To Freedom: Voices of the Formerly Enslaved

Source: National Museum of African American History & Culture

On December 6, 1865, the U.S. government abolished slavery by amending the Constitution to state, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Secretary of State William Seward announced to the world on December 18, 1865, that the United States had constitutionally abolished slavery—the 13th Amendment had been ratified. The 13th Amendment completed what free and enslaved African Americans, abolitionists, and the Emancipation Proclamation set in motion.

Freedom meant different things to different people but one thread ran throughout—autonomy. After slavery, African Americans acted on visions of freedom in their everyday lives. Certain expressions rose to the surface. People claimed their families. Mother, uncle, cousin brother—all were brought in as kin and held close. People claimed their dignity. Using clothing, photography, manners, or speech, they displayed who they really were. People claimed the land they had brought into production. Finally, they claimed the freedom to move whenever and wherever they wanted.

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