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Slavery, the U.S. Civil War, and Reconstruction


The national tragedy of slavery continues to impact all United States citizens. These articles concern early Black mutual aid and benefit societies, along with legislation and social movements that sought to end enslavement, and to document and address its lasting damage.

Use the SWHP search bar to locate articles on topics such as The Colored Conventions Movement, the United Order of Tents benefit society, and the people who were important during this period of history.



  • Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves 1807The ten sections of the 1807 act were designed to eliminate all American participation in the international slave trade. Section 1 set the tone. After January 1, 1808, it would "not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such [person] ... as a slave, to be held to service or labour." The act provided an enormous penalty — up to $20,000 — for anyone building a ship for the trade or fitting out an existing ship to be used in the trade.
  • African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) ChurchWritten by Michael Barga. "The vision of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church has remained consistent throughout its existence and is a strongly social and service-oriented spiritual community."
  • African Union SocietyWritten by Michael Barga. "In 1780, The African Union Society (AUS) was created in Newport, Rhode Island. While most blacks from Rhode Island were free by 1807, strong prejudice and oppression were present before and after that date. The AUS developed partly in response to these difficulties, as well as a forum for black cultural discussion. The society is considered one of the first formal organizations founded by free blacks in the United States."
  • Brown Fellowship SocietyMutual aid societies were maintained by blacks throughout the United States. The goal of the groups was to provide much needed benefits to their communities that whites controlled and often withheld. In the south, it was particularly difficult to sustain a black organization of any kind since assemblies of non-whites were considered dangerous. Still, some southern cities, including Charleston, SC, stratified individuals by three race descriptions: white, black, and mulatto. Those considered mulattoes were sometimes able to avoid the most severe oppressive measures carried out by whites while having to adhere in the majority of ways. The Brown Fellowship Society (BFS) was a response to this three-race cultural environment of Charleston and came together in 1790. Those who joined usually considered themselves mulatto...
  • Brown, JohnJohn Brown was a controversial figure who played a major role in leading the United States to civil war. He was a devout Christian and lifelong abolitionist who tried to eradicate slavery from the United States through increasingly radical means. Unlike most abolitionists, Brown was not a pacifist and he came to believe that violence was necessary to dislodge slavery. He engaged in violent battles with pro-slavery citizens in Kansas and Missouri, and led a raid on the federal munitions depot at Harper’s Ferry.
  • Brown, William WellsBy 1843 Brown was lecturing regularly on his experiences in slavery for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. By that time he also became deeply committed to lecturing on behalf of women’s rights and temperance laws. It was this involvement as a prominent speaker that many historians and scholars suggest provided the trajectory for his later career as a writer.
  • Brown, William Wells (1814-1884)
  • Colonial Expansion Heads SouthIn 1619, a Dutch ship brought some Africans to Jamestown. They had been kidnapped from their homes by African traders and sold to the ship's captain. He sold them to the Virginia settlers. Those first blacks may have been treated like indentured servants. Later, however, colonists decided to keep them as slaves so they would not have to continue paying for workers. Indians did not make good slaves because they could run away. Blacks could not. They had no place to go. Slowly, laws were approved in Virginia that made it legal to keep black people as slaves. By 1750, there were more Africans in Virginia than any other group.
  • Dickinson, Anna (1842-1932)Anna Dickenson began her activism even earlier, when she was thirteen years old, by writing an essay for William Lloyd Garrison’s famed newspaper, The Liberator. She also was friendly with Lucretia Mott, who preached against slavery in Quaker meetinghouses for decades. Unlike others of the era’s religions, Quakers encouraged women to speak in public, and under Mott’s leadership, some eight hundred Philadelphians bought tickets for Dickinson’s first major speech early in 1861, “The Rights and Wrongs of Women.”
  • Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American HistoryNot only has disability justified the inequality of disabled people but of other groups as well. In the three great citizenship debates of the 19th century and early 20th centuries: women’s suffrage, African American freedom, and immigration restriction, disability played a substantive role.
  • Douglass, FrederickDouglass’s life spanned important decades of American history in which the contradictions of race, class and gender were debated. Douglass played a crucial role in those debates. He spoke out against Northern race prejudice as well as Southern slavery. He challenged segregated Sabbaths--either white or black and criticized the race prejudice of immigrant labor organizations which excluded black freemen. Douglass once remarked that his son could more easily become an apprentice in a Boston law firm than in any workingman’s organization.
  • Emancipation ProclamationThis document gave the states of the Confederacy until January 1, 1863 to lay down their arms and peaceably reenter the Union, if these states continued their rebellion all slaves in those seceding states were declared free.
  • Foster, Abigail Kelley - (1811-1887)Abby Kelley spoke at the 1838 Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia, breaking the cultural rules of her time by addressing a mixed audience of men and women. The meeting was highly controversial, and after it ended, protestors burned the newly built facility to the ground. Two years later, at the 1840 American Anti-Slavery Society's annual meeting, she broke another cultural rule and effectively split the anti-slavery movement by asserting woman's equality. Male abolitionists demonstrated their conservatism on women’s rights: when William Lloyd Garrison appointed Kelley to the society business committee, about half of the members resigned and formed their own rival group .
  • Freedmen’s BureauAt no time was the federal government more involved with African Americans than during the Civil War and Reconstruction period, when approximately four million slaves became freedmen. No agency epitomized that involvement more than did the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually called the Freedmen's Bureau.
  • Fugitive Slave Act of 1850Of all the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was the most controversial. It required citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. It denied a fugitive's right to a jury trial. The act called for changes in filing for a claim, making the process easier for slave-owners. Also, according to the act, there would be more federal officials responsible for enforcing the law.
  • Gage, Matilda (nee, Joslyn) (1826- 1898)One of the most radical, far-sighted and articulate early feminists, Matilda Joslyn Gage was deliberately written out of history after her death in 1898 by an increasingly conservative suffrage movement. Equal in importance to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gage is all but unknown today. (Source: Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation)
  • Garrison, William Lloyd
  • Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in AmericaBlacks who were interested in starting their own branch of the Odd Fellows had discussions with whites in these unincorporated lodges. While these efforts were unsuccessful, they were able to secure incorporation with the Order through a lodge in England. They officially started activities in 1843, and the early membership drew from two established black groups who lacked mutual benefit components: the Philomethan Literary Society and the Philadelphia Company and Debating Society. One of the key players in the development of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America was Peter Ogden. He reportedly swayed American blacks interested in the Odd Fellows to focus their attention on gaining affiliation with an English lodge rather than lodges in the United States. Ogden presented the admission application in person to the appropriate committee during one of his voyages while in England.
  • Harper's Ferry Raid, 1859On October 16, 1859 in the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) John Brown, an ardent abolitionist, and 21 other men raided a West Virginia armory to seize weapons for a planned slavery insurrection.
  • Healy, Bishop James Augustine (1830-1900)James Augustine Healy: The First African American To Be Ordained a Roman Catholic Priest
  • John J. Smallwood and the Temperance, Industrial and Collegiate Institute
  • Keckley, Elizabeth HobbsIn Washington, D.C., Keckley built a successful dressmaking career becoming acquainted with Mary Lincoln, whom Keckley met on President Lincoln’s first day in office. Her work for and friendship with Mary Lincoln permitted her a unique view of events during this era which she chronicled in Behind the Scenes (1868). Keckley also became a prominent figure in D.C.’s free black community, helping to found and serving as president of the Contraband Relief Association, which later became the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldier’s Relief Association.
  • Kelley, AbbyAbigail (Abby) Kelley was an influential Quaker anti-slavery reformer and a women rights activist who provided inspiration and courage to the women who organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention. Her activism in Seneca Falls led to the formation of the Wesleyan Methodist Congregation with their public anti-slavery stance and free speech commitment.
  • Lovejoy, OwenOwen Lovejoy (January 6, 1811 – March 25, 1864) was an American lawyer, Congregational minister, abolitionist, and Republican congressman from Illinois. He was also a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. After his brother Elijah Lovejoy was murdered in November 1837 by pro-slavery forces, Owen became the leader of abolitionists in Illinois.
  • Negro in Virginia (1940)Compiled by Workers of the Writers Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Virginia. Sponsored by the Hampton Institute.
  • No Compromise with the Evil of Slavery: A Speech by Wm. GarrisonIn 1854, William Lloyd Garrison gave a speech in which he opened with: "I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Hence, I am an abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form-and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing--with indignation and abhorrence. Not to cherish these feelings would be recreancy to principle. They who desire me to be dumb on the subject of slavery, unless I will open my mouth in its defense, ask me to give the lie to my professions, to degrade my manhood, and to stain my soul. I will not be a liar, a poltroon, or a hypocrite, to accommodate any party, to gratify any sect, to escape any odium or peril, to save any interest, to preserve any institution, or to promote any object. Convince me that one man may rightfully make another man his slave, and I will no longer subscribe to the Declaration of Independence."
  • Port Royal ExperimentIn January of 1862 Union General William T. Sherman requested teachers from the North to train the ex-slaves. Three months later U.S. Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase appointed Boston attorney Edward L. Pierce to begin the Port Royal Experiment, which would create schools and hospitals for ex-slaves and to allow them to buy and run plantations. That same month the steamship Atlantic left New York City bound for Port Royal. On board were 53 missionaries including skilled teachers, ministers and doctors who had volunteered to help promote this experiment.
  • Precarious Learners: Race, Status and the Making of Virgin Islands Education from 1917-1970When the United States purchased the Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands) from Denmark in 1917, the change in the islands’ political status profoundly impacted the educational options afforded to those residing in the territory. Being new subjects of a U.S. empire primarily concerned with preventing enemy expansion in the Caribbean basin both improved and complicated Virgin Islanders’ access to comprehensive education. For those residing in the U.S. Virgin Islands, American citizenship both exposed and exacerbated the precarious conditions of learning and belonging in a U.S. territory. Warped by a history of racialized domination and economic deprivation, education for Black Virgin Islanders has long been fraught by the conditions of precarious citizenship. 
  • Scott, DredOn March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court finally ruled in Dred Scott v Sandford [Sanford was misspelled by a court clerk]. In a 7-2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the majority of justices said that Scott and all slaves and free blacks were not citizens of the United States and therefore had no standing in the courts. Shortly after the decision was handed down Mrs. Emerson freed Scott. The case itself led to the nullification of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, allowing the expansion of slavery into formerly free territories and the legal principle that African Americans, slave or free, were not citizens of the United States. The backlash to this decision strengthened the abolitionist movement and further divided the North and South, leading four years later to the U.S. Civil War.
  • Southern Scenes in 1846This lengthy entry is from The Library of Congress's American Memory. It is a copy of a pamphlet prepared, published and sold as "Facts for the People of the Free States." It is a significant document insofar as it reports on the reality of slave treatment and the influence of Southern States on the politics and policies of the federal government in the year 1846.
  • Truth, SojournerThe turning point in Isabella’s life came on June 1, 1843, when at the age of 52 she adopted a new name, Sojourner Truth, and headed east for the purpose of “exhorting the people to embrace Jesus, and refrain from sin.” For several years, she preached at camp meetings and lived in a utopian community, the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, which devoted itself to transcending class, race, and gender distinctions.
  • Tubman, HarrietTubman had made the perilous trip to slave country 19 times by 1860, including one especially challenging journey in which she rescued her 70-year-old parents. Of the famed heroine, who became known as "Moses," Frederick Douglass said, "Excepting John Brown -- of sacred memory -- I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman]."
  • Underground Railroad, The (1820-1861)The Underground Railroad worked as a series of networks. The journey north was an extremely long route and the Underground Railroad provided depots or safe houses along the way. Those that led the runaway slaves north did so in stages. No conductor knew the entire route; he or she was responsible for the short routes from station to station. Once the “cargo” reached another station, it would be passed on to the next conductor until the entire route was traversed. This limited knowledge protected both the fugitive slaves and the integrity of the routes which sometimes extended over 1,000 miles.
  • Unruly Slaves (Fighters for Freedom)"It is a remarkable thing to tell you, some
people can’t see it, but I am going to tell 
you, you can believe it or not but it’s the
truth; some colored people at that [time]
wouldn’t be whipped by masters. They would run away and hide in the woods, come home at nights and get something to eat and out he would go again. Them times they called them "runaway niggers". Some of them stayed away until after the war was over."
  • William Lloyd Garrison, “On the Death of John Brown” (1859)On December 2, 1859, John Brown was executed by Virginia authorities in Charles Town for his ill-fated raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry. Soon after word of his death reached Boston, William Lloyd Garrison, the leading abolitionist in the United States at the time, gave this stirring tribute to Brown.
  • Wright, Frances (1795-1852)Frances Wright was the first woman in America to act publicly against slavery: in 1825 she bought a tract of land twenty miles outside a little Mississippi River trading post named Memphis, and there she established a commune she called Nashoba. Its purpose was to discover and then to demonstrate how slaves could be responsibly educated and then freed without undue cost to their owners. (To impose a disproportionate burden on one part of the nation when the institution of slavery plagued and disgraced us all seemed to Fanny Wright both unfair and politically unwise. Her political sense, such as it was, deserted her, however, when she published an article about Nashoba claiming that sexual passion was “the strongest and…the noblest of the human passions,” the basis of “the best joys of our existence,” and “the best source of human happiness.” This at a time when allowing an ankle to show in public doomed a woman’s reputation.)