Thursday Lecture Series

American Poverty, American Freedom

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

This talk investigates a subject that was of critical importance during the era of the American Civil War: material aid for the formerly-enslaved black poor.  Beginning soon after the Civil War’s outbreak in 1861 and continuing through the war’s end in 1865, American military officials and, especially, a range of American and British activists strove not only to extract labor from but also to provide assistance to African-American freedpeople.  Previous studies have focused on the inadequacy of this assistance, recounting how fears of black dependence limited its scope. And yet, even as poverty was central to enslaved African Americans’ experiences of wartime, its relief was widely understood to be a prerequisite to their survival in freedom. My talk explores the history of the transatlantic struggle to distribute provisions to former slaves, and, in doing so, seeks to unpack the imaginative contents and practical consequences of wartime relief efforts. By tracing how many across the Anglo-American world came to reconceive of enslaved people as impoverished people, we begin to see how policymakers, aid workers, and African Americans themselves wrangled over the relationships between labor and livelihood, charity and entitlements, maintenance and freedom. Along the way we are able to consider anew the bounds of the nineteenth-century moral imagination, as we also begin to see how the black poor migrated for a time into the category of the worthy poor, and to what effect. Above all, we begin to see how connections between slavery and poverty – forged in debates over the needs of the emancipated black poor – unsettle the historical and historiographical boundaries of slavery and freedom.