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READ: Race and Post-Abolition Societies

The abolition of the legal enslavement of human beings seems like a huge change. But changes can sometimes hide continuities like racialized inequality and exploitation.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Where was the first large-scale post-abolition society created and how did it come about?
  2. When the British abolished slavery in their Caribbean colonies, to whom did the government pay compensation?
  3. How did societies in the British Caribbean continue to repress formerly enslaved people?
  4. After abolition in the US, how did the government treat African Americans? How was inequality enforced?
  5. Why did European companies abolish slavery in their African colonies?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. How does this article support, extend, or challenge the narratives you have already studied about reform movements in the long nineteenth century?
  2. Can you think of any ways in which your own society is still impacted by the history reviewed in this article? What are they?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Race and Post-Abolition Societies

By Kym Morrison
The abolition of the legal enslavement of human beings seems like a huge change. But changes can sometimes hide continuities like racialized inequality and exploitation.

The never-ending end of slavery

Globally, the legal abolition of slavery took almost two centuries. Yes, the December 1865 passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution marked one critical date in this process. However, other key moments of mass liberation around the world must be considered. These include:
  • The 1794 French revolutionary legislation that made France the first modern empire to outlaw the right to trade and own people.
  • The 1838 full emancipation of formerly enslaved people in the British Caribbean; the later efforts of the colonizing powers of Britain and France to abolish local slavery in West Africa.
  • The much more recent, 1981 prohibition of legal slavery in the West African nation of Mauritania that made it the last to do so.
The path to freedom differed in each society, and new challenges arose in all of them. Former slaveowners, formerly enslaved people, and those people who been neither property holders nor themselves property, all attempted to reshape their communities in ways that best served their personal interests. In many cases, these groups remained in competition. In each of these societies, after abolition, newly freed people did not achieve immediate equality with the other groups.

Abolition and the Haitian Revolution

In 1791, during the French Revolution and its call for human rights, there was a major slave revolt in the enormously wealthy French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue. It created the first, large-scale, post-abolition society of the modern world. The successful revolt by enslaved people against their owners and the French government led to the independent Republic of Haiti in 1804. But Western nations, such as Britain, France, and the United States, punished this rebelliousness by keeping Haiti isolated.
The leaders of these countries believed in their racial superiority, but they also feared that enslaved people would be inspired by the example of Haiti and rise up in their own territories. As a result, Haiti was cut off from international trade that would have promoted the development of its economy. Haitians struggled as subsistence farmers living in extreme poverty. Formerly enslaved Haitians had won their freedom, but they had not gained respect from, or economic inclusion into, the rest of the world. Haiti was even invaded and occupied by the United States in 1917. In addition, the French government forced Haiti to pay the equivalent of $21 billion dollars in exchange for recognizing the new country, impoverishing it for generations. It took Haiti 122 years to pay off this debt.
A cartoon from 1980 shows U.S. Coast Guard officers telling Haitian refugees drifting in a small boat they are the wrong kind of huddled masses. From the Library of Congress, fair use.

Abolition with compensation in the British Caribbean

Abolition in the British empire, and especially its Caribbean colonies, was not the result of war. It was a peaceful process in which British Christians—both Black and white—placed humanitarian pressure on their government. They managed to convince the British public that the morality of ending slavery outweighed the sharp fall in profits from colonial plantations that would come with the loss of enslaved labor. In 1833 the British Parliament passed a law abolishing slavery in Britain’s colonies. However, formerly enslaved people were still forced to remain as “apprentices” to their former owners for several years. The intention of this apprenticeship was to allow a gradual adjustment for both sides. Missionaries encouraged Christianity among the newly freed. The British government also provided financial compensation to former slaveholders for the loss of the wealth associated with holding people as property. British taxpayers paid this debt right up to 2015.
Amazingly, no such compensation was considered for freed people, despite the years of free labor they had provided. They now had to fend for themselves, with almost no resources. In most British colonies, land and jobs were scarce, so most still had to work on plantations. They now earned wages, but planters paid them barely enough to survive. In the few colonies where land was readily available, like Belize or Jamaica, freed people claimed it for themselves and lived on the food they grew. Even here, however, planters tried to force these workers back onto the plantations by creating vagrancy laws that regulated their time and geographic movements. When these laws were not enough, planters imported indentured workers from British colonies in Asia. These new migrant laborers received land, while former slaves did not. And unlike the Haitian rebels who had overthrown both slavery and foreign, colonial control, these societies remained under British colonial authority, with no right to define their own government, well into the twentieth century.

Abolition, government aid, and violence in the US

When the US Civil War began in 1861, it was not with the intention of ending slavery. Yet, abolition was one result of the war. The process of abolition began when enslaved people liberated themselves by running away in the chaos of the war. Northern Union forces also purposefully weakened the Confederacy by encouraging enslaved people to run away. The short-lived Freedmen’s Bureau (formally entitled the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) was established during the war, under the control of the Union Army. Its initial purpose was to track this escaped property, or “contraband” as runaways were called. Full legal freedom did not come until months after the war ended. By December 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment received votes from enough states to add it to the Constitution. It states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This freedom had an important exception: people who had been convicted of a crime could still essentially be treated as slaves.
During the Reconstruction period, federal forces provided some protection to newly freed people against the racial hatred that continued in the South. For example, federal officials built schools for freed people, assisted them in understanding paid labor contracts, and guarded their voting rights. Although federal assistance was limited, it was exceptional in comparison with other former slave societies where freed people received no assistance and were given nothing but the concept of freedom.
However, with the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the beginning of the “Jim Crow” period, it got a lot easier to marginalize (oppress/exclude) African Americans both politically and economically. Governments, groups, and individuals inflicted a great deal of racial violence against African Americans. As workers, their wages remained low. Some attempted to become independent farmers on rented land. But with limited education—and faced with the corrupt practices of white landowners—many fell into inescapable financial debt. As state and local governments in the American South purposefully denied them access to voting rights and public office, African Americans had little political power to enact change.
White society kept African Americans under near constant scrutiny. Police, employers, and the general population all participated in this system. Local southern governments enacted laws to limit African American freedom and control their labor. Remember that part of the Thirteenth Amendment that allowed people convicted of a crime to be treated as if they were slaves? Well, companies who wanted cheap labor found ways to use that clause for their own profit. Many African Americans were imprisoned for the smallest reasons and sent to prison labor camps. Methods of controlling African Americans also took more violent forms. Murder and lynching were commonly used to create fear and ensure submission. Lynchings often drew audiences of southern or midwestern whites, who viewed them as entertainment. Poverty, imprisonment, and government-sponsored violence developed in the late nineteenth century marked the relationship between African Americans and the rest of the nation—and in some ways the pattern continues today.
African-American child “convicts” in the post-abolition period. From the Library of Congress, public domain.

Later African abolition

Abolition also occurred in other areas of the world. In Africa, slavery had become more common during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. It had then expanded in the nineteenth century to serve plantation economies mostly growing tropical goods to serve European demand. Here, abolition came mostly as the result of outside forces. As they colonized African societies in the late nineteenth century, Europeans brought their views on race and power. European companies felt they could profit more from low-earning, African wage laborers than from the military force it would take to enslave and control Africans on their own soil. So, under European colonial authority, slavery was criminalized in their African colonies. However, the colonial authorities often failed to enforce these laws, and slavery remained a common practice in many areas. Even after its independence from France in 1960, the African nation Mauritania did not fully criminalize slavery until 1981. No matter when slavery was officially ended in African countries, those who were freed continued to be marginalized, not by race as in the West, but instead frequently by African distinctions of ethnicity or lineage.

Common patterns

Freedom simply meant the legal end of slavery. It was a necessary first step for the inclusion of formerly enslaved people into post-abolition societies. However, freedom did not come with automatic acceptance or equality. Based on race and other forms of social difference, newly freed people did not gain the rights that were available to the dominant members of their communities. They entered freedom with nothing, and usually struggled just to survive.
In truth, post-abolition societies often placed new restrictions on the formerly enslaved. New laws were passed to maintain control over their labor. Government officials watched for the slightest reason to imprison them and government-approved violence was a common tool for limiting their freedom. In many places, systems of incarceration and racism meant there was a great deal of continuity in the experience of formerly enslaved people.
The formerly enslaved and their descendants had to continue the fight for equality long after the legal abolition of slavery. Freedom was not freely given. In many parts of the world, the struggle to overcome those systems continues today.
Author bio
Karen Y. Morrison, “Kym,” is a social historian of Latin America and the African diaspora. She teaches at San Francisco State University and has published in Cuban Studies/Estudios Cubanos, the Journal of Social History, Abolition & Slavery, the Encyclopedia of the Modern World, and in the anthology, Africans to Spanish America. Her first book was Cuba’s Racial Crucible: The Sexual Economy of Social Identities, 1750-2000 (2015). She was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Brazil for the 2015–2016 academic year. There Professor Morrison has begun a second book project, which explores the connections between Black pride, racial hybridity, and whitening in post-abolition Rio de Janeiro.

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  • starky sapling style avatar for user sarahjoyrabinmenezes
    "Haiti was even invaded and occupied by the United States in 1917. In addition, the French government forced Haiti to pay the equivalent of $21 billion dollars in exchange for recognizing the new country, impoverishing it for generations. It took Haiti 122 years to pay off this debt."

    How could it have taken them 122 years from 1917, if that time hasn't even passed?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      France, with warships at the ready, sailed to Haiti in 1825 and demanded Haiti to compensate France for its loss of slaves and its slave colony. In exchange for French recognition of Haiti as a sovereign republic, France demanded payment of 150 million francs. In addition to the payment, France required that Haiti provide a fifty percent discount on its exported goods to them, making repayment more difficult. In 1838, France agreed to reduce the debt to 90 million francs to be paid over a period of 30 years to compensate former plantation owners who had lost their property; the 2004 equivalent of US$21 billion. Historians have traced loan documents from the time of the 1825 Ordinance, through the various refinancing efforts, to the final remittance to National City Bank (now Citibank) in 1947.
      (1 vote)