Black History : The Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves during Emancipation


Well-Known Member
Apr 21, 2007


The Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves during Emancipation​

Jim Downs

Assistant Professor of History

Connecticut College

When historians explain the end of the American Civil War and the hope that the Reconstruction period proffered, they often rely on a number of pictorial images that portray the excitement and possibility that accompanied the end of slavery. One of the more popular images presents three African-American men—a farmer, a member of the urban elite, and a solider—casting "the first vote." This illustration, like many that circulated in the nineteenth century press and appear today in history textbooks, emphasizes the political opportunities engendered by the rebuilding of the nation after the Civil War. In many respects, the use of such images does make sense, as the Reconstruction period witnessed the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment, which provided citizenship to African-Americans; and the 15th Amendment, which granted African-Americans the right to vote.

Yet, the propagation of such images, which mostly portray African-American men as the symbol and embodiment of the Reconstruction period, unwittingly perpetrates a certain logic about the character of freed slaves and the general nature of emancipation. The men represented in the aforementioned image are all, to borrow from the nineteenth-century nomenclature, "able-bodied." The farmer, despite being dressed in raggedy clothing and appearing somewhat elderly, nevertheless would be seen as "able-bodied." The man standing behind him appears well-dressed, fit, and distinguished, and would also be marked as "able-bodied." Following him in line to vote is perhaps the ideal symbol of an able-bodied man: a black man in Union military clad. In fact, the use of the term "able-bodied," which has its roots in antebellum Northern discussions of the poor, served as the criterion for military service when Union Army officials evaluated formerly enslaved men during the Civil War.

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