A searching history of the efforts by African-Americans before and after the Civil War to liberate their people and to stake a claim as equals in the land they helped build.
Until the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted in 1865, writes Kantrowitz (History/Univ. of Wisconsin), “nearly 90 percent of African-Americans lived in slavery, and blackness was intimately intertwined with lifetime hereditary bondage.” So intimately was slavery equated with being black, in fact, that even well-meaning whites had trouble putting African Americans on equal footing—e.g., African-American lecturers on the abolitionist circuit were paired with white lecturers but were paid less for the same work of rallying the audience to the cause of freedom. “Displays of autonomy,” writes the author, “or requests for more pay by black speakers could bring chilly refusals and sharp rebukes.” It was perhaps small comfort to the spurned speakers that they were at least free, for there were escaped slaves and ex-slaves among the freemen, among them Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibb and William Wells Brown. Such men—rarely women—became well known in the 1840s and ’50s as the abolitionist movement grew, and inarguably they grew it. Still, when Douglass relocated to New York, his Bostonian patrons acted as if it were a personal rejection, setting off a decade of ugly back and forth that threatened to split the movement apart. Many of the figures in Kantrowitz’s narrative have long been forgotten; many are oddly prescient, including those who refused to drop the notion that African-Americans might actually bear arms in well-regulated militias to serve the cause of freedom. That changed with the Civil War, the aftermath of which, writes the author, promised much but did not deliver all that it should have.
A deft handling of overlooked history and a useful close study of data, documents and real lives.