Kidada speaks with Princeton historian Tera Hunter about how Black workers wanted to shape their working lives after the Civil War, what communal labor looked like, and what activities they found joy in.

View Transcript

Kidada Williams: Hi everyone, It’s Kidada. This is Seizing Freedom, the show where we dig into archives to bring you stories about how African-Americans freed themselves during the Civil War and built new lives during reconstruction, and where we talk to the historians and artists who know the archives best.

On this episode, I speak with Dr. Tera Hunter, Princeton historian and author of “To Joy My Freedom” and “Bound in Wedlock.” We talk about what it meant for African-Americans to own their labor, as well as their leisure time, as they strove for independence after the Civil War. Thank you so much for joining us, Tera.

Tera Hunter: Thank you for having me.

KW: All right. So could you tell us a little bit about yourself; who you are and what you do?

TH: Yeah, so I’m a historian. My work in the broadest sense focuses on what we would call social history: the history of ordinary people and everyday life. I’m interested most of all in those people who traditionally have been left out of the history books, such as African-American workers and women. As a scholar, I’ve tried to bring greater visibility to those who are sort of the hardest to trace in the historical records, the people who are less likely to leave a paper trail.

KW: So how did you come to be researching the Civil War and Reconstruction?

TH: So I think what’s fascinated me most about the Civil War reconstruction era are that this is a really important transition point in history. These are moments of dramatic change and transformation for Black people in America and for the nation as a whole. Part of what interested me in the era was…I’m interested in the period for its own sake, but I’m also interested in what it opens up and what it reveals about earlier moments.

So for my most recent book, “Bound in Wedlock,” I actually began researching family in the Reconstruction period, in the Civil War period. But by studying that era, it led me to go back into slavery. Given what I was seeing in those records after slavery ended, it really opened up to view some things that showed how dynamic and complex Black families were back then.

And so that encouraged me to really think more deeply about slavery, to go backwards in time as well as to go forward and look at how Civil War and Reconstruction was being played out towards the end of the 19th century.

KW: The title of your first book is “To Joy my Freedom.” Could you give us some context for that quote and what your research shows, what it means for Black people to joy their freedom?

TH: So the quote is actually, it comes from an enslaved woman and she was asked by her enslaver, you know, why would she want to be free? The person was trying to basically tell her about all the burdens that she would have as a free person. And her response was simply to joy my freedom, meaning to enjoy my freedom.

And so to joy meant, you know, all of what joy stands for to enjoy it in the plainest terms of just having the freedom, the ability to own her own time, own her own body, do as she pleased with respect to work, but also with respect to leisure. So it has, I think, a double meaning in terms of freedom in all of its aspects, but also the freedom to enjoy life as well.

KW: So could you say a little bit more about what it means for newly freed people to enjoy life. And the reason I ask is because oftentimes when people think about the end of slavery, they think, okay, slavery was only about people not being paid for their labor. And so now you’re going to be paid for your labor. What else do you want? And what we know is that newly freed people had a much broader vision of freedom than that. And so could you tell us a little bit more about the joyful aspects, what people might have wanted to do with their time beyond sort of working to survive?

TH: Well, I think they want it to be able to dictate the terms of their lives. They wanted to be able to, to come and go as they pleased, they want it to be able to. To work or to not work, to take time off. They wanted to be able to organize in organizations and institutions, to be able to build institutions that matter to them. They wanted to be able to have fun, to be able to recover from work, to engage in leisure activities, to enjoy music, to enjoy dance, to enjoy each other’s company, to be playful, to be free spirit, to have all the benefits and privileges that all human beings are really entitled to.

KW: Do you have a specific or favorite story about someone pursuing that kind of joy, that kind of leisure activity as newly freed person?

TH: There’s a story that I tell in ‘To Joy My Freedom’ of just women, literally walking down the street, you know, during reconstruction dressed in ways that were considered outside of their station, enjoying themselves loudly and laughing and having a good time. And it created a lot of resentment for those, you know, white residents who, who witnessed what they saw on the streets, because it meant that these were people who were enjoying themselves too much. They were acting outside of the position that white people thought they deserved.

Those are the, the examples that, that strike me the most,the kinds of sort of ordinary actions that African-Americans engaged in, in their everyday lives that showed how much freedom meant to them and in the most mundane ways, how they exercise that freedom and how that also rubbed white residents, the wrong way that made them indignant that these Black people would think of themselves in such a positive way.

KW: Leading up to the Civil War, slavery in a city like Atlanta looks different than it did in neighboring rural areas. Atlanta was industrializing and becoming an urban center. And we know that it attracted a lot of young entrepreneurs, white entrepreneurs who didn’t necessarily come from plantation wealth, but investment in preserving slavery was quite high in Atlanta. Can you tell us why?

TH: Well, I think it’s important. First of all, to recognize there’s a connection between the rural countryside and the urban economy. So slavery in the rural areas is very much connected to slavery in the cities. So slavery was still an important basis for economic development in Atlanta. And because in part, because it it’s a basis for building wealth, whether you are an entrepreneur in the city or a plantation owner, In the rural areas and Black laborers were essential workers in both places, they provide a common labor, they provided skilled labor and they in fact, dominated the artisanal labor force in Southern cities in general, unlike the North where native born workers, immigrant workers were you know, dominant in artisanal labor.

Atlanta was a very young city as well. It really started to grow during the Civil War and after the war ended. And so you have an influx of people coming into the city, partly as a result of the war. And they’re engaging in work helping to provide services and items for the Confederate military. And so slave labor was very crucial to that as well. And just think about building a city what’s required for building a city, the infrastructure that is necessary for building the city, housing roads, businesses, parks, hotels, factories, all of those things had to be built from the ground up. And so in slave labor was an important part of the workforce for the city. So of course that would have been important to entrepreneurs just as it was important to plantation owners in the rural areas.

KW: So, how did the relationship between white and Black working class workers evolve during the war?

TH: Well, the Civil War boosted the, the economy, the Atlanta economy. And so you have workers coming in to produce goods, as I mentioned for the military uniforms, firearms and so on. And the city served as a distribution point for products that were being produced in the city, as well as products that were produced elsewhere.

And so there was a demand for more labor at the same time, there was a demand for soldiers. And so in some ways, Black and white men’s swap places. As, as white men were going off to fight, before African-American men were allowed to join the union army, as white men were going off to fight for the Confederacy, they needed workers to take their places. And so Black men sort of filled in those places that they left behind. And at the same time, Black labor is still mostly concentrated in domestic work in Atlanta, even at that period. So African-Americans are still doing a lot of the common labor.

Another kind of relationship that evolved with Black and white workers was through the hiring out system. And so enslaved people were hired out to work as the helpers often of skill white workers. So they would hire. Enslaved people who they couldn’t afford to purchase themselves outright, they would hire them to be their helpers, so for example, carpenters, a blacksmiths might hire an enslaved person in that way.

And then another interesting dynamic was wage earning families hiring in domestic workers. So enslaves women who were domestic servants, were being hired into white families who are wage earners. There was a kind of racial hierarchy that white workers benefited from.

At the same time, there had to be a lot of casual intermingling among workers across racial lines, taking place because of the sudden growth of the city and all the people coming into the city during the war and after the war. The city was a kind of rough frontier so all kinds of things are happening, legal and extra legal. Things are happening on the streets and the markets and the grocery stores and people are mingling in these places. So there had to be a lot of overlap as well between Black and white workers, just going to, and fro and participating in daily life.

KW: After the war, what kind of jobs that newly freed people in Atlanta aspire to?

TH: Above all I think it was what they aspire not to be, to not be slaves. They wanted to do work that did not replicate their former conditions in any way. And that meant that they wanted to work in those occupations that gave them the most autonomy, the most separation from white control. They wanted to live in their own homes, not in those of their employers.

And so they were still concentrated, however, in work, very similar to what they did in slavery but they wanted to change the terms of those, those jobs to change the conditions, you know, in terms of pay in terms of hours of work in terms of the division of tasks. So even if they were doing the same work as they had previously, they wanted to redefine what that labor looks like.

KW: And so in redefining what that labor looks like and receiving pay for that work, do we have a sense of what they aspire to do with their money, like with their earnings?

TH: So I think that money was partly for survival. I mean, I think that was really essential that they could actually use their money for survival. That they could use their money to live independently, to pay rent, to rent a room in a boarding house, or to rent a bungalow, to buy their own food, to buy their own clothes, to buy shoes. Shoes was a really special. To take care of their children to spend money on sending their kids to schools. To support organizations that they believed in mutual aid organizations or churches. But money was also used for fun to gamble it away. If they want it to, to buy treats, to hear music, to dance, to, you know, go on picnics, to attend social events, to, to buy niceties like perfume and toiletries and hats and jewelry.

KW: And what about Blacks who were free before the war in the South? Did their work change their aspiration change with the end of the war and with the destruction of slavery?

TH: Well, I think free Blacks before universal emancipation, those who were free before universal emancipation, where they were in a better position, obviously than those who were enslaved. They tried to hang on to their privileges, the ones that they had already achieved, but they also tried to advance in this new environment as entrepreneurs, as educated professionals, as teachers, as preachers. The men were really positioned to be leaders and the Republican party to run for office. They aspired to be the leaders, the spokespersons, the institution, builders. Women as well saw themselves as, you know, uplifting the race they wanted to build and run the kinds of organizations that could help their people, schools being one of the most prominent of those kinds of institutions.

KW: So you talked earlier about African-Americans desire for new terms of work, new working conditions. What tactics did they employ to demand right to protections of their labor during reconstruction?

TH: There were widespread working class mobilizations among workers of all races after the Civil War ended. So Black workers were very much a part of that. This was especially true in cities in the South. There were protests and strikes by domestic workers in Jackson, Mississippi in 1866 and in Galveston, Texas in 1877 and the Galveston strike was a part of a larger strike. So the domestic workers, there were sort of following on the foot trails of other workers of Black men workers who were striking and white male workers who was striking. especially railroad workers.

But there were strikes in Nashville, municipal workers lumberyard workers in Washington, DC. There were Coopers and brick masons and tobacco workers in Richmond, Virginia. Workers in Memphis and Mobile. Longshoremen were especially active. You know, engaged in labor activism.

And in some of these cases, these were interracial efforts of solidarity, places like Savannah and Richmond, Charleston, New Orleans. But Black workers for the most part were not welcome into white unions. At best they form parallel chapters of organizations like the Knights of labor, and they formed their own independent unions, which they coalesced into a national organization in 1869 called the Color National Labor Union.

KW: So was this type of organizing only happening in urban centers?

TH: It was happening in rural areas as well. Rural workers also organized, it was more difficult for them to do so. They were still under the thumbs of land owners so it was harder for them to be independent, but they did. There were strikes work stoppages on plantations at key moments in the season, like harvest time, for example, when they had the most leverage. These were typically short lived events, usually on individual plantations, but there were examples of those that were larger scale. So workers across the board were very active and engaged in these years.

KW: So for these strikes that are happening in different areas, were they successful? What were the results of them?

TH: So it’s hard to say, what’s successful, what’s not successful. We know that in many cases they did not always achieve the ends that they were fighting for in terms of better wages, better work hours, better conditions. But we also know that they certainly were able to, to win some concessions. To increase, you know, their wages to make themselves known politically in terms of sending signals to their employers, that they were not going to just sit by idly and, you know, be treated abusively or to be denied their, their rights as, as citizens, as workers who deserve to be treated with respect and to be paid decent wages.

KW: One of the ways people controlled their own labor was by working communally. And you write about washerwomen in Atlanta, as an example of this. Can you tell us a bit about how these women fostered community and what freedom looked like for them?

TH: So for washerwomen, communal labor was very important to them, the very way in which they conducted the labor was communal. They worked independently, so they didn’t work in the homes of employers. They picked up the laundry from, from the households that they were washing for and then they brought the wash back home. So they actually did the labor in their own homes, usually outside, especially weather permitting, they would create spaces outdoors.

And so that became a place for women to gather for other washerwomen to gather so that they could do the work in a kind of communal fashion. And so community making was built into the daily lives of these women, the work that they did for wages, and the work that they did to take care of their families, borrow resources from neighbors, trading services, interacting socially, attending meetings of various organizations, going to church.

So all of that became a part of their daily activities and was a part of the process of what it meant to create community through work that was both paid, but also work that was family-based or, you know, based within their neighborhoods and the institutions that they created.

KW: So were these mutual aid practices their attempt to participate in a capitalist economy or did they have different economic visions for their, for their communities and for themselves?

TH: I think people were foremost, very practical about the way they approached economic matters. They work to earn what they need it for survival, for comfort and for care. They shared what they could within their communities, but they didn’t set out with, you know, kind of illusory goals of accumulation, of making profits that will lead them to be capitalists. That was not realistic and it wasn’t necessarily desirable.

They were more interested in self-sufficiency and taking care of themselves and their families and their communities. That’s not to say that there weren’t people who were interested in getting rich because there certainly were, but that wasn’t the norm, that wasn’t the goal of most ordinary workers.

KW: We know that being a washerwoman is a lot of work. Do we have a sense of how much free time they had and what they did with it?

TH: I think one of the things that was most attractive about being a washerwoman is that they had the most flexibility. So unlike a woman who was a maid or a house cleaner who would work, you know, from early in the morning to late at night, the washerwomen had control complete control over their time. So they could choose how much to work when to work.

They weren’t being supervised directly by anyone else. So they worked at their own pace. They could also do other chores, intermittently. They could take care of their kids, they could get their kids involved in their work, they could, you know, ask their husbands to help out, maybe pick up the laundry or deliver it and so it, it gave them a lot of flexibility.

And so there, they use their time to do the kind of unpaid chores that they needed to do to take care of their families, but also to hang out with friends and family, to participate in political meetings in organizations to go to school, to go to church, to go to dances, to socialize together on street corners or hang out near lunch carts or fraternal halls.

KW: One of the things that I think you do really well in the book, and I see this in ‘Bound in Wedlock’ too, is that you don’t sort of overly romanticize what’s going on in groups and communities. And so you note that even though these women are working together, they don’t always get along and that they, their disagreements are often, or sometimes they can become public. Can you give us an example of what’s going on here?

TH: Yeah, so I, I like to recognize that the historical subjects that I write about are human beings. That they’re fully dimensional human beings, that they have flaws, that they have strengths and, you know, all that goes along with being human. And so that impacted their relationships with each other.

They spent a lot of time outdoors weather permitting, which meant that disputes were often aired, you know, out in the open very publicly. So they might disagree for example, about sharing resources, maybe, you know, one woman loaned another woman, you know, a piece of clothing or maybe gave her some cash. And then you know, the, the favor was not returned ,that could be, you know, a source of dispute. You know, people gossip, they they would pass around information he said, she said. There was public shaming and name calling,that was another way of handling disputes.

So these are all things that we’re familiar with now. They would have been familiar to people back then. I think they just had a way of handling it that may be more different in our times because it was, you know, very boisterous and as I said, mostly out often out in public, because that’s where they spent most of their time. They didn’t have the luxury of having beautiful homes to retreat into so they, they took their conversations where they could.

KW: Do you think there are similarities and differences in the fight over making a living and what having a good life looks like today?

TH: Well, I think it’s a mixed bag for today’s workers compared to workers of earlier times. Overall, the standard of living has improved tremendously across the board. There was absolutely no safety net for people in the 19th century, during reconstruction or after reconstruction, in terms of, you know, having any kind of fallback except for what they could cobble together themselves for each other, for their families and communities. Workers had very few rights back then. There was high morbidity and mortality. People died from diseases that no longer plague us on the same scale as before like smallpox or yellow fever.

But I think one of the great ironies of the post-Civil Rights era is that we’ve made progress tremendously and yet there’s still areas that we don’t do so well in economically in terms of African-Americans. If we just look at, for example, the rate of permanent unemployment and how that’s increased every decade since the 1940s, african-Americans are disproportionately in that pool of workers who’ve been kicked out of the economy and, you know, think about what that means in terms of the centuries that African Americans have been central to the economy.

It’s astounding to reach the point where it’s no longer true that African-Americans are central to the labor economy in the same way. As some workers have become entirely disposable due to structural changes in the economy and the job market. And in many ways, workers are still fighting the same battles, if we just think about, for example, the debate that’s happening right now in Congress, over raising the minimum wage to $15. The current minimum wage is $7 and 25 cents. It hasn’t changed in 12 years. And so we still have workers that are not earning enough to take care of themselves, to take care of their families at a standard that anyone deserves to be able to, to live at given you know working full-time jobs. No one should be able to say that they’re working full time and yet are still living in poverty.

And so I feel like we’ve, we’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve also we’re we’re backsliding in some ways, in terms of how we treat workers, what we expect workers to do in exchange for what they’re given in return. You know, just thinking about the pandemic in terms of essential workers, there’s a lot of attention to, you know, treating them as heroes at the same time, not paying them a living wage for the work that they’re doing.

Not to mention what I would call combat pay, given the circumstances that they are having to work through, you know, the meat packers, the delivery persons, the grocery store clerks, the nurses aides, you know, all those workers who are working under very stressful situations and very dangerous situations during the pandemic. And yet they’re not getting, they’re not being paid a livable wage and they’re not getting, you know, basic health care. And so I feel like we’ve come a long way and yet we still. We still have a lot of room for improvement in the way that we treat workers.

KW: Tell us a little bit about your second book, Bound in Wedlock.

TH: So Bound in Wedlock is a history of African American marriage throughout the 19th century. So essentially concerned with the history of slavery and its implications. So under slavery, African-Americans were not allowed to legally marry. And yet they constructed marital relationships that they valued.

Those relationships, however, were, were often threatened. Couples could be separated against their will and so it was a very tough dynamic for married couples in the context of slavery. So the book is about their efforts to create meaningful relationships in the context in which those relationships were not regarded in the law, were not necessarily respected by slaveholders.

KW: A lot of the book focuses on marriage. Did you find that marriage was helpful in helping African Americans joy their freedom or make a better living?

TH: I think marriage was very much important for African-Americans survival in the way that they thought about family. Marriage was a way of helping them to extend their kinship ties. It brought in new family members. It created a sense of solidarity for couples to build families, to create a basis for raising children. These were relationships that they had to fight for. These were relationships that were meaningful to them. These were relationships of affection, the ones that they chose, because they, there were situations in which they were also coerced into marital relationships against their will. Those I don’t treat as marriage.

However, I treat only those relationships that they chose as marriage. Sometimes they had to fight for those relationships that they want it to have versus the relationships that slave holders imposed upon them. And so when we think about slavery family is I think one of the ways in which African-Americans tried to counter the oppression that they face. Kinship, building kinship ties in the broadest sense, not just based on blood relations, but also based on those who are adopted into their communities as family members, those were foundational for the ways in which African-Americans thought about what it meant for them in terms of surviving their oppression.

KW: How do you find joy?

TH: Well, I find you boy in lots of ways. I find joy in cooking for my family and friends. That’s one of the things that I enjoy is feeding people, especially special occasions like Thanksgiving, but even non special occasions, which are now harder to, to accommodate in the situation that we’re in during the pandemic. So it’s one of the things that I miss most.

I find joy in teaching my students and watching them grow intellectually. I find joy in sports. I love tennis. So if you follow me on Twitter you probably already know that I play tennis, I watch tennis. I find joy in spending time with friends, just hanging out, talking, traveling, sitting on the beach. I could go on and on.

KW: You could, and we’d be happy to listen. And some of the things that you described finding joy in, we know, or we can imagine African-Americans gaining their freedom are finding that similar kind of joy at that time period. But it’s not necessarily things that people think about and associate with this moment, but it’s really important for understanding who African-Americans were and who they became as a people.

TH: And what do you find joy in?

KW: I find joy in a lot of the same things you do and I have had it muted because of the pandemic. But I’m, you know, sort of raring to go looking forward to traveling, spending time with friends and family. And I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone in person.

TH: Yeah. So I mentioned Thanksgiving. So like not having Thanksgiving is a kind of a big deal because my family comes to me for Thanksgiving. And so it’s something that the kids especially look forward to my nieces and nephews. So my 10 year old nephew came out with the brilliant idea that once the pandemic is over they’re still going to come here, we’re going to have a Thanksgiving. So if that’s in the summertime, we’re going to have our Thanksgiving.

KW: Oh, I love it. That’ll be great. And the, you know, you know that you’re probably still going to be doing one in November too, but that’ll be great. Cause you’ll be able to see them both times.

TH: Right. Exactly.

KW: Well, thank you so much for sharing your time, Tera. We really appreciate it.

TH: Sure. Thank you for inviting me.

KW: Tera Hunter is the Edwards professor of American history and professor of African-American studies at Princeton university. Her research has focused on gender, race, and labor. She is the author of “To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War” and “Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the 19th Century.”

About the Guest

Tera W. Hunter is the Edwards Professor of American History, Professor of African-American Studies and an affiliate faculty in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University.

She is the author of prize-winning books: Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017) and To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 1997).

She has held fellowships at the National Humanities Center and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She has engaged in public history projects as a consultant for museum exhibitions and documentary films and worked with public school teachers. She has written pieces for New York Times, Essence, The Root, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and others. She is a native of Miami, Florida.

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