Not So Freed Men

Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery

by Leon F. Litwack
Knopf, 651 pp., $20.00

In the fantasies of the liberated an exodus is the classic sequel of bondage—an exodus that puts distance between the oppressed and their oppressors. A Red Sea that opens before the fugitives and closes over Pharaoh’s army is ideal. Short of an exodus of the emancipated, a withdrawal of the old masters, such as happened in parts of the British West Indies, is a welcome alternative. In the aftermath of slavery in the American South neither exodus nor withdrawal of any consequence took place. Instead four million former slaves and their former masters squared away face to face on their native soil. Also participating were some eight million whites who regarded themselves as members of a master race, whether masters or not, deeply involved in the outcome. Over the shoulders of all these parties watched a victorious North.

Any account of the ensuing confrontation in the South has been subject to controversy. The accounts by members of the master class generally pictured Southern whites as the aggrieved party. The favorite response to hostile Northern historians of the South’s treatment of the freedmen has been to accuse them of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and suggest that they are forgetting or covering up racial prejudice and injustices in the North that equal or exceed anything of the sort in the South. The strategy is part of the ongoing game of regional polemics, one means by which the South sought to shift or share its burdens of guilt. Such success as the strategy has had is explained by the considerable amount of truth in the accusation.

Leon F. Litwack, professor of history at Berkeley, enjoys a singular immunity from the accusation of Yankee hypocrisy and self-righteousness. He established these credentials in 1961 with his first book, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. It was a severe and unsparing exposure of racism and of the harshness and universality of racial injustice in the ante-bellum North and West. He demonstrated in detail how blacks were systematically separated from whites “in virtually every phase of existence,” public and private; how they were deprived of the ballot and job opportunities, denied equal protection of the laws, and excluded from interracial marriage, from militia service, from the jury box and from the witness stand when whites were involved. He cited state laws excluding or discouraging blacks from settlement and denying them poor relief. He pointed out that race riots and Jim Crow laws originated in the North rather than the South, and that antislavery sentiment was often combined with anti-black sentiment. All this left no ground for pretensions of self-righteousness, for if Litwack is hard on Southern whites he is no harder than he has been on Northern whites.

Black rather than white experience of liberation is the subject of this book, but a major part of the black experience was the whites’ response to the change. Much attention is therefore given to how master and mistress perceived, accepted, restricted, or rejected …

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