What actually happened when the slaves in America were freed? It didn’t all happen at once, so it’s not like trying to picture what, say, the surrender of General Lee was like. There are plenty of accounts of that specific incident. But the emancipation of black slaves in the United States wasn’t that simple (as this timeline indicates). The end of the war on April 9, 1865, is just one of many instances of the “freeing of the slaves.” There were other occasions, depending on where you lived (slavery was abolished in Washington, D.C., in 1862, for example).
So this list features first-hand accounts of what happened once the slaves were freed at plantations and farms across the United States, on the day of their emancipation, whatever that particular date may be. Want to really know how the freeing of the slaves worked? How it felt? Below is just a small sampling of the words of the millions of men, women, and children that actually lived through it.
Booker T. Washington mentions in his autobiography that many ex-slaves—especially older ones—worked out deals to stay on their plantations and work for their former masters for pay even after they were legally free. Even on their first day of freedom, Washington notes that “one by one, stealthily at first, the older slaves began to wander from the slave quarters back to the ‘big house’ to have a whispered conversation with their former owners as to the future.”
Like Washington, Thomas Rutling was only nine years old when he and his fellow slaves on a plantation in Wilson County, TN learned about their emancipation. Rutling thought the freedom would mean a life like that of his former master, but his family chose to stay on the plantation for two more years:
One night the report of Lincoln’s Proclamation came. Now, master had a son who was a young doctor. I always thought him the best man going: he used to give me money and didn’t believe much in slavery.
Next morning I was sitting over in the slave quarters, waiting for breakfast, when the young doctor came along and spoke to my brother and sister, at the front door. I supposed it was about work; but they jumped up and down, and shouted, and sang, and then told me I was free.
I thought that was very nice; for I supposed I should have everything like the doctor, and decided in a moment what kind of a horse I would ride. We remained on the plantation until 1865.
Rutling left the plantation with his brother and sister that year to live with their oldest sister in Nashville, later attending the Fisk Free Colored School, which later became Fisk University.
Ex-slave Annie L. Burton, in her Memories of Childhood’s Slavery Days (1909), wrote all of her fellow ex-slaves on a plantation near Clayton, AL, that weren’t “feeble or sickly” left “upon the news of their freedom” in April 1865. Annie and her young sisters stayed under the care of their “mistress” (who, by the way, tried to talk her husband into not telling the slaves about their freedom) because their mother ran away. The “feeble or sickly” ex-slaves that remained helped to gather the crops and take care of the plantation.
There are similar accounts from the Federal Writer’s Project Slave Narratives. Some young, healthy ex-slaves immediately volunteered to join the Union army. Many older ex-slaves stayed behind, such as John Love of Texas, who explained, "De plantations all growd up in weeds and all de young slaves gone, and de ones what stayed was de oldest and faithfullest."
Not content on handshake deals, some plantation owners in April 1865, when the crops were planted and growing nicely, asked their ex-slaves to sign contracts guaranteeing that they would work the crops until January, then divide them at the fall harvest for payment. Rev. Irving E. Lowery’s Life on the Old Plantation in Ante-Bellum Days, or, A Story Based on Facts (1911) mentions such a deal. To help convince them, Lowery’s ex-master Mr. Frierson made a long speech on April 9 reminding his now ex-slaves that he wasn’t that bad of a guy and they could all stay as long as they wanted:
There is another thing which I want to call your attention to. I have never put an overseer over you, neither have I employed a "n***** driver" on my plantation. I have owned no blood hounds, and have not given any encouragement, nor employment to those who have owned them.
I have never separated, by selling nor by buying, a mother and her child; a husband and his wife. Of the truth of this, you will bear me witness. In all these matters, I have the approval of a good conscience.
Frierson also made sure to let his ex-slaves know that any mistreatment they experienced outside the plantation was their fault, not his:
But some of you have gone off without my knowledge, and without a ticket, and have been caught and whipped, but it was not my fault. I was not to blame for that. You, yourselves, were responsible for it.
Ultimately, all but one ex-slave agreed to “sign” the contract by lining up to touch a pen held over the paper to make a small mark upon it, in lieu of a signature.
Reading The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man (1895), the memoirs of ex-slave Henry Clay Bruce, reveals that the relationship between ex-master and ex-slave at the point of emancipation was sometimes pretty pathetic—in the oldest sense of the word. Bruce’s old master, for example, practically begged his ex-slaves to stay:
Our owner did not want us to leave him and used every persuasive means possible to prevent it. He gave every grown person a free pass, and agreed to give me fifteen dollars per month, with board and clothing, if I would remain with him on the farm, an offer which I had accepted to take effect January 1, 1864.
But by March of that year I saw that it could not be carried out, and concluded to go to Kansas. I might have remained and induced others to do so and made the crop, which would have been of little benefit to him, as it would have been spirited away. I made the agreement in good faith, but when I saw that it could not be fulfilled had not the courage to tell him that I was going to leave him.
Bruce says that years later he checked in on his old master, through visits and letters, learning about the increasingly sad conditions at the farm, including tales of stolen horses and feed.