The History of Freedom

NEH Grant Continues Research on Emancipation
by Liam Farrell | Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-B811-383 [P&P]

Twenty-four years after he was taken from his family and sold at a sheriff’s sale, former slave Hawkins Wilson wrote to the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau hoping it could help him reunite with his sisters.

The May 11, 1867, letter from Galveston, Texas, listed names of relatives and their former masters and included a note for Wilson’s sister, Jane. In it, he described his recent marriage to a Georgia woman (“You may readily suppose I was not fool enough to marry a Texas girl”), his work as a church sexton and furniture maker, and his memories of the biscuits she baked their last night together.

“Thank God that now we are not sold and torn away from each other as we used to be,” the letter says. “We can meet if we see fit and part if we like.”

Since 1976, the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at UMD has used affidavits, petitions and records like Wilson’s letter from the National Archives to showcase the rich and complicated history of emancipation from 1861–67. The National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded the project a two-year, $300,000 grant that will enable the faculty editors to complete the seventh and eighth books in its nine-volume “Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation” series, one on law and justice, and the other on family and kinship.

The project has shined a light on the valuable resources available in the National Archives, says Leslie Rowland, project director and associate history professor, as well as provided individual scholars with a roadmap through the voluminous amounts of material produced by the federal government during this time, from the U.S. Army to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands.

“I’m one of the only people in the world who praises bureaucracy,” she says. “The Civil War and Reconstruction brought agencies of the federal government into contact with ordinary people in a way that wasn’t typical, creating a mechanism for producing and collecting the documents on which the project is based.”

The bulk of the grant will cover work on the family and kinship volume, Rowland says. It will explore topics like marriage, parenting and the household division of labor as ex-slaves enter a new economic reality. Efforts to reunite with lost family members, such as Wilson’s letter, will also be explored.

“Some of these are among the most poignant of letters,” she says. “Just imagine the human circumstances.”

Interested in learning more? Visit to get a glimpse at the documents that formed the core of this book series.


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