Undergraduate students enrolled in BUI 301-015 Slavery, Emancipation and the University of Alabama seminar spent the Fall 2018 semester exploring the campus history of slavery and its legacy. Instead of traditional presentations of their final projects, they curated a pop up museum exhibition exploring one of the important legacies of enslaved campus laborers. After slavery, these men, women, and children forged new lives and created new communal institutions with other African Americans living in Tuscaloosa.
By selecting artifacts exploring the themes of family, education, and politics, they enthusiastically showcased their findings to the wider UA campus and Tuscaloosa community.
This is a virtual version of the students’ collective efforts.
After the Civil War, many freedpeople sought after family they were separated from due to slavery. While some were reunited, many never located their families; as a result, they created alternative families. This section highlights the various families created and reunited during Reconstruction.
Image: “Unidentified African American men,” Wade Hall Small Collection, W. S.. Hoole Special Collections, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL.
While some biological families separated by slavery were reunited, most African Americans were not as lucky. Previously enslaved people separated from their family by the slave trade formed familial bonds within their community. The church played a fundamental part in establishing these connections because it was at the center of society. Institutions like First African Baptist Church were spiritual places, schools, meeting houses, and sources of information. African American families during Reconstruction were not defined by biological relationships but by the shared experiences of persevering extreme cruelty and racism.
It is important to recognize the white backlash against efforts to further black education during Reconstruction -- arson, harassment and banishing of teachers, and apprenticeship of children. However, despite resistance, these institutions and people helped develop a community that was able to withstand the evil peril of racism and withhold the commitment to excellence and perseverance.
At the dawn of the Civil War, many different groups and ideas formed in an attempt to seize political power in response to the decimated political structure in Alabama.
Image: Currier and Ives, “The First Colored Senator and Representatives - in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States,” 1872, Library of Congress.
In addition to the foundation of social services for Freedmen, including the creation of schools and hospitals, the Freedmen’s Bureau focused on the negotiation of labor between freedmen and landowners, who were commonly former slaveowners.
In this contract, written by a representative of the Underwood estate in the name of the freedmen, the Freedmen’s Bureau requires that additional portions of the crop are given to the freedmen before it can be approved and become effective. All labor agreements that included freedmen had to be approved by the Freedmen’s Bureau before they were regarded as legal.
If labor agreements, such as the this document, were violated, freedmen had the ability to file official complaints and affidavits with the Freedmen’s Bureau. These complaints were then to be followed up by Bureau officials and could be resolved in or out of local courts.
This document is the official Record of Complaints kept by the Tuscaloosa branch of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1866. In it, a freedman John claimed that W. Elrod violated their labor contract by holding on to corn owed to John for labor he, his wife, and his mother-in-law completed. This and other cases were resolved mostly by “settl[ing] the bill,” as noted on this document.
Wager Swayne was the head of The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedman’s Bureau in Alabama, immediately following the Civil War. His direction of Reconstruction efforts largely affected the lives of both Freedmen and landowners. His initial conciliatory approach to the previous white local governments allowed pro-Confederate Democrats to continue control the state, thus creating a more challenging environment for Freedmen and other African Americans in Alabama to create an identity and gain power.
Tuscaloosa newspaper editor Ryland Randolph furiously attacks University of Alabama President Rev. Arad S. Lakin on his political beliefs towards black equality and Reconstruction. Randolph explains that someone from Tuscaloosa threatened Rev. Lakin with a Ku Klux Klan attack, although Randolph denies the KKK’s existence. This document shows the violent rhetoric used by Klan members/apologists towards Reconstruction supporters that often translated to physical violence. In this case, violent Klan attacks forced Lakin to flee Tuscaloosa.
The Livingston Journal (Livingston, AL) published a document that the Ku Klux Klan spread around town to signal their arrival. The Klan forced papers to publish these notices under threat of violence. The document shows one method the Klan used to obtain political and social power in western Alabama after the Civil War.
Northern reporter Richmond Walker attempts to locate Ku Klux Klan activity in western Alabama. He meets Bill, a black driver who knew nothing about Ku Klux Klan activity or any political groups formed to sustain black equality in the south. This article shows that black southerners may have hid information from northern reporters due to fear of reactionary Klan violence.
Shandy Wesley Jones was Tuscaloosa’s first African American elected official. He was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives from the years of 1868 to 1870, and ran as a Republican. While serving as a representative, Jones was the target of constant attacks. The Independent Monitor, whose editor was Ryland Randolph, a notorious Klansman, was often the source of these attacks. This document shows just some of what he was subjected to during his tenure.
Charles Hays was a ‘scalawag’ Republican congressman for Alabama’s fourth congressional district. Elected in 1868, Hays was often a target of the press, being seen as a traitor for becoming a Republican after fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. This political cartoon and article excerpt in the Independent Monitor displays the language that was used towards said ‘scalawags’ such as himself.
Despite serving as the Democratic candidate for the fourth congressional district a couple years earlier, Dr. John B. Read was not immune to the attacks of the Independent Monitor and its readers across Tuscaloosa. Although being given much more respect compared to African American and/or Republican candidates, his fraternization with said candidates made him an enemy towards those strongly opposed to Reconstruction and its policies. This clipping from the Independent Monitor, which serves as an introduction to a letter of self-defense by Read, shows the extremely partisan climate of Tuscaloosa at the time.
The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 mandated that all eligible men, white and black, had to be registered with the census and registered to vote in order for Alabama to be readmitted into the United States. These 1867 voting rolls for Tuscaloosa County show the amount of white and black men registered to vote as a result, with 1,755 white men and 1,651 African American men.
As numerous hands grabbed at political power during Reconstruction, violence and divisiveness ensued. The efforts of African Americans to gain equality and the efforts of white supremacists to maintain power were two strong opposing forces whose collision was often violent and bloody. Through trial and error, African American leaders and pro-Reconstruction allies worked together to create a more equal society, though their efforts were often met with violent reactions by white, anti-Reconstruction Alabamians and hate groups. Despite these obstacles, African Americans continued the fight for equal rights and political representation throughout Reconstruction, and still today.