“On July 2nd, the Continental Congress voted in favor of Lee’s resolution for independence in a near-unanimous vote (the New York delegation abstained, but later voted affirmatively). On that day, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that July 2 ‘will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival’ and that the celebration should include ‘Pomp and Parade…Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.'” (http://www.history.com/topics/july-4th)
In the next couple of days, we will BBQ, light fireworks, and celebrate our freedom and independence! It is such an amazing time to reflect upon what freedom means to each of us. It’s a time to remember how that freedom was obtained. It’s a time to rejoice in the fact that we, as Americans, have it so good! However, freedom can have various meanings dependent upon who you talk to. Freedom to an American may mean something different from freedom to a refugee that has recently fled Burma. Freedom comes in all sorts of descriptions. Freedom from debt. Freedom from prison. Freedom of speech. As an educator, I heard it from my students at the end of the school year, “I’m FREE!!!”
Yet, there is a type of freedom, or lack thereof, that I would like to focus on. The freedom that was longed for by the 4 million enslaved people during America’s Civil War. To them, freedom, or the dream of freedom, meant something entirely different. You see, even after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, most slaves gained their “freedom”. Maybe they were now considered “freedmen”, but it didn’t mean they enjoyed the freedom that America stood for. They didn’t have jobs, money, clothes, or homes they could call their own. Most ended up back in a pseudo-slave system where they had to rent out land from the old plantation owners they used to be enslaved to. Maybe they weren’t bought or sold, put in chains, whipped, or forced to work long hours, but they in no way enjoyed the freedom that other Americans celebrated.
I recently listened to an interview with an ex-slave. His name is Fountain Hughes. His grandfather was owned by Thomas Jefferson. In the 29 minute interview, he discusses debt, aspects of his life as a slave, what life was like after being freed, and church. A portion of this interview made it in to Ken Burn’s Civil War series. “If I thought, had any idea, that I’d ever be a slave again, I’d take a gun an’ jus’ end it all right away. Because you’re nothing but a dog. You’re not a thing but a dog.” (listen here)
“‘Now in my boy days, why, uh, boys lived quite different from the way they live now…They never wore no shoes until they was twelve or thirteen years old. An’ now people put on shoes on babies you know, when they’re two year, when they month old…I tol’ a woman the other day, I said, ‘I never had no shoes till I was thirteen years old.’ She say, ‘Well but you bruise your feet all up, an’ stump your toes.’ I say, ‘Yes, many time I’ve stump my toes, an’ blood run out them. That didn’ make them buy me no shoes.'”
“An’ after, soon after when we found out that we was free, why then we was, uh, bound out to different people. [names of people] an’all such people as that. An’ we would run away, an’ wouldn’ stay with them. Why then we’d jus’ go an’ stay anywhere we could. Lay out a night in underwear. We had no home, you know. We was jus’ turned out like a lot of cattle. You know how they turn cattle out in a pasture? Well after freedom, you know, colored people didn’ have nothing. Colored people didn’ have no beds when they was slaves. We always slep’ on the floor, pallet here, and a pallet there.”
“Selling women, selling men. All that. Then if they had any bad ones, they’d sell them to the nigger traders, what they calltd the nigger traders. An’ they’d ship them down south, an’ sell them down south. But, uh, otherwise if you was a good, good person they wouldn’ sell you. But if you was bad an’ mean an’ they didn’ want to beat you an’ knock you aroun’, they’d sell you what to the, what was call the nigger trader. They’d have a regular, have a sale every month, you know, at the court house. An’ then they’d sell you, an’ get two hundred dollar, hundred dollar, five hundred dollar.”
“Now, uh, after we got freed an’ they turned us out like cattle, we could, we didn’ have nowhere to go. An’ we didn’ have nobody to boss us, and, uh, we didn’ know nothing. There wasn’, wasn’ no schools. An’ when they started a little school, why, the people that were slaves, there couldn’ many of them go to school, cep’ they had a father an’ a mother. An’ my father was dead, an’ my mother was living, but she had three, four other little children, an’ she had to put them all to work for to help take care of the others. So we had, uh, we had what you call, worse than dogs has got it now. Dogs has got it now better than we had it when we come along.”
Reading through this interview and listening to Fountain Hughes experiences as a slave and freedmen gave me a perspective on freedom that I’ve never had before. This is coming from someone who taught American History for 10 years. You can read about slavery, study it, and teach it. But until you hear it from someone who lived it, everything else is all for not. Freedom is never to be taken for granted. I would encourage you to listen to the entire 29 minute interview. Allow yourself to reflect upon the freedom you enjoy, versus an ex-slave’s definition of freedom. I promise that you’ll think differently about how you celebrate July 4th.
To read the transcript of Fountain Hughes’ interview, click here. To listen to the 29 minute interview, click here. I would recommend opening up the transcript and read along as you listen to Fountain explain his life in his own words.