Kidada and Abigail discuss how African Americans built their own communities within Civil War refugee camps, as well as their relationship to African traditions and the introduction of Christianity by white missionaries.

View Transcript

Kidada Williams: Hi everyone, I’m Kidada Williams and this is Seizing Freedom. On this show, we dig into archives to bring you stories about how African Americans freed themselves during the Civil War and built new lives during Reconstruction. We also talk to the historians and artists who know the archives best. On this episode, an interview about the people who lived in wartime refugee camps and how they planned to make free lives together.

The Civil War displaced around half a million African-Americans. Some had been recently freed. Some had escaped slavery. Those who made it across Union battle lines found themselves in makeshift refugee camps. Early in the war, people made their way to camps one or two at a time. But as the conflict intensified, the camps filled with families, with women and children, with the old and infirm.

Abigail Cooper: So they’re coming by water. They’re coming on foot. It’s amazing how shoes are of such importance. Sometimes enslaved people sleep with them because if a master wanted to thwart their efforts to get away, they would take their shoes and put them in a lock box.

KW: This is Abigail Cooper.

AC: I’m a professor of history at Brandeis University, and I’m writing a book on conjuring emancipation, how Black refugees brought about freedom during the Civil War.

KW: Abby is going to help us understand what seizing freedom looked like in the Civil War’s Black refugee camps.

AC: Their foremost directive is to find their lost kin. They are using the Union more as a portal than a destination, and really what you’re looking at are people who are on the move, trying to get information. They’re going to the camps as rendezvous points before they go to the next place, a kind of an emancipation diaspora, get as far away from your owner as you can. Get as far away from the bullets as you can. Keep your children safe, reunite with those who were sold away.

KW: And so we see refugee camps spring up all across the areas of conflict. In the West, there are freedman’s camps set up and maintained by formerly enslaved people. In the East camps are tightly knit with the Union army, but when Confederates abandoned plantations in some parts of the Southeast, from D.C. down to the Florida Keys, you find something different. Freed people stayed and cultivated the land.

AC: What you see in places like the Sea Islands—the planters are leaving and who stays there? The people who know the land best—it’s the Gullah people who’ve been enslaved, but there’s a vibrant Black community there. This is where the refugees really are the owners. And it’s where you’re going to see, kind of, Africa remembered and celebrated. And this is where you’re going to see people really imagining themselves as land owners. They believe it’s theirs they feel it’s theirs. They have connection with the land. They resist growing cotton, they want to grow sweet potatoes and food.

They can worship the way they want to. And they even resist AME Methodists…Black Methodists coming down and telling them how to worship. They have a very strong feeling, that they know what their freedom’s going to look like. As they are communing together they’re really trying to both discuss their thoughts on freedom—there’s a kind of intellectual history of freedom that happens in these camps—and they’re also strategizing how can they enact that on the landscape?

KW: So how did African-Americans try to make freedom in those spaces?

AC: African-Americans are doing all the things you would imagine someone does when they are trying to scrape out freedom. They’re looking for work. They’re looking for shelter, clothing, some kind of sustenance for themselves and their families. Even the way they work out among themselves, “How many acres? Let’s do eight acres. Let’s make this the wash bin.” And the wash basin was where people went and exchanged information, made plans, took care of each other’s children. There was wage sharing and they even pooled their resources to purchase land.

They were worshiping together and they found commonality in midnight rituals. So they’re doing all kinds of practical things and they’re really creating a kind of ideology of freedom that’s very different from what the Union sees and what the, of course, what the Confederacy sees. But a lot of times what they’re doing is they’re commemorating this monumental achievement of freedom that they have been planning for generations and generations before them.

KW: So when we talk about the community in the Sea Islands, you’ve got a number of things. And one of them is the fact that there’s this rich culture. There’s a rich sense of community there. But does the war change the composition of the community in terms of who’s there?

AC: So you have newcomers as well, and you have them settled in these plantations. You have missionaries taking their jurisdiction and, and even you have a lot of tensions between people who’ve been there all their lives and people who are coming on. But even so, there’s a huge desire, and a universal desire, that the land doesn’t go back to the former white owners. Wage labor is very much conditional on the employer, whereas land you can cede to generations and generations.

KW: So with the two different types of communities, the people who are already there and the newcomers, what kind of conflict exists and does it get resolved?

AC: This actually happens, not just in the Sea Islands, but in all kinds of different places, because you have a lot of movement and with a lot of movement come people who’ve been there and have created land plots and have worked it out and then there’s a Yellow Fever epidemic over here or there’s a flooding. Then you have a new batch of people coming. And the question always becomes, “well, what happens now? What happens to what we built? How do we share?”

And so you see a lot of people saying, all right, especially with marital relations, you know, there’s all kinds of ways that they understand that there are different ways to have romantic relationships and marriage is not as fixed. So what’s interesting is you see the tensions, but you also see a lot of working out of the tensions.

And you have plenty of nuclear families as they’re understood, but most of the time, even the nuclear family has a past life and marriage can be all kinds of different things where you have a white preacher and you do it in front of the white folks. You could do it in the quarters and the jumping of the broom is, is not, it’s a folk practice, but it’s a really, it’s a treasured practice because it’s something that’s understood as this marks something from before and after. So, and there’s also not a one size fits all, but there is a kind of commonality in what the missionaries and the military wants to put down on the ledger does not compute or does not easily translate.

KW: Right. So could you tell us a little bit about the different ways that enslaved people conceptualize intimate relations? Could you explain the hierarchy?

AC: What is so difficult is that you’ve had in slavery, a matrifocal system. You’ve had the idea that the maternal law of descent has defined families for so long. And now you’re moving into a patriarchal system in which the family is defined by the man. And so you’re supposed to take on a man’s name and the children are supposed to take on his name. They’ve understood this to a degree in, in enslavement, but they have oftentimes worked hard to take the father’s name when he wasn’t owned by the same owner so that they could have some distance from that owner.

Now they are in the camps and they’re being asked to give a first and last name, and women are being asked to be part of these mass marriage ceremonies. The missionaries do 150 people at a time, 75 at a time. And this is happening all over the South. And there’s a lot of ambivalence about these marriages. And there’s a lot of understanding that those marriages are happening at the same time the Union is asking to take men away from the camps. So there’s, there’s, there’s almost like a paper marriage that happens at the same time that there is a geographical separation and that’s where you’re going to see a lot of friction because the Union doesn’t actually have the power or the supplies to be able to fulfill its promises.

KW: Right. Or even necessarily the refugees or freed people’s best interests in mind, or, you know, their sense of what they want and need. They’ve got a sense of different types of commitments, but what the Union wants to do is to kind of shoehorn them into this really narrow understanding of what marriage is, and to do it with all of these terms and expectations. And it sounds as though everyone doesn’t necessarily want that, but they may realize that they have to do that in order to get some of the benefits and privileges that may come with it.

AC: Absolutely. It’s also a moment where you have, you have the Union in general, just anxious about who’s going to take care of all these people. And what happens is a lot of women become the people who are brokering how families are going to work out. And especially in these camps how majority female camps that where the Union can’t provide or won’t see them as anything but potential prostitutes, but they’re, they’re the ones who are building the orphan asylums or are the ones who are figuring out how to connect with each other so that they can make meager wages.

But even then you have people who are saying, “Okay, we’re going to come up with an alternative economy. We’re not going to pay $2 for parsley.” “Don’t trust the freedmen’s hospitals because they want to experiment on you. And the midwife is a much better bet. She understands relational experiences.” And, and that’s where you’re going to see new communities being built so that when men come back, there is still something cohesive. And there they’re trying to build despite a lot of the Union’s efforts.

KW: So what I’m hearing from you is that people are not idle in the camps, which is interesting because there is this concern trolling language by white unionists, who talk a lot about their fears of Black people’s idleness and dependence. But the people within the camps are actually working. Some of them are working outside the camps to the point where the military is trying to take their wages.

When you talk about things like growing parsley, I hear people are making a life and building community in a way that may not be clear when we think of these only as refugee camps, especially for people who’ve never visited them.

AC: So there’s a lot of desire to name idleness and to name work, and to be able to say, this is what dlelness looks…Idleness is people building and networking and trying to do for themselves. It’s almost like you can follow the record of the people who have the greatest fears and find a different kind of industriousness towards that vision of freedom. And that vision is never…it never rests.

And especially in midwives. The midwives, what’s interesting about them is that they are threatening to some surgeons, but a lot of surgeons, just with the overwhelming need, they say, “ah, we’ve got to deputize these women because they are the backbone” because they, these women know that they know that the mosquito is the cause of the Yellow Fever epidemic 40 years before Walter Reed is credited with the discovery.

Their knowledge is such that the Union actually gives them passes that—women aren’t allowed to move freely, but midwives are—they have special passes and they have special exemptions where they are allowed to move because they’re just so, so incredibly useful. And that is also the conduit then for that knowledge.

KW: Let’s move West a bit and contrast freedom making in the Sea Islands with what’s happening in a border state like Kentucky. That’s where we find Camp Nelson. Who’s there? What’s going on there? What does freedom making look like?

AC: So in Kentucky, you have a slave state and a Union state. They stay in the union to preserve slavery. And you have white Kentuckian enslavers who are incensed when Black men hear they can enlist and they start breaking away. They punish families who are left behind. So you have a big question in Kentucky of whether recruiting will go on there and Lincoln, the government, just stalls and stalls to keep them in the Union.

Well, by Spring 1864, Black enlistment is allowed in Kentucky and in Camp Nelson, this is a 4,000 acre supply depot. It also has a hospital there, and they opened the door to Black recruitment in that Spring of 1864 and men flocked to it with their families. Now it’s only the men who are supposed to be brought in, but of course they can’t stop the families. The families are coming to stay. They’re not going back. They know they’ll be punished. And so in the wake of that, if they want to have recruiting in Kentucky, they’re going to have to accept the people who come with those Black male soldiers. They have to set up a space for women and children, but they don’t necessarily have to, uh, support them.

They’ve done archeological digs actually at this site. And there’s a place where in addition to the barracks—there’s women’s barracks and men’s barracks—in addition to that, they have a series of huts and there, they don’t have the remains of rations. They were not eating beef, which is the part of the army ration. They’re eating pork, they’re eating rabbit, they’re eating chicken. You see them, they’re actually eating better and they’re eating food that they’re more accustomed to. And they’re doing really well in these kind of satellite hut villages.

KW: You also sort of speak to the ways that the material culture opens a window onto what community looks like. Would you say that it’s the same or different in places like Camp Nelson in comparison to the Sea Islands?

AC: So in Camp Nelson, it’s a very different kind of terrain. Already Kentucky is so different from, uh, the South Carolina sea islands. You have long staple cotton, so it’s not cotton that needs to be ginned and it’s tropical weather. It’s swamplike, it’s water culture. And in Kentucky, it’s smaller scale in that you have more families in Kentucky who have been on smaller farms, you have really hemp, swine, um, wheat, but this is not the place of large plantations like there is in the deep South. This is not cotton culture.

And a lot of men in Kentucky who are being recruited in Kentucky are going to be sent down to Texas. And so there’s a concern too, that their families aren’t going to be taken care of and then they’re going to be left to fend for themselves among a very hostile Kentucky white population. And you have about 225,000 enslaved people in Kentucky.

And that’s so far and above what any other border state—I mean, Maryland and Delaware—these States have a few thousand, but Kentucky, it’s almost the, it’s the same amount of all the free Black people in the North. And so that’s, that’s a really interesting terrain to be in because you have so many people who are looking towards Ohio and you have so many people who are in small-scale agriculture, they are looking elsewhere to settle.

KW: So we know that one of the things that’s happening in the camps is people are taking advantage of an opportunity to learn how to read and write and do math. They’re doing that for survival, but also for learning’s sake. And we also see white, Northern missionaries in the camps teaching people how to read the Bible and refugees became quite interested in that, but for reasons different than what the missionaries had intended. Could you tell us what teachings from the Bible refugees wanted and how they interpreted them?

AC: It’s interesting that the missionaries really want to stress the gospel. “Turn the other cheek” becomes a very commonly used—I mean, it’s better than what a lot of people got in slavery, which was Paul’s “be obediant and good, good to your masters listen to what they say.” And everyone universally says, “we really dislike Paul, can we stay away from the epistles?” But the missionaries want the turn the other cheek, they want the gentle version.

And overwhelmingly the book of Revelation, which is apocalyptic, it’s about judgment and a lot of new missionaries, they say, “Oh, that’s too complicated. That’s too complicated.” But they’re like, “Wait a second. this is, this completely makes sense to me.” And they really have a desire for judgment. And there’s a lot of people who have been those supposedly faithful servants who are now saying white people have a lot to answer for. The streets are gonna run with blood. And here it is, this bloody book is speaking to me.

They need to go there for some solace, as they see different forms of almost justice get thwarted. And there’s a real desire for an understanding that that justice is happening now. And that there’s also justice deferred.

KW: So they’re passing on knowledge about how to live in the world, how this, you know, how to not just survive, but also thrive within this context, which makes sense.

In one interview, when you were asked what you thought the most misunderstood aspect of this history was, you said religion. What did you mean by that?

AC: So I believe that religion is especially hard to talk about. It’s always kind of seen as somehow a sideshow to the political narrative. But what happens when you have Black culture forming the major shift that pushes emancipation, that pushes freedom, that ends slavery in America, and the way that Black culture fuses together and understands itself, it doesn’t separate religion from politics, and it also needs to preserve itself from all the different kind of assimilationism of this new state.

And so what you have is Protestant missionaries constantly surprised by the religion of African-Americans in these spaces. What you see a lot of times is them enacting a kind of quasi-ethnography that sounds a lot like the British imperial agents who will go to Africa and, and talk about African religion as “other,” and while they’re studying it, they’re also excited and then suddenly afeared and they want refugees in the camps to perform like proto-citizens, like people who, who will fit into their abolitionist narrative and will also show their prowess in demonstrating what a good citizen looks like.

And that isn’t Africa, but for the people who are there, they’re like, this is what we’ve been waiting for since the moment of the middle passage. This is, we have buried this and found a hush harbor to carve out pockets of freedom in slavery for generations and this is the moment we get to bring it out.

So what you have is buttons that are not just not used at all for, for sewing. They’re used as charms, they’re buttons with the Congo Cosmogram very clearly scratched onto them and pierced dimes—dimes that were tied around the ankle, tied around the knee. Even the idea of these dimes as being good luck charms, and sometimes for there for health reasons. Some in, in interviews, talk about rheumatism. These objects, these are brought out to each other in these spaces where they’re trying to make strangers into friends and, and understand each other by the symbols that they carry with them and they hold.

And religion becomes that protected sphere that they’re able to invoke, to protect Black culture from that kind of whitening influence from that assimilationist racism that a lot of the missionaries hold. And a lot of people have to use religion to say, “okay, I don’t want to cut my dreadlocks, even though you’re telling me I have to, if I want to be part of this army, but I have, I’m keeping them for religious reasons. I have a belief system, and they mean something to me.” And that is where, um, the Union as an entity comes at odds, but they recognize it. They understand, “Oh, you’re invoking religion. That’s something separate.”

But there’s great Black power there. It was minstrelized a lot of times or called superstition because it was so powerful, because it was an alternative view, because it was misunderstood and really freedom should be at the apex, should be at the center of even that religious view.

KW: You’ve written that the war time refugee camps were a blueprint for reconstruction. That is a really interesting idea because a lot of times when people think about reconstruction, you know, the politics come to mind, the fights between Congress and the president, the right to vote, holding office, et cetera, and refugee camps bring something different to mind. We think about the rough living conditions. We think about work. We think about everything else that people are doing to try to survive the war and live in freedom.

So could you tell us what you mean when you say that camps are a model for Reconstruction, for what is to come after the war?

AC: This is where people are navigating. How do they perform themselves to the nation-state, through petitions and letters and testimony. And then also at the same time, how to maintain the freedoms they had carved out for themselves in that hush harbor nation, despite the nation-states’ desire to to obliterate everything, anything that had to do with slavery, they want to forget it.

And, and there’s a lot of Reconstruction that is premised on upholding colorblind law. It’s not a reckoning with slavery at all. It’s about creating a colorblindness to American laws instead of having a constitution that protects slavery. But that, that in and of itself is going to be a difficult terrain and one that only recognizes Black people through that soldier’s relationship that gives men an inroads to a loyalty relationship with the state, and then to vote or the ability to serve in office. Those are all grand achievements, but that is, is not the whole of what the community is doing.

And a lot of times the community is trying to work and continue itself, continue especially the family reunions that started in these camps even as their political might is paving a way for them. But the political might itself is not the achievement, it’s the pathway for them to get what they want. And when that’s closed off to them, they’re still looking for places to go where they can be safe, or they can have their families where they can settle where they can be homesteaders.

But the camp experience, the refugee camp experience, gave them a template for that. It gave them a lived experience and an exchange that they, they don’t soon forget. They know how to do that in other places. And they will. So the point where you have Carter G Woodson, right at the beginning of the first great migration, he’s saying “You know, Black people are not migratory by nature as many writers assume; This is something wekeep looking for a place to settle a place to enact that dream.”

KW: So what’s the legacy of the camps?

AC: The camps themselves, they get shut down in 1865, but they’re going to become orphan asylums. They’re going to become Freedman’s Bureau offices. So there’s an institutional structure. There’s Black universities—Hampton University, Fisk University, you have Berea College in Kentucky that’s really the fruits of Camp Nelson. And this is going to birth a generation of thinkers. You actually even have in these camps, some people are buying land and that shouldn’t go unsaid.

I mean, Arlington National Cemetery, that in 1890, they have to buy out the Black residents in order to expand Arlington National Cemetery. And so there’s a real marker on the landscape. But there’s also the legacy that is less on the landscape and is more in people’s consciousness and in people’s stories.

What I’ve found is that the New Deal era interviews are an extremely rich source space for interrogating what happened in these camps, the memory of it, the rehearsal of it, the storytelling of it is just, it’s so defined and that in and of itself should be a huge, commemorative piece of our history.

Abigail Cooper

About the Guest

Abigail Cooper is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University, where she teaches courses in U.S. History, Slavery and Emancipation, Civil War and Reconstruction, Migration and Refugees, and new methods for writing history.

Her work has received recognition from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Virginia Historical Society, among others.

Find her article “Away I Goin’ to Find My Mamma” on family reunion and black migration in the Journal of African American History. She earned her B.A. from Barnard College, Columbia University, her Masters of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School, and her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2015.

Her book, Pierced Dimes and Placenta Fires, on how Black communities used folk knowledge to forge emancipation will be in bookstores soon.

Seizing Freedom is a co-production of VPM and Witness Docs.