On Thursday we took a break from our regularly scheduled programming to welcome guest speaker Tiffany Player to class. Tiffany, a doctoral candidate from Washington University at St. Louis, is finishing her dissertation on the political history of African-American women from slavery through the Great Depression. Rather than give a formal talk, Tiffany led a superb discussion on black women’s politics during Reconstruction.
She assigned Karin Zipf’s “Reconstructing ‘Free Woman:’African-American Women, Apprenticeship and Custody Rights during Reconstruction,” which was published in The Journal of Women’s History in 2000. Don’t let the academic title put you to sleep. This is a powerful piece, accessible and well argued, and one that raises a host of important questions about the ambiguous position of free women in Reconstruction, the rise of “second slavery,” and the ways that black women demanded that state government and the Freedmen’s Bureau recognize their claims of citizenship.
From 1865-67, North Carolina law granted former masters in the North the right to take the children of former slaves as apprentices. Single women in particular did not possess custody rights, but they did not roll over when ex-masters forcibly removed their children—many kidnapped in the middle of the night. Black women petitioned state courts and the Freedmen’s Bureau. The results were rarely in their favor.
Fast-forwarding to Reconstruction without any background lectures did not throw the students off their game. Their initial debate centered on the hierarchy of oppression in the post-Civil War South. Of course the students placed ex-masters at the top of the new social order but they couldn’t decide whether freed men or freed women had it worse. Tiffany and I let the debate take its course before asking them to explain why this question mattered? We didn’t get a direct or satisfying response. We pressed them. Do such comparisons help us appreciate how different groups used and contested power in a society transitioning from slave labor to wage labor? We never settled the issue for them. They will be chewing on this question for some time.
Zipf’s examples of ex-masters stealing the children of single black mothers or having the courts deny them financial support is truly sickening, leading one student to suggest that the apprentice system was a form of slavery. Again, Tiffany and I did not reject this theory, but she finished the class with some provocative issues for the class to consider. She asked them to put aside the tired question as to whether Reconstruction was a success or failure. Rather, she pressed them to consider how single freed women saw themselves as citizens, entered the public sphere as political actors, and how they asserted their rights as mothers, workers, and as sexual beings in filing suits against white and black men. Tiffany helped students see how black women, when insisting that they be called freed women and by taking their grievances to the court, exposed the revolutionary potential of Reconstruction.
Thanks to the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College for inviting Tiffany to campus. It is my intention to have her speak at the Civil War Institute 2016 conference on the legacy of the Civil War.