The mother of the family has prepared a special dinner to celebrate the new Georgia Constitution. As a free person, she is able to safely care for her own family, something enslaved women could rarely do. She cultivates a garden and has grown the vegetables she is serving for dinner, and she will sell some of her produce to make extra money, rather than working for white people. She is a member of the women’s auxiliary society at the church that raises money to feed the poor, shelter the homeless and help the congregation in a variety of other ways. But even during slavery African American women organized societies that helped extended kinship networks bury the dead. After the Civil War, freedwomen in the urban South began to establish women’s clubs to address the needs of their communities and by the end of the nineteenth century, the black women’s club movement had spread across the South and beyond. The work of women has always been vital to the black family and community.
This household includes several generations. The grandfather lives here, and his grandson is teaching him to read using the Bible. In West Africa, where most enslaved persons or their ancestors came from, elders were greatly respected, and the family group formed the basis of society. But enslaved people couldn’t legally marry - although many considered themselves married, with or without the approval of their enslavers - and slave owners often separated loved ones, breaking families apart. After the Civil War Southern states passed laws explicitly permitting Africans Americans to marry, putting an end to what has been called, “one of the most cruel wrongs inflicted by slavery.” Freedom meant that families didn’t have to live in fear of being divided and could begin to build independent lives for themselves. The role of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends in anchoring the Black family during slavery continued to be pivotal in shouldering and sharing family responsibilities during freedom.
The father is home after having served as one of 37 black men out of 169 delegates to the Georgia Constitutional Convention of 1867 - 68. He has participated in American democracy for the first time, helping to write a new state constitution. It established a free public-school system for Blacks and Whites, gave Black men the right to vote, and made it legal for married women to own property. It also freed many Blacks from long, unjust prison terms that exploited their labor. One of the leaders of the convention was Tunis Campbell, an abolitionist who was born free and was a friend of Frederick Douglass. After General Sherman issued Field Order 15, Campbell supervised the settlement of the Georgia Sea Islands, where he attempted to create self-governing black communities. In 1876, while serving as a justice of the peace, he was arrested for defending workers’ rights for black sailors and served a year in a convict labor camp. Like Campbell, the father of this family was never enslaved. One of some 250,000 free Blacks living in the South before the Civil War, he owns his own business and makes a good living.
The pastor of the local Baptist church is joining the family for dinner. Like the father, he is a community leader and was elected to serve as a delegate to the Georgia Constitutional Convention of 1867 - 68. During Reconstruction, Black churches served as places to meet and organize, and many religious leaders were elected to political office. In 1868, AME pastor and bishop Henry McNeal Turner was elected to the Georgia State Legislature, which was still controlled by Democrats. They refused to seat Turner and the 26 other Black legislators, all Republicans, until the federal government forced them to comply with the election. Men and women of the church took the lead in the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Dr. Martin Luther King was pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Like Dr. King, this pastor is part of a long tradition of church leaders advancing the cause for social justice and civil rights.
The son has learned to read at the Beach Institute, which was founded in 1865 during Reconstruction as the first official school for African Americans in Savannah. Like many other Black children at the time, he is helping to teach his elders, although adults also attended schools in the evenings and on the weekends. Under slavery, most Southern or slaveholding states had laws forbidding enslaved and free Black people to learn to read. Southern states offered very little public education, so Southern Whites and Blacks alike had high rates of illiteracy. Freedpeople demanded education, and the Reconstruction state governments established free public schools for Blacks and Whites, increasing literacy rates for everyone. Freedpeople funded many of their earliest schools themselves. They provided room and board for teachers, donated land and helped to build the schools. By the end of the nineteenth century most African Americans could read and write.
The newspaper is open to an advertisement for a missing relative who was sold during enslavement. The domestic slave trade tore families apart. Between 1820 and 1860, slave owners in the upper South sold nearly a million enslaved people to plantations in the lower South, often separating siblings, couples, grandparents, parents and children. After emancipation, freedpeople were desperate to connect with their loved ones and put their families back together. They published newspaper advertisements seeking lost relatives and often traveled great distances to find their kin. Ministers read the ads aloud at church services, hoping to reach a broad network of people who would pass along information about missing family members.
When people from West and West Central Africa were captured, enslaved and transported to the United States, they carried their own spiritual traditions with them. On some plantations, slave owners established churches where White ministers preached Christianity and introduced the Bible. Over time, Black Southerners developed their own forms of worship. They incorporated some African religious traditions and turned certain biblical stories to their own purposes, envisioning a God who would liberate them from bondage. During Reconstruction, when freedpeople built community - in families, churches and schools - they were doing things they had attempted during slavery. And long beyond the most hopeful days of Reconstruction, the Bible continued to inform how freedpeople understood the world.
The food the mother is cooking may well have African roots. Many of the foods enjoyed by enslaved and freedpeople - and Americans today - originally came from Africa. Culinary historian Michael Twitty discusses the origins of African American foodways:
We know, we understand that enslaved people were producers. They were herdsmen, they were fishermen, they were gardeners, they were healers. They were cooks domestically and they were cooks in royal courts and all of that feeds into the story of African American foodways in the South...Okra is a big one. Watermelon, muskmelon, both are African cultigens. Cowpeas, black eyed peas, any of those. The story of rice itself is very key and important. Sorghum which is now a big hit, is now the maple syrup of the south comes from an African cultigen. So every time you sit down and have a Coca Cola, every time you sit down and have a peanut snack, every time that you have gumbo or jambalaya, every time that you have barbecue...you are eating and drinking and imbibing part of the African and African American culinary legacy.
In December, 1865, President Andrew Johnson decided that Georgia and other former Confederate states could rejoin the government, and declared that the Union had been restored. But Johnson’s version of reconstruction, in many ways, continued a tradition of White supremacy in the South. In 1866 Republicans swept the elections in both houses, defying Johnson, ending Presidential Reconstruction and beginning the era known as Radical Reconstruction. In March 1867 Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act, dividing the South into military districts. Congress directed the Army to register Black and White men as voters and to hold an election for delegates to a new constitutional convention. In Georgia, 169 delegates, 37 of whom were Black, were elected, and by March of 1868 they had written a new state constitution. Across the South, the new Reconstruction constitutions granted long-awaited rights and freedoms to African Americans.