ON THE FRONT LINES OF FREEDOM:
BLACK AND WHITE WOMEN SHAPE
EMANCIPATION IN VIRGINIA, 1861-1890
Black and white women in Virginia were on the front lines of the struggle over emancipation during and after the Civil War. Between 1861 and 1890, both former slave and former slaveholding women shaped black freedom and thereby re-invented themselves as citizens within their local communities.
Focusing on women who lived in the southeastern and south-central regions of Virginia, this study expands the narrative of Southern history to encompass the vigorous contest between black and white women over the meanings of slavery, the war, and freedom. Based on federal records and private papers, this dissertation assesses women’s ideas about the end of slavery and the creation of a free society.
Emancipation was revolutionary for black women and profoundly affected the lives of many white women. For freedwomen, it meant greater control over their family and working lives, education, and community organization, as well as new access to public spaces and a sense of themselves as American citizens. For former slaveholding women, emancipation meant financial loss, fewer household workers, and reduced control over those domestic servants, in addition to a re-appraisal of the benefits of slavery and a stark representation of the destruction of the Confederacy.
As workers and employers after the war, Virginia women transformed the white-owned domestic workplace into one of the most significant and highly politicized venues for negotiating freedom. As skilled workers, cooks and washerwomen gained the most independence among servants. While both workers and employers sought to retain some aspects of slavery, employers’ maternalism increasingly came into conflict with workers' communal resourcefulness.
While they interacted as workers and employers, black and white women led separate lives in the civic realm. They did, however, take part in some similar activities there. As engaged citizens, both freedwomen and former mistresses contributed to the public creation of communal histories of the war by participating, respectively, in Emancipation Day celebrations and Lost Cause commemorations. In these civic rituals, Virginia women emphasized racial solidarity and affirmed their national and regional allegiances. The orchestrated transition from slavery to freedom within civic spaces paralleled the struggle to define emancipation within individual households.
Antoinette Gray van Zelm
Department of History
The College of William and Mary in Virginia
Advisor: H. Cam Walker, Associate Professor