The After Slavery Project is an international research collaboration directed from Queen’s University Belfast, funded in its formative stages by the (UK) Arts and Humanities Research Council and benefiting from key institutional support from the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina, the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, and the Lowcountry Digital Library at the College of Charleston. Launched in 2006 by three historians working in the fields of labor, southern and African American history, the project seeks to draw together some of the most exciting developments in the study of the post-emancipation US South, and to encourage and promote a gathering consensus among historians that this period can best be understood as an important chapter in American labor history. Much of the early scholarship on the aftermath of slavery was undertaken by scholars who’d absorbed prevailing ideas about black racial inferiority, and was often permeated with racism and hostile to the project of Reconstruction. In the years following the triumph over Jim Crow, a new generation of historians influenced by the black freedom movement and building on the pioneering work of W. E. B. Du Bois and others countered this version of the past, and for the past generation this revisionist framework has profoundly reshaped the way the late nineteenth-century South is taught and understood. Whether this newer understanding has managed to break out of college and university classrooms and influence popular understanding is another question.
While those of us involved in After Slavery view ourselves as fully in sympathy with the spirit of the revisionist project, we find ourselves at the same time dissatisfied with some of its results. One problem is that in seeking to defend the record of the Reconstruction governments of the South against malicious and racially motivated scholarship, some of the more recent work loses sight of the centrality of struggles over land and the conditions of labor which, the documentary record suggests, were everywhere bound up with the way former slaves thought about freedom. Just as the relationship between civil equality and social and economic justice is obscured or buried in the way the more recent civil rights movement is today remembered, so too the first Reconstruction is often repackaged as a struggle for equal citizenship in its narrowest sense. The tendency among historians to compartmentalize the past—into tightly bound timelines and discrete subfields—can also do damage to the integrity and interconnectedness of events in the past.
After Slavery aims to foreground the confrontation between the old order and the new in the struggle to remake a society that had for centuries been tied to the institution of slavery, and to focus on the role of working people themselves in that effort. In doing so we don’t claim to be striking out into unchartered territory. Du Bois’s work, especially, demonstrated the potential in this framework as early as the mid-1930s. Over the past quarter century dozens of scholars have helped to showcase its utility in local settings across the former slave South. And the inseparability of citizenship from social and economic struggles is made explicit in the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which has made a massive collection of documentary sources available. So we see ourselves as part of an emerging perspective, aiming where we can to popularize this framework among students and historians of Reconstruction and to make it accessible to citizens more generally.
This last aspect of our vision is an important one. After Slavery doesn’t merely aim to add its voice to those urging greater attention to the social and economic struggles that figured so prominently in the post-emancipation South; we want to explore the ways that new technologies can make this part of our past accessible and exciting to an extremely diverse range of interested citizens.
Please visit the After Slavery project site for more information.