Free Blacks in the South





Yennifer Delgado
Francis Orozco
Nicole Plummer
Jackie Rivas

Freedom is having liberty or independence. When black slaves in the South were freed, they were unsure what they were going to do. Their reaction to freedom had a large impact on the way they earned their living, spent their money, on their attitude toward marriage, family life and education.


During the years of slavery blacks did many different jobs .They worked on the plantation tending livestock or growing crops that would be consumed by the people and animals living on the plantation. Others worked in fields growing cotton, tobacco, or sugar cane as cash crops.

Some worked as blacksmiths, leather workers, and food packers, while others learned various skills, such as brick laying and carpentry. On each plantation some of the slaves were used as household servants; cooking, sewing, cleaning.

As a response to being slaves and then gaining fieedom, Blacks reacted in many different ways, because now they had the right to make their own decisions Many Blacks felt that to experience freedom they needed to leave their former master's plantation and move from place to place. Most Blacks moved about in groups for protection and because they feared reenslavement. To some Blacks, emancipation meant not only freedom from slavery but also freedom from work. The Blacks associated any type of labor to a form of slavery. They wanted to live a "life of idleness" which they perceived the white people to do.

As slaves, Blacks worked everyday of the week and many hours a day. Many times when slaves did not meet their quotas in work they were punished by their masters. Once Blacks gained the freedom to make their own choices, their work schedule was not the same. Since their was no one to demand them to work, Blacks worked about three times a week and as many hours has they wanted to. They worked when they felt it was necessary or until they had enough money to support their family.

The older Blacks stayed on the plantation with their former master and mistress because they were invited to do so. The Blacks that maintained their work on the plantations did so under new circumstances. To ensure that their former master would not re-enslave them and that they would be paid, the land owners and the Blacks had to sign a contract. Sharecropping was a common method of payment for work. Domestic service was another means of work Blacks did for a living. This type of work was easy because it did not require any special training.

There was a small percentage of Blacks that did factory work, the mechanical trades, and business. The free Blacks who took advantage of their working skills were able to work in factories, although white employers many times had them do simple, manual jobs. More and more Blacks began to lose their skills and needed to move back to plantation. Some Blacks were able to work for whites for a fair wage,

"Negroes who had been specially trained gave evidence that they took pride in their work." (Donald 33).

Spending money was new to Blacks. As slaves they had no money to spend. Since they were free, they had to learn to manage their money. They received pay in the form of money but only received enough pay to support their family. Some Blacks would get money and spend it right away and would have to use credit because they did not have money left. Some whites were very negative to Blacks so Blacks had to learn many new things on their own. Managing money was one of the things that at first they had a hard time doing, but eventually they taught themselves how to save their money.


The first year of freedom, the diet of Blacks was very similar to that consumed during slavery years. Blacks ate cornbread, potatoes, cabbage, bacon, coffee, and cheap molasses. Eventually blacks found new ways to supplement their diet. Some would go out by brooks and fish for their food. Trout, catfish, eels, oysters, and other shellfish were abundant and cheap. When Blacks received the right to bear arms, they would hunt for small game such as squirrel to supplement their diet. Others saved money to buy luxuries such as potted meats, canned goods, melons, fruits, and candy. Often, however, the money that they made was not enough to pay for large quantities of food. An informant reported, "cornmeal was the necessary and bacon the luxury of the black man, and that if he got an abundance of these, with a occasional addition of  some fresh fish, he asked nothing more of gastronomy." (Donald 48).

Clothing too remain the same during the first few years of the freedom as clothes worn during slavery years. A foreigner said "the Negroes in the South were in a more tattered condition than the population of Naples, among whom it was reported, there was not one perfect pair of pantaloons." (Donald 49). The clothing was often patched and repatched.

Blacks looked towards whites for example for nice clothing.  However, when Blacks began to buy their new clothing, they picked out colorful clothes.  Any dark clothing reminded them of their lives as slaves.

After being freed from slavery, many Blacks went to the Union military camps where shelters consisted of tents.  Eventually, the military personnel forced the Blacks to move out of their tents.  Blacks could then be found near rivers, under bridges, in gutters and caves.  They then headed back to the plantations of their former masters.   There they were able to find shelter with their families.

Some Blacks migrated to cities.  There they settles in deserted buildings, or built huts from lumber and other materials they were able to find.  The first established housing used by Blacks were one or two room log cabins with wooden shuuters and mud chimneys.  Many cabins had dirt floors and had very little furniture.  Some cabins housed more then one family.

As the conditions of Blacks imptroved, especially among the thrifty and industrious, so did their housing.  More Blacks could be found living in tiny frame houses with more separate rooms and more furniture.

Family and Married Life

As slaves, most men and women were unable to have a marriage system.  At the wishes and commands of their masters, many slaves would live together as husbands and wives.  A marital union never lasted long, because the master would break up the couple and sell one of them.  As freemen, Blacks took on the family traits that they had known when they were slaves.  Many divorces among Blacks occurred during the early years after slavery.  At first, divorces obtained through legal means, but eventually the husband and wife would decide that they would be divorced and then would take up with new mates. They felt that it was acceptable to move from person to person because it was a part of freedom.

Family life during slavery was matriarchal in nature. Once Blacks were free, the men in the family believed that everything should go his way and that he ruled his family. In the family, men beat their wives and children. They were not kind, gentle, or courteous to their families. The women tended to have a stronger bond with their children than did the men. Parents lacked the teaching of discipline to their children. Children in families were not loyal to the elderly or sick parents. This disloyalty of the children was in some measures the result of the relationship that excised between the parents and children (Donald 64-75).

During the period of slavery there were few family or relationship values developed amongst Blacks because of their long working hours and the demands of the masters. In the period following slavery there were, therefore, few guidelines for established family life and relationships between men and women, parents and children. The longer Blacks lived as freemen within society the more their martial habits, relationships, and values progressively became more like those of the general society. Some black families progressed to the point where strong extended family ties were established and rich traditions were developed.


The first reaction of Blacks once they were freed from slavery was that they wanted to gain new knowledge. The initial motivation for education was to be more like the whites in their communities. Both adults and children attended school at first, but after a while the adults began to drop out because they found that learning was difficult and they lost enthusiasm. Children were encouraged to continue in school and obtain as much education as possible. In response to the initial desire of Blacks to become more educated, several organizations were developed. Many of the organizations were backed by religious groups. The American Missionary Association was one of the first groups to respond in 1861. The Wesleyan Methodists and the National Council of Congregational Churches raised funds and provided support to the cause of educating black citizens. Even the Federal Government though the Freeman's Bureau gave support to the educational effort. Educational guidelines were established to provide instruction in technical skills as well as academic skills.

Initially it was felt that as learners, Blacks had great memories and could learn facts easily. Some educators found that black children were unable to think for themselves and had difficulty with reflection and reasoning because they never had to use these skills. Other educators felt that the black boys were found to be more intelligent than the girls but that they both were good in reading and math. It was later found that black children learned much like other children in society with some children having greater strengths in some areas than in others.

Religion was taught in school and became a large part of the lives of Blacks. An early reflection on the effects of education was that black children as well as adults "exhibited fewer of the mannerisms characteristic of slaves, and more of those belonging to the free men." (Donald 109).


Donald, Henderson H. The Negro Freedman. New York: Henry Schuman Inc. 1952.

Berlin, Ira and Rowland, Lesslie S. Families and Freedom. New York: New York Press. 1997.


Donald, Henderson H. The Negro Freedman. NewYork: Henry Schuman Inc. 1952.



Slaves in
the field

Free black
family in
antebellum south