by Leon F. Litwack
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Illustrations, 672 pages, $20.00
To understand, to feel, what freedom meant to the 4,000,000 former Southern slaves is perhaps impossible. Nor is it much easier to grasp the ex-slaveholder’s sense of betrayal as his blacks, his carefully husbanded chattels, made that first exhilarating choice, and walked out on him. This superb study of the splitting apart of the slave-based society, during and for the first few years after the Civil War, is as enlightening as it is engrossing.
Leon Litwack has worked almost entirely from primary sources, and in this book hundreds of black and white voices testify to the joy and terror of Emancipation.
Contrary to white predictions, few ex-slaves stayed with their owners. They often went only as far as the next plantation and worked for the same miserable contract offered by their previous owners, but they had chosen where to work. The new freedmen also hastened to change their slave names and adopt surnames, and “precious few of them ever took that of their old master,” according to an overseer.
Whites complained that as contract farm laborers, the freedmen were “demoralized” and “impudent,” meaning that they didn’t work as hard as they had under slavery. Indeed they didn’t. One of the lessons of slavery had been that free ladies and gentlemen didn’t seem to work at all.
Often bullied and cheated, the blacks “soon found out that freedom could make folks proud but it didn’t make ‘em rich.” And the whites, who had a stake in black failure, were sure that Negroes, without whites to manage their lives, gradually would become extinct in America. No one who reads this book will quickly forget it.