AS Talks to Historian Janette Thomas Greenwood

In the first of many forthcoming exchanges, After Slavery blogger Brian Kelly interviews historian Janette Thomas Greenwood about First Fruits of Freedom: The Migration of Former Slaves and Their Search for Equality in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1862-1900 (UNC Press, 2010). Greenwood teaches history at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is also the author of Bittersweet Legacy: The Black and White “Better Classes” in Charlotte, 1850-1910. She participated recently in the Workshop on Teaching the New History of Emancipation, held in Charleston in early February.

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Brian Kelly (BK). First Fruits of Freedom pulls together quite complicated and remarkable stories about communities north and south that become linked by the war–one a refuge for slaves seeking their freedom during wartime, the other a more permanent home to northern soldiers who’ve been sent south to fight. Can you tell us how the project first came to you, and whether it changed shape in the course of your research and writing?

Janette Greenwood (JG). The project came to me through research conducted by one of my students in a seminar that I taught a number of years ago at Clark University on ‘Black Worcester,’ in which students fanned out in the community and pursued a number of topics.  One did a paper on a local black church, John Street Baptist Church, and found out that it had been founded by former slaves from North Carolina and Virginia in the 1880s.  I was fascinated by this, as I was just finishing up a book on North Carolina. [Bittersweet Legacy: ed.] Her findings raised a whole series of questions. What were former slaves doing in Worcester in the 1880s? How had they gotten to Massachusetts? Why had they started their own church?  My first guess was that these southern migrants had come to Massachusetts through connections with local African Americans who fought in the Civil War, such as those who fought with the Mass 54th.  But further research did not reveal any connection.  Digging into the migrants’ backgrounds, I found that many came specifically from eastern North Carolina, mostly New Bern, and that proved to be an important clue.  I began looking into the history of local regiments and found that two Worcester County regiments—the Mass 25th and the Mass 51st—were in New Bern and vicinity, and that many soldiers spent a good deal of the war there.  Other sources confirmed a link between these soldiers and the migrating freedpeople.  Fortunately, Massachusetts conducted a census in 1865, and I was able to locate particular migrants in the communities and homes of white Massachusetts soldiers. Regimental histories, Civil War letters, newspaper accounts, and other sources helped me sketch out the particular stories of migrants and their sponsors.  As I got deeper into the research, I also realized that there was a multi-generational story to tell about the migrants, and I traced some families through several generations.  So, yes: the story did shift shape over the many years of research and writing it.

BK. One of the issues that First Fruits of Freedom takes up extensively is the effect of the war on the changing attitudes of white Union soldiers–both to slavery and to the cause of emancipation. In some ways the issues being contested in Chandra Manning’s work, on the one hand, and  Gary Gallagher’s The Union War, are played out on a local level in eastern North Carolina. Can you tell us what you found, and what this may mean for the wider debate? 

JG. Eastern North Carolina provides a valuable context within which to examine the attitudes of Northern soldiers toward slavery as well as their interactions with runaway slaves,  the “contrabands” of war.  In tracing migration networks, I focused on the Massachusetts 25th Volunteer Regiment. The successful Burnside Invasion of eastern North Carolina, in which the regiment took part, occurred relatively early in the war (editor’s note: launched in February 1862), nearly a year before the Emancipation Proclamation.   It’s clear from the letters that soldiers wrote home that they were deeply moved by the response of abandoned and runaway slaves, who greeted them when they conquered New Bern and its vicinity.  To the slaves, these Yankees were the long-awaited answer to their prayers, to the freedom that they believed God had promised them, and they said as much to the soldiers who marched into New Bern.  This was heady stuff and deeply touched many soldiers, as did the stories that slaves told them about their bondage.  Moreover, every day more and more slaves took refuge behind Union lines.  Their deep desire for freedom also touched many soldiers who listened to their stories of escape.  Finally, these “contrabands” made extremely important contributions to the Union cause, serving as spies, boat pilots, and laborers. All of these interactions transformed the thinking of many soldiers about slavery.  One Union officer noted that even he, who had voted for Southern Democrat Breckinridge in 1860, had been “educated up” by his interactions with the “contrabands.” Another recalled that some soldiers had been proslavery “from Worcester to Hatteras” but had “their eyes opened” once they arrived in North Carolina.  

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The settlement established by Union forces near New Bern

Union soldiers soon found themselves faced with a dilemma when masters, claiming to be loyal to the Union, demanded the return of slaves who had escaped behind Union lines.  I found some interesting examples in which soldiers, against orders and federal policy, refused to return slaves to loyal masters and even pulled off a rescue of two slaves who had been returned. In addition, some soldiers set up schools for the contrabands to teach them to read and write.  Because the Mass 25th occupied New Bern and environs for many months, some soldiers established long-term relationships with former slaves, which, in a number of cases, resulted in them accompanying the soldiers north to Massachusetts after the war. 

Even though my focus was quite specific—mainly exploring one Massachusetts regiment—I think there are several contributions to the larger debate.  First, there were, as I’ve already noted, some long-term, previously unrecognized consequences to the antislavery sentiments of some soldiers as they facilitated the migration of former slaves to the North.  Second, the role of the regimental chaplain was especially important in the case of the Mass 25th. Many of the activities of soldiers, such as the establishment of schools, resulted from the leadership of Chaplain Horace James, who channeled the antislavery feelings of soldiers into concrete activism.  Third, the fact that these sympathetic soldiers came from Massachusetts is also important; many were middle-class and educated; some of them commented that they had grown up in antislavery churches and even attended antislavery lectures, but really hadn’t felt much of a commitment to that cause—even when they enlisted—until they came face-to-face with slaves themselves.  Perhaps they were predisposed to become antislavery.  I don’t think the Mass 25th was an anomaly, but it would be great to know more about regiments from other parts of the North, the role of chaplains in directing soldiers’ activities, etc.  We do have plenty of examples of Northern regiments who did not act so benevolently—in fact, just the opposite. So it seems to me that there’s still a great deal more to do to get a more fine-grained portrait of the sentiments and actions of Union soldiers during the war.  I hope I’ve opened up some possible avenues for future research in my specific study of the Mass 25th.   

 ImageBK. With the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation upon us this year, I was struck by your rendering of the demonstrable effect that the proclamation made on the ground in North Carolina. It seems to have pushed the Lincoln-appointed military governor, Edward Stanly, into a kind of rearguard defense of the prewar status quo, and then to resigning office in disgust. Can you tell us more about this? Does it tell us something about the relationship between high politics and slave self-activity that is perhaps missing, for example, from Steven Spielberg’s rendering of emancipation?

A. There is quite a bit missing in Spielberg’s story. As he portrays it, emancipation, particularly the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, was a “top down” process, conferred on slaves by Congress and the President. But slaves were far ahead of Lincoln and the  federal government and had seized freedom on their own. Many freed themselves long before the federal government bothered to act with either the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment.  In eastern North Carolina, and in other parts of the Confederacy where the Union army had penetrated before January 1863, slaves are freeing themselves, seeking refuge and freedom behind Union lines. I was fascinated to find so many stories of soldiers and even officers defying federal policy before the Emancipation Proclamation, by simply refusing to return slaves to “loyal” masters.  In North Carolina, Governor Stanly, a native Unionist appointed by Lincoln as provisional governor in the hope that loyal North Carolinians would rally behind him, almost immediately comes into conflict with Union soldiers and officers in New Bern who simply defy his demand that slaves be returned to masters and reject his demand that they shut down the schools they’ve set up for African Americans. Stanly’s actions only helped galvanize the attitudes of Union soldiers: many became active defenders  and allies of the blacks in their midst. The soldiers despised Stanly. Some wrote home in anger that they did not join the war effort to defend the slave regime. Ultimately, Stanly does resign in disgust after the Emancipation Proclamation goes into effect. But the revolution had begun long before that, and there was no turning back.  

BK. The final section of the book charts the decline of sympathy for freed slaves in a rapidly industrializing, late-nineteenth-century Worcester, which during the war had been a “hotbed of abolition.” This seems in line with what we know about the national retreat from Reconstruction, but is there anything in the Worcester story that makes it stand out? Anything that we learn from the hardening of race relations there that might point historians and students of history toward new questions, new problems?

JG. I think one thing that does stand out in Worcester is that a small group of prominent whites in the city continued to maintain and cultivate Civil War memory that placed slavery and emancipation at the center of the war’s meaning.  And because slavery remained central to their memory of the Civil War, they continued long-term relationships with African American migrants. This group—many of whom were Civil War veterans and freedman’s school teachers—continued to feel an obligation to those who had suffered as slaves and made their way North to a new life.  For example, we see these folks helping fund the city’s Baptist Church, founded by Southern migrants in the 1880s; others serve as patrons to migrants and their children, aiding with education and jobs. Again, they are in the minority.  Most of the rest of white Worcester is pretty much like the rest of Gilded Age America, into reconciliation with the South and chasing the almighty dollar. They seemed happy to forget the city’s rich abolitionist heritage.  But a small group rejects this, remembers the past, and continues to do what they can to try to better the lot of those who suffered as slaves. 

In general, I think the Worcester story provides a more finely grained account of the overall portrait that has been sketched out by many historians regarding the hardening of race lines in late 19th century America.  Given what we know about the “nadir” of race relations by 1900, I was surprised to find as many long-term relationships as I did between former slaves and white Worcesterites. So the Worcester case study suggests that perhaps the story is more complex, and that at least some whites—especially Civil War veterans and veteran freedman’s school teachers—continued to battle alongside their black allies, for justice.   


[1] Bittersweet Legacy: The Black and White “Better Classes” in Charlotte, 1850-1910 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1994)

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