When Blacks in Texas heard the news, they alternately sang, danced and prayed. There was much rejoicing and jubilation that their life long prayers had finally been answered. Many of the slaves left their masters immediately upon being freed, in search of family members, economic opportunities or simply because they could. They left with nothing but the clothes on their backs and hope in their hearts. Oh, freedom!
Freedom meant more than the right to travel freely. It meant the right to name one’s self and many freedmen gave themselves new names. County courthouses were overcrowded as blacks applied for licenses to legalize their marriages. Emancipation allowed ex-slaves the right to assemble and openly worship as they saw fit.
As a result, a number of social and community organizations were formed, with many originating from the church.
Freedom implied that for the first time, United States laws protected the rights of Blacks. There was a run on educational primers as freed men and woman sought the education that had for so long been denied them. The Bureau of Refuges, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was founded by Congress in March 1865 to provide relief services for former slaves. Schools were established and joined churches as centers of the newly freed communities. The promise of emancipation gave freedmen optimism for the future; few realized slavery’s bitter legacy was just beginning to unfold and that equality was to remain an elusive dream. Oh freedom!
At the beginning of Reconstruction, the period immediately following the end of the Civil War, rumors were rampant that every freedman would be given forty acres and a mule. Ex-slaves petitioned for land and, with federal troops stationed throughout the South to protect their rights, looked forward to participating in American society as free citizens. In some cases ex-slaves were successful in obtaining land. Land grants by Congress allowed several states to establish black colleges.
The optimism was short-lived, however, and soon replaced by a betrayal so soul shattering that Blacks questioned whether the United States was serious about granting them their freedom. Ex-slaves found for the most part, that despite the Freedman’s Bureau, they were left to fend for themselves. The abject poverty and the racism that maintained it prohibited any hope for assimilating into American society. In Texas, the editor of the Harrison Flag newspaper denounced as “treasonable” the sale of land to Blacks. The Texas Homestead Act, passed during Reconstruction, granted up to 160 acres of free land to white persons only. The Texas legislature in 1866 passed a new set of Black codes that attempted to reverse the limited gains Blacks had been granted.
Ex-slaves entered freedom under the worst possible conditions. Most were turned loose penniless and homeless, with only the clothes on their back. Ex-slaves were, as Frederick Douglas said, “free without roofs to cover them, or bread to eat, or land to cultivate, and as a consequence died in such numbers as to awaken the hope of their enemies that they would soon disappear.”
Many white Texans disdained Black freedom and this utter contempt guaranteed the price of freedom for many would be unaffordable. The sharecropping system that emerged in Texas and all over the deep South kept many Blacks from starving, but had little to distinguish it from the slave life Blacks thought they had escaped. This was the other side of emancipation where high expectations gave way to heart-crushing disillusionment.
By 1877, the end of Reconstruction, the North had abandoned Black Americans to the will of southern whites, who through violence, racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws succeeded in disenfranchising them, resulting in more than 100 years of oppression. It’s not surprising that Blacks turned to the only institution that gave them hope–the church.