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Harriet Tubman statue, Boston, MA
*The term Freedmen or Freedwomen from 1850 is briefly described on this date. By definition, they are formerly enslaved persons who have been released from slavery, usually by legal means. Historically, enslaved people were freed either by manumission (granted freedom by their captor-owners) or emancipation (granted freedom as part of a larger group). A fugitive slave is a person who escaped slavery.
In the United States, "freedmen" and "freedwomen" refer to former Black African slaves emancipated during and after the American Civil War by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Slaves freed before the war (usually by individual manumissions, often in wills) were generally called "Free Negroes" or free Blacks. In addition, there was a small population of Blacks born free in the United States.
During the Middle Passage and the Antebellum South era in America, white men often raped or forced Black women to serve them sexually; this produced many mixed-race children. In Louisiana and other areas of the former New France, free people of color were classified in French as gens de couleur libres. They were generally born to Black or mixed-race mothers and white owners of ethnic French or European ancestries. The fathers sometimes freed their children and sexual partners, leading to the growth of the community of Creoles of color, or free people of color. New Orleans had the largest community of free people of color, well-established before the US acquired Louisiana. The French and Spanish colonial rulers had given the free people of color more rights than most blacks in the American South.
Some families of free people of color recorded in the US census in the Upper South in the first two decades after the Revolutionary War descended from unions between white women (indentured servants or free) and Black men (whether indentured servants, slave or free) in colonial Virginia. According to laws in the slave colonies (later states), children were born into the social status of their mothers; thus, mixed-race children of white women were born free. Such free families of color tended to migrate to the frontier of Virginia and other Upper South colonies and then west into Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee with white neighbors. In addition, during the first two decades after the Revolution, slaveholders freed thousands of slaves in the Upper South, inspired by revolutionary ideals. Most northern states abolished slavery, some on a gradual basis.
In addition, there were sizable communities of free people of color in French Caribbean colonies, such as Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and Guadeloupe. Due to the violence of the Haitian Revolution, many free people of color, who were originally part of the revolution, fled the island as refugees after being attacked by slave rebels, particularly in the north. Some went first to Cuba, where they immigrated to New Orleans in 1808 and 1809 after being expelled when Napoleon invaded Spanish territory in Europe. Many brought slaves with them. Their numbers strengthened the French-speaking community of enslaved Blacks and the free people of color. Other refugees from Saint-Domingue settled in Charleston, Savannah, and New York. Although the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 declared all slaves in states not under the control of the Union to be free, the Confederacy did not end slavery as an institution.
Abolition of all slavery (affecting four million people in the South, including the Border States that had stayed in the Union) was achieved by ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment gave ex-slaves full citizenship in the United States. The Fifteenth Amendment gave voting rights to adult males among the free people, as only adult males had the franchise among whites. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments are known as the "civil rights amendments," the "post-Civil War amendments," and the "Reconstruction Amendments." To help freedmen transition from slavery to freedom, including a free labor market, President Abraham Lincoln created the Freedmen's Bureau, which assigned agents throughout the former Confederate states. The Bureau also founded schools to educate freedmen, adults, and children; helped freedmen negotiate labor contracts; and tried to minimize violence against freedmen.
The era of Reconstruction was an attempt to establish new governments in the former Confederacy and to bring freedmen into society as voting citizens. Northern church missionary societies, such as American Missionary Association, sent teachers to the South to assist in educating freedmen and their children and established several higher education colleges. U.S. Army occupation soldiers were stationed throughout the South via military districts enacted by the Reconstruction Acts to protect freedmen in voting polls and public facilities from violence and intimidation by white Southerners, which was common throughout the region.
The Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek nations were among those Native American tribes that held enslaved Africans before and during the American Civil War. They supported the Confederacy during the war, supplying some warriors in the West, as they were promised their state if the Confederacy won. After the end of the war, the U.S. required these tribes to make new peace treaties and emancipate their slaves. They were required to offer full citizenship in their tribes to those freedmen who wanted to stay with the tribes. Numerous families had intermarried by that time or had other personal ties. If freedmen left the tribes, they would become US citizens.
In the late 20th century, the Cherokee Nation voted for restrictions on membership to only those descendants of people listed as "Cherokee by blood" on the Dawes Rolls of the early 20th century. This decision excluded most Cherokee Freedmen (by that time, this term referred to descendants of the original group). In 2011 the Cherokee Nation formally expelled Blacks from the tribe. In addition to arguing that the post-Civil War treaties gave them citizenship, the Freedmen have argued that the Dawes Rolls were often inaccurate, recording as freedmen even those individuals who had partial Cherokee ancestry and were considered Cherokee by blood.
The Choctaw Freedmen and Creek Freedmen have similarly struggled with their respective tribes over the terms of citizenship in contemporary times. (The tribes have wanted to limit those who can benefit from tribal citizenship in an era in which gaming casinos yield considerable revenues for members.) Most members of the tribes have voted to limit membership, and as sovereign nations, they have the right to determine their rules. Descendants of freedmen believe their long standing as citizens since the post-Civil War treaties should be continued. In 2017 the Supreme Court ruled on Cherokee Nation v. Nash and granted Freedmen tribal citizenship.