Read Climbing Up to Glory Online
Authors: Wilbert L. Jenkins
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First published 2002
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Jenkins, Wilbert L., 1953-
Climbing up to glory : a short history of African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction / Wilbert L. Jenkins.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. African AmericansâHistoryâ1863â1877. 2. African AmericansâHistoryâTo 1863. 3. United StatesâHistoryâCivil War, 1861â1865âAfrican Americans. 4. Reconstruction. I. Title.
E185.2 .J46 2002
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for permanence of paper for printed library materials, Z39.48, 1984.
In memory of my father, Joe A. Jenkins Sr.,
and to my mother, Elizabeth Jenkins,
and in memory of many of my fallen relatives,
who were trailblazers in their own right
Wilbert L. Jenkins is an associate professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was an assistant professor of history at West Virginia University in Morgantown from 1989 to 1992. A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, he received his bachelor's degree in history from Winston-Salem State University in 1977, his M.A. degree in history from Ball State University in 1978, and his Ph.D. in history in 1989 from Michigan State University. Professor Jenkins is also the author of
Seizing the New Day: African Americans in Post-Civil War Charleston
(1998), and he has written and published numerous articles in newspapers and academic journals on the African-American experience.
THE FIRST OPPORTUNITY to discuss this work took place in April 1991 at West Virginia University as part of the Sojourner Truth-Nelson Mandela Colloquium series, when I presented it to both graduate and undergraduate students as well as to colleagues. Their comments and suggestions proved helpful. I was also invited by Donald West and Curtis Franks of the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture at the College of Charleston to present my work there in July 1993 to a large audience, and was again invited in November 1998 by W. Marvin Dulaney, the director of the Avery Research Center. Finally, I was given the opportunity to discuss my ideas at the faculty colloquium in the History Department at Temple University in February 2000. The idea to invite me originated with Kathleen Uno, a colleague of mine in the History Department. I would like to thank all of those whose suggestions contributed toward making this a better and more complete piece of scholarship.
Numerous individuals have supported this work, both directly and indirectly. Colleagues at Temple University and at other colleges and universities read and commented on several book chapters. In this regard, I would like to thank Dieu Nguyen, Peter Gran, Kenneth Kusmer, Susan Klepp, and Russell Weigley, all of Temple. In addition, thanks are extended to Joe Trotter of Carnegie-Mellon University, Peter Wood of Duke University, and Edmund Drago of the College of Charleston. I owe a debt of gratitude to Craig Stutman, one of my doctoral students, for critiquing the manuscript and making invaluable suggestions. A number of good friends who cheered me on over the years did not actually read the manuscript but might as well have done so, considering the dividends I have reaped through discussions of their work and my own. Many more people fall into this class than I can mention by name, but I wish to call attention to a few of them: Philip Evanson, Bettye Collier-Thomas, Frank Thornton, Wilbert Roget, Teshale Tibebu, and Nathaniel Norment, all of Temple University; Joseph Windham of Northern Virginia Community College; Walter Hill of the National Archives; Jo Dohoney of Samford University; and James McLaughlin and Larry Little of Winston-Salem State University. I also owe debts of gratitude to colleagues who kept an eye out for materials relevant to my research. Lenwood Davis of Winston-Salem State University provided valuable material on black colleges and universities, and Gregory Urwin of Temple University shared two of his very helpful articles on the Poison Spring massacre. In addition, Professor Urwin shared invaluable materials with me pertaining to the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the most famous African-American regiment during the Civil War.
Others also assisted in beneficial ways. Stephen Massengill and Earl Ijames of the Department of North Carolina Resources and Archives went above and beyond the call of duty in locating excellent illustrations. Comments made by several of my students on a range of scholarly themes in the graduate course on the Civil War and Reconstruction which I taught in Fall 1999 benefited the final product, and I would like to extend my appreciation to Leah Alter, Jennifer Fry, Latasha Long, Bertha Adams, Anne Harney, Margaret Markmann, and Jennifer Lawrence. As they did for my first book, Rhonda Johnson, Patricia Williams, and Joanne Follmer of the History Department staff at Temple University offered much-needed moral support. Rhonda also typed earlier book chapters. Many thanks are also extended to Deborah Stuart, who with a sharp eye edited earlier book chapters. Pebbles Murrell-Farrah and Yvette Gibson typed earlier chapters, and Belinda Wilson-Hagins graciously typed the final manuscript. Their professionalism is exemplary. Harold E. Whipple of Saint Augustine's College was trusting enough to place in my possession pictures of Saint Augustine's College that were the only ones in the college's archives. Moreover, Paul Crater, Cathy Mundale, and Karen Jefferson of Atlanta University provided much-needed assistance in locating numerous photographs. Matthew Hershey, the senior acquisitions editor at Scholarly Resources, went above and beyond the call of duty in shepherding the book to publication. I would also like to acknowledge the steadfast support of my mentors at Michigan State University: Harry Reed, John Coogan, Darlene Clark Hine, Gordon Stewart, Frederick Williams, Peter Levine, and Richard Thomas, who believed in me when I had self-doubts, and for this, I will always be thankful. Thanks also go to Edward Grayson III, Alfonso Grant, Charles Brooks, Nathaniel Greene, John Watson, and Tim Howard for continuously reminding me that I had an obligation to tell the history of our ancestors. Finally, I would like to thank my ancestors for leaving a rich history for those of us engaged in scholarship to record. I sincerely hope that I have done them justice in the pages that follow.
My one regret is that my father, Joe A. Jenkins Sr., did not live long enough to see either my first book or this book published. Writing
Climbing Up to Glory
has helped me deal with his death. The numerous hours spent on research and writing proved to be good therapy and enabled me to find a fitting way to celebrate my father's life. In many ways, his experience growing up black in the South paralleled that of many of those blacks mentioned in these pages. Like many of them, my father had to endure white racism and racial discrimination on an unprecedented scale. Nevertheless, they not only persevered with a great deal of tenacity and willpower but also became the living embodiment of what can be accomplished through unflagging determination and inner strength. Since my father's life represents a continuous struggle to survive and prosper in American society, as does the black characters I write about here, I dedicate this work to him. In addition, since my mother, Elizabeth Jenkins, and my gone-but-not-forgotten relatives contributed in their own ways to creating a better society, it is appropriate to dedicate this book to them as well. Unfortunately, the list is too long for me to name them all here, but I wish to cite a few: Willie and Mary Debnam (great-grandparents), Lorenzo and Sadie Barbour and Ashe Burnette (grandparents), John D. Jenkins Sr. and Mattie Jenkins (grandparents), Jimmie Debnam, Tink, Martha, and Mary Frances Neal, Fannie Sanders, Grace Clark, Edith and Zebedee Allen, Joe Barbour, Irvin and Flora Bell Harris, Catherine Harris, James Jenkins, and Pronto Merritt. I would be remiss if I failed to dedicate this book also in memory of Alfonso Grant, a kindred spirit who taught me the beauty of life, and probably more things about life than he ever realized. In many respects, he became a role model for me and, in essence, my second father. Sleep well, my friends, for you have left your marks on the world; you will never be forgotten, and you are sorely missed. It is my hope that this book contributes in some measure to the liberation of individuals of African descent as well as to an understanding of and appreciation of their struggles to become first-class citizens in American society.
THE CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION mark a watershed in American and African-American history. Scholars have examined this period in depth, yet few have focused on the lives of African Americans in those years between 1861, when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, and 1877, when the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South. Those works that cover the experiences of African Americans represent state, regional, or community studies and generally target a scholarly audience. My book seeks to fill this void in historical scholarship. With
Climbing Up to Glory,
my aim is to appeal to both students of African-American history and laypersons. Although my book focuses mostly on the South, where the vast majority of African Americans lived and were held as slaves when the Civil War began, I also look at the lives of blacks in the North, who had been free since 1839. Like the few free blacks in the South, they were regularly subjected to white oppression and racial discrimination. A sense of powerlessness was common to all blacks, both slave and free. And thus all blacks, in the North and in the South, saw the Civil War as an opportunity to improve their condition and change their lives. Most slaves were confident that a Union victory would bring them their liberation, and they wanted to serve in the Union forces to help make freedom a reality. Northern blacks, too, were anxious to enlist in the Union forces, believing not only that a Union victory would speed up the process of slave emancipation but also that the victory would lead to increased social, political, and economic opportunities for themselves.
Blacks played a pivotal role in helping the Union defeat the Confederacy in the Civil War. When the war ended in a Union victory, the slaves received their long-awaited day of liberation. Four million formerly enslaved black people were now free. The institution of slavery had been the foundation of the social, political, and economic system in the South. With its demise, Southern society was in disarray, and many questions about the new status of blacks were yet to be answered. The answers to these questions would have a profound effect on its future status.
This study does not address how blacks responded to white racism and discrimination. Rather, it recognizes blacks as the central actors in their own lives and not as passive objects of a white-dominated society. It is essentially a history written “from the bottom up,” which means that it focuses on those from the lower strata of society and not on the rich and powerful. It emphasizes to a large extent the crucial undertaking of the Reconstruction period: the rebuilding and reinvention of patterns of life and social and economic interaction. Former slaves struggled tenaciously from the moment of emancipation to become independent of white control. They attempted to construct a solid economic base for themselves and their families. Freedmen pooled meager resources to establish and maintain their own schools and churches. They struggled to rebuild shattered families and to legalize marital relationships in order to protect them. Freedmen also risked their own lives, at times, to protect family members from white violence.
Too often scholars write about the historical past as if it has no relevancy for the present. This is a grave error and one of the main reasons why many contemporary Americans regard history as bland, boring, and insignificant for contemporary society. But history must be seen as a process of inquiry and discovery, depicting how the present is shaped by the past. In this book I show how U.S. society of the 1990s was affected by the momentous events of Civil War and Reconstruction. The Union victory gave rise to the enactment of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It also led to passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 and the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, which formed the pretext for much of the Civil Rights legislation enacted in the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, on the basis of the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, President Dwight Eisenhower sent Federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to protect black children while they attended a predominately white public high school, and President John F. Kennedy in 1962 sent Federal troops to the University of Mississippi to ensure the safety of James Meredith, the first black to attend that college. Only by examining the history of blacks during the Civil War and Reconstruction can we begin to understand why issues such as equality and justice for blacks that were heatedly debated by Americans during the 1860s and 1870s are still debated and remain unresolved today.
In relating the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction years, I have supplemented my own research with what I believe is the best and most significant recent research. I would like to acknowledge my debt to the numerous scholars of African-American history upon whose fine works I have drawn. The bibliography at the end of the book represents the extent of my reliance on them. At the same time, however, I have drawn from an array of primary documents such as slave narratives, diaries, journals, personal letters, autobiographies, newspapers, travelers' accounts, census reports, and Freedmen's Bureau papers and letters.
This book has been both a joy to write and painful as well. I have been brought to tears by some of the sufferings of people who appear in these pages but also inspired by their courage and perseverance. Although I have admired some of the characters and disliked others, I have always tried to evaluate their behavior within the proper context, which is the historian's primary task. Still, I believe that any scholar is entitled to infuse some passion into his or her work if so moved. And, in a book of this kind, I doubt that anyone could remain unmoved in some sort by the events.
The chapters that follow attempt to bring meaning to the African-American experience during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The first chapter reassesses the role that Abraham Lincoln played in emancipating the slaves. Issues such as the First and Second Confiscation Acts, Militia Act, Emancipation Proclamation, colonization, and the Thirteenth Amendment are covered here. Chapter Two highlights the struggles of African Americans to enlist in the Union armed forces. The trials and tribulations that these soldiers and their families went through are also discussed. In addition, the contribution of African-American women to the Union war cause is emphasized as well as the controversial issue of rape during the war. Finally, some attention is given to the impact of the war on African-American children and the contributions of African Americans to the Confederate cause.
Chapter Three discusses the initial reactions to emancipation of rural and urban slaves, who left the premises of former owners, went to towns and cities, and organized emancipation celebrations. An in-depth discussion of the reactions of African Americans to Lincoln's assassination is also provided. Chapters Four through Eight record the efforts of freedpeople to reunite and provide for their families, educate themselves, build and support churches, and participate in the political process. The role of women in each of these endeavors is highlighted. Some attention is also given to those African Americans who lived among Native Americans. These chapters too describe the end of African-American hopes and the beginning of crushed dreams as the “counterrevolution” reared its ugly head. Nevertheless, many of the positive changes wrought by emancipation and Reconstruction could not be obliterated. They would have a profound impact on American society.