Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


“I Freed Myself”

David Williams

I remember reading many years ago W. E. B. Du Bois’s complaint that white America knew far too little of the decisive role blacks played in winning their freedom. He pointed specifically to a biography of Ulysses S. Grant in which the author wrote of blacks as having been the only people in the world who simply had freedom handed to them for free. They just sat around, twanged their banjos, and waited for some Yankee to come along and free them. I was in graduate school at the time and congratulated myself on knowing that some blacks served in the Union army. But that was about all I knew of it. As the proud holder of a college degree in history, I thought that was just about all I needed to know about it. There are none so ignorant as the educated ignorant.

I suppose I could be forgiven my ignorance at the time, as little emphasis as hardly anyone placed on black history back then. Besides, historians can’t know everything. We have to stick to the “important” stuff like battles and leaders, right? As long as we know the “important” stuff and pass it on to our students, our job is done. I vaguely recall that being my impression at the time, which makes me now wonder why I was curious about history at all. Was it all simply a jumble of names and dates and battles to be put in order and memorized? Of course, I knew that was important. But I think by that time I also sensed, although I wouldn’t have framed it this way, that what really gives meaning to the study of history is asking the question “why?”

By escaping in their tens of thousand and making freedom a fact, blacks forced Lincoln to recognize that fact with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Finally pursing that question in my own research made me realize that leaders often lead where so-called followers press them. Never was that more true than with Lincoln and African Americans during the Civil War. Black resistance largely brought on the war, then pressured Lincoln in the direction he eventually went. By escaping in their tens of thousand and making freedom a fact, blacks forced Lincoln to recognize that fact with the Emancipation Proclamation.  They made the document their own, and made it much more that it was. In the upper South, where the Proclamation did not apply, blacks claimed freedom anyway. In the lower South, they made freedom real by aiding the Union army, assisting deserter gangs, serving as guides and spies, resisting punishment, and engaging in open rebellion. And in so many more subtle ways they established freedom for themselves by traveling at will, threatening escape to secure wages, and even confiscating plantations when they could.

Still, most Americans today seem to assume that Lincoln, almost single-handedly and of his own volition, “freed the slaves.” Certainly most students coming into my freshman U.S. history course assume that to be the case, which is, I suppose, in large part what prompted me to write the book.

In the war’s aftermath, although whites willfully ignored the wartime role of blacks and tried to reimposed a form of slavery, memories of their self-emancipation remained clear in the minds of black folk. One day a candidate for local office in Illinois asked Duncan Winslow, a black veteran, for his support in an upcoming election. As if to seal the deal, the candidate told Winslow, “Don’t forget. We freed you people.” In response, Winslow raised his wounded arm and said, “See this? Looks to me like I freed myself.”  Blacks would go on freeing themselves for decades to come.

About The Author

David Williams

David Williams is the author of I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era. ...

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