After slavery was abolished in the USA – Oral Culture and Political Mobilization in the Reconstruction Era South

I wrote this article a number of months ago, and had been sitting on it for a while.  It appeared in Its History Podcast over the weekend.

In the era of modern electronic communications it is sometimes hard to appreciate the immense difficulty which previous generations had in passing messages over both large and not so large distances.  An era in which the written word was the sole means of correspondence with other communities, relations and business interests, made responses slow, with no guarantees of them being received.  This method was of course the preserve of the educated few and seems to those who enjoy instant world-wide correspondence as almost pre-historic.  It is harder to imagine the difficulties which the poor and illiterate had in conveying their message to friends and family outside of their locality.

The rural mid-nineteenth century Southern States of America was populated by millions of poor and illiterate black and white people. The black slave population, continuously denied the most basic of rights, were never going to be presented with a chance to better themselves educationally.  And in reality, the poor white population was never on the top of anyone’s agenda for social betterment either. When emancipation for the South’s slave population was achieved, interested parties felt that a new push was needed to realize the goal of complete enfranchisement. To do this they would need to mobilize a coherent movement which would be in a bargaining position for the concessions needed to achieve the much sought after suffrage.  Geographical problems would first need to be overcome, as the slave population was spread right over the length and breadth of the South. Consequently, those engaging with the now freedmen needed to play to their strengths, and this would include utilizing the already strong oral culture which the South possessed.

Like most rural communities, the South had developed a powerful oral culture.  In such communities the spoken word tends to become a powerful tool for those with no access to the written word. Rising out of such cultures, strong orators with magnetic personalities are often formed. They are people who are able to command large audiences which hang on their every word.  This gift of oratory had its beginnings at the family fireplace, with old black men some of the most loved and skilled storytellers.([1]) This developing skill would slowly build up to command the attention of an awakened population.

Mobilization of freedmen

Although slaves were disenfranchised, black people did mobilize to demand equality before the law, to protest oppressive legislation, and to insist on justice in the enforcement of the law.([2])  Nevertheless, to build a successful nationwide movement required work at grassroots level on a scale not witnessed before. Pamphlet distribution was out of the question. Therefore, mobilizing the masses would invariably fall to individuals possessing great oratory skills, honed in the traditional way.  Freedpeople understood that their most dependable advocates emerged from their own ranks. They tended to be educated, if informally tutored, but distinguished by property holding, workplace skill, religious standing, or rhetorical ability.([3]) They would organize ‘speakings’ in rural areas instructing people of their rights and responsibilities and escorting voters to the polls on election days.([4])

Notable African-American orators such as James D. Lynch, who was the most influential black man in the state of Mississippi until his premature death in 1872, were respected by both black and white people.  A white contemporary of Lynch who was not sympathetic to the black cause recalled the size of audiences he could command:

He was a great orator; fluent and graceful, he stirred his audiences as no other man could do.  He was the idol of the Negroes who would come for miles, on foot, to hear him speak.  He rarely spoke to less than a thousand, and often two to five thousand…Lynch always spoke outdoors as no house could hold his audience.([5])

Rev. Henry McNeal Turner

One of the more celebrated orators of the Reconstruction era, the Rev. Henry McNeal Turner was described as one of the most energetic black organizers of the time.  He had served as a chaplain in a ‘colored’ Civil War regiment.  Turner’s radical strategy was to instruct the freedmen of their rights and responsibilities via meetings of the Union League. Gathered at the Union Republican Convention, Turner and his team met with freedmen at a Methodist church, instructing them at length on their responsibilities as franchised citizens.  He enacted a model dialogue scenario between a white Republican and a freedman.  This scenario had the white adviser explain that the Republican Party was the friend of the freedman and instructed them that they should shun Andrew Johnson and the Democratic Party in the upcoming elections:

I spent five hours in instructing them concerning their duties…. We read over the dialogues to the delegates and commented on them at great length, so that no mistake might be entertained. While we were reading the dialogue, I acted as the Freedman and Mr. Campbell as the true Republican, I asking and he answering in a suitable voice, giving emphasis to the facts being related. You ought to have seen the effect which it produced. When Campbell would read some of those pointed replies, the whole house would ring with shouts, and shake with the spasmodic motions and peculiar gestures of the audience.([6])

He further clarified his strategy for spreading this message:

The rule which we adopted it is to have them read in our country churches, societies, leagues, clubs, balls, picnics and all other gatherings, allowing one man to sit back to the audience and read the questions and the other to stand up in the pulpit or some conspicuous part of the house and read the answers. This, I find is much better than merely letting one man read them. The two voices and the interrogatory manner which can be assumed have double the effect upon the uneducated masses.([7])

The strategy had a huge effect. Not only was the message being told to the masses by a charismatic orator, it also empowered them by allowing them to impart the same dialogue to their friends and family, producing a ripple-effect.   Speaking later, in 1871 Turner was in no doubt of his own impact: ‘I have put more men in the field, made more speeches, organized more Union Leagues, Political Associations, Clubs and have written more campaign documents that received larger circulation than any other man in the state.’([8])

Growing political awareness among ex-slaves

This method of engagement with uneducated masses in their churches, clubs and societies was extremely successful. The illustration below from Harper’s Weekly (Figure 1) shows a typical scene of newly-enfranchised citizens engaged in political discussion on the pressing matters of the time.  The paper argued that while debates such as the one illustrated may not have been all that sophisticated, they were not as primitive or as far removed in terms of meaningful content as debates held by members of the supposed superior race.

The fire of political awareness among the freedmen was spreading, fanned by the energetic and charismatic orators within their communities.  While the more educated African-Americans would go on to participate in groups such as the National Equal Rights League (NERL) and attend gatherings such as The National Convention of Colored Men to ‘inquire into the actual condition’ of blacks in America,([9]) political discussions were conducted anywhere people could meet.  Figure 2 below, again from Harper’s Weekly, entitled A Political Discussion is described as ‘by no means an unfamiliar scene’ and demonstrates perhaps more than most the importance of grassroots political action and debate as the political realm permeated the everyday routine of the freedmen of the South.

Rumors of insurrection

The increasing political awareness of African-Americans would have a profound effect upon the white dominated Union Leagues with which they had been associated, especially in the period of Congressional Reconstruction from early March 1867.  Before Military Reconstruction there had been some organizational efforts among freedmen to mobilize, especially in the cities.  Nevertheless, the most effective organizational vehicle was the Union League which Congressional Republicans believed would make an effective reaching medium.([10]) Over time these white dominated leagues became more responsive to black concerns as the freedmen became more familiar with mechanics of politics.  Through this familiarity with politics, accusations of increased militancy among black members arose within the league, leading to fears among white people of an impending black insurrection.([11])

There were some incidents of militancy among freedmen. Indeed, Freedmen’s Bureau agents found evidence of freedmen gathering guns and ammunition; however, it was deemed that it was for defense rather than insurrection. It was also found that the majority of investigations only uncovered evidence of the holding of community festivals, peaceable religious gatherings or petty incidents of rowdiness.  That said, this did little to allay the fears of white people who warned of a coming race war. Whether or not these fears were well-founded, it highlights the power of oral exchanges in the form of rumor and hearsay. For subordinate groups in society such as African-Americans, rumor was an essential means of conducting cultural and political affairs.

Clearly oral tradition and culture played a significant part in the social life of the South, but this was not its only important sphere.  The importance of oral culture in the domestic sphere through the exchange of stories and information at the fireside in the home should not be forgotten either. In that way, one can assume those stories which were first learned in the house provided a platform for future public use.  Before emancipation oral culture among the slaves was one of the only possessions they had that they could truly call their own.  They held fast to it, adapting outside influences when necessary to it to suit their needs.  As such, it was a most powerful tool in a spiritual sense for a people who cherished their relationship with god yet did not possess the skills to understand the written word of the Bible.

Oral culture’s importance accelerated once the region was gripped by huge social change, the turning point arriving with the emergence of those who possessed the oral talents to move and motivate people.  While history will remember people like Rev. Henry M. Turner, the army of unnamed people who took their messages to their friends and kin-folk arguably played just as important a role in molding change in the Reconstruction era South.

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[1] W.W. Braden, The Oral Tradition in the South (Louisiana, 1983), p. 23-27

[2] S.F. Miller, S.E. O’Donovan et al, Between Emancipation and Enfranchisement: Law and the Political Mobilization of Black Southerners During Presidential Reconstruction: 1865-1867, in Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 70, 1994-1995, p. 1059. (18 December 2012)

[3] Ibid, p. 1063.

[4] D. Sterling, The Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the words of African Americans (New York, 1994), p. 146.

[5] Ibid, p. 147.

[6] M. W. Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure: Post-war Reconstruction in the American South(Chicago, 2007), p. 59.

[7] Robert C. Schenck Papers, Miami University Archives, Ohio

[8] Sterling, The Trouble They Seen, p. 147.

[9] Harper’s Weekly, February 6, 1869, p. 85.

[10] M. W. Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure, p. 58.

[11] M.W. Fitzgerald, The Union League in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change During Reconstruction (Louisiana, 1989), p. 37.


Figure 1 – Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868, p. 468. Newly-enfranchised citizens engaged in political discussion.


Figure 2 – Harper’s Weekly, November 20, 1869, p. 737. A political discussion.

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