Waiting for a Mississippi riverboat to Missouri. Oberlin College.
The Civil War and Reconstruction period (1860-1877) provided African American people with a legal definition of citizenship as expressed in three constitutional amendments. The 13th Amendment of 1865 abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment of 1868 provided equal protection under the law and the 15th Amendment of 1870 allowed all men, regardless of social/financial status, the ability to vote. These three amendments, coupled with a variety of government efforts, sought to restore formerly enslaved African Americans to full-personhood. During this period, black women continued building community and identity from the tattered fragments of enslavement’s legacy and cultural brokenness.
Postbellum America promised African American women a new life of freedom with the same inalienable rights provided to other American citizens. But the realities of newly freed people in the south—who had little or no money, limited or no education and little access to it, who confronted systemic racism that impacted every area of their lives and for whom the federal government failed to provide any reparational assistance, made that promise appear extraordinarily remote. The black women who emerged from enslavement “knew that what they got wasn’t what they wanted, it wasn’t freedom, really.”The transition from enslavement to freedom was a difficult and frightening one for most black women. Women who migrated to the industrial north were confronted with racism but they also benefited from supportive community networks and settlement houses such as the White Rose Mission that Victoria Earle Mathews, pioneering journalist and daughter of a self-emancipated woman, established in New York City for girls and women of color in need of housing and resources. Many women of color who entered the northern and urban work forces also were undermined by the increasingly popular practice of factory employers relying on workers who yielded to their authority over working conditions.