1864.

The destruction of slavery by the Civil War meant liberation for the nearly four million Southern black people held in bondage. Freedom arrived in various ways in different parts of the South. In many areas slavery had collapsed long before Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, as hundreds of thousands of slaves made their way to Union armies, volunteering their services as cooks, laborers, spies, and eventually soldiers. Regardless of specific local circumstances, the deep desire for independence from white control formed the underlying aspiration of newly freed slaves. Many emancipated slaves tested their freedom first simply by leaving home and moving about. Some returned soon afterward, seeking work in the general vicinity or even on the plantation they left. Others moved away altogether, seeking jobs in nearby towns and cities. Freed people could now engage with the market economy, go shopping, save money, send their children to school, build their own churches, and attend political conventions that debated the key issues of the day: passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, voting rights for former slaves, and the right to own land.

For many former slaves, freedom meant the opportunity to find long lost family members. To track down these relatives, freed people trekked to faraway places, put ads in newspapers, and sought help from Freedmen’s Bureau agents. Searches often proved frustrating, exhausting, or ultimately disappointing. Some “reunions” ended painfully with the discovery that spouses had found new partners and started new families. Many thousands of African American couples who had lived together under slavery streamed to military and civilian authorities and demanded to be legally married. By 1870 the two parent household was the norm for a large majority of African Americans.