July 29, 2014

Professor Explores Self-Emancipation of Slaves in Newly Published Book

Dr. David Williams

VALDOSTA – For Dr. David Williams, professor of history at Valdosta State University, exploring the role of the African-American during the Civil War helps clear many misconceptions about the emancipation of slaves. The professor’s recently published book, I Freed Myself:  African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era, delves into different ways that slaves led efforts to their freedom.

“The need for such a book became obvious to me once I realized that many of my students – regardless of ethnic background – had this impression that it was just as simple as Lincoln and white Northerners freeing slaves, while African-Americans were just sitting around during the Civil War waiting to be freed,” Williams said. “They had this impression because available research on African-Americans primarily includes their roles as soldiers and nothing more.”

According to Williams’ book, however, African-Americans were the “driving force” in their emancipation.

“It was basically slave resistance that brought on the Civil War in the first place,” he explained. “When you look back at the 1840s and 1850s, you notice a growing number of slaves becoming resistant to slavery. More slaves were escaping and they were becoming harder to control.”

In response, slaveholders in the South desired to expand slave territory to make it harder for slaves to escape.

“For economic and racist reasons, white Northerners did not want to see slavery expanded into the western territories,” said Williams. “They did not want to compete with slaveholders and they did not want to be around black people.”

The Dred Scott Decision of 1857 led to more tension between the North and the South. Around this time, the Republican Party gained popularity among northern states.

“After Lincoln was elected, more and more slaveholders started to come on board with secession from the Union,” Williams explained. “To combat this, there was a movement by Congress in 1861 that promised a 13th amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery forever if the southern states did not leave the union.”

While Lincoln and his administration took several steps to prevent a war, the Battle on Fort Sumter solidified the beginning of war.

“We still must acknowledge that Lincoln did not initially want to do a war on slavery,” said Williams. “Yet, a year and a half later, he was drafting the Emancipation Proclamation. So the question is, ‘How does Lincoln go from offering an amendment that would guarantee slavery forever to a document that is a complete turnaround?’”

Williams said that the answer lies with what African-Americans were doing while all of these events took place.

After the Civil War began, the number of runaway slaves increased.

“Slaves were escaping by the tens of thousands to the North and wanted to fight in the war,” Williams said. “At the same time, the Union army was saying, ‘No, we don’t want you. Go back.’ But they could not make them go back.”

Lincoln’s administration pondered how to deal with the African-Americans who had escaped slavery. He could not force them back into slavery, so he declared them contraband of war and placed them in the Union army.

“Meanwhile the white Northerners were still resisting black people coming into the North, so they began to push for slaves to be free in the South. It was around this time that Lincoln began developing the Emancipation Proclamation, which would free slaves in territories that were not a part of the Union.”

Williams pointed out that throughout the process, the slaves directly and indirectly played the biggest part in the war and the emancipation process.

“The slaves basically freed themselves by escaping to Union lines, and then the strain of racism by northerners led to the Emancipation Proclamation,” he explained. “The African-Americans took ownership of this proclamation every step of the way. While many slaves were escaping to freedom, there were many slaves who remained in the South – undermining the Confederacy by helping other slaves and Union prisoners of war escape.”

Williams’ book also sheds light on ways African-Americans continued to free themselves after the war and proclamation.

Williams found an ample amount of information for his book from newspapers and archival sources as well as written memoirs and testimonies given by former slaves after the war.

“I hope that the book gets a fairly wide distribution,” he said. “From this, I also hope that the role African-Americans played in the emancipation process becomes better understood and is eventually written into textbooks so it can finally be placed in the hands of students.”

Published by Cambridge University Press, I Freed Myself:  African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era is available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble.