Reconstruction throughout the United States was a tumultuous period of political, social, and economic changes. Vicksburg had a significant role to play during this era, and its occupation by Federal forces had a lasting impact on the lives of its residents. A perspective that has often been overshadowed over the years though, is that of the newly emancipated African Americans who did not see the occupying forces as oppressive, but instead saw opportunity in their presence to finally enjoy the rights and freedoms promised to all people in the United States. The surrender of Vicksburg was a beacon of hope after centuries of slavery and oppression.
Freedmen and women began flooding into Vicksburg after its surrender from neighboring plantations, many curious as to what this event actually meant for them. News of emancipation had made its way to the plantations prior to the Siege, so they knew all too well that a Union victory was the only outcome that offered change. For many, reuniting with family that had been forcibly separated was their top priority. Local papers were filled with notices of inquiry seeking information about lost members of their families. Stories of reunited families were rare in those first few days, but those who had success must have felt immense relief. Others took what information they had obtained and sought to leave the city as soon as possible to try their inquiries in other locations. Others wanted to escape the South as quickly as possible. Harsh fugitive slave laws imposed by the Southern States in the past left a traumatic impression in their minds. Fears that emancipation was only temporary and that slavery would resume after the war was settled were rumored, and they did not want to take the chance. Groups of the younger men were eager to help fight the War and enlisted with the Union Army. Those enlisting were placed on guard throughout the city.
No time was wasted by the African-American community during those years of military occupation. One of the most significant changes during Reconstruction was the opportunity for education. Teachers from northern states, after hearing of Vicksburg’s fate, came to the city in droves to offer assistance. Reading and writing were powerful tools that many had been prohibited to learn while enslaved. Participation in politics was another opportunity that many were eager to delve into. The right to vote and hold office in Vicksburg gave them the tools to secure their rights further and advance their interests. Peter Crosby was elected the first African-American Sheriff of Warren County, MS in 1874. Hiram Revels was elected as the replacement of Jefferson Davis in the United States Senate in 1870 after serving in the State legislature just a year earlier. However, their path to freedom and equality was not without opposition. Resistance from white supremacists who sought to maintain control over the social and political landscape was common. The Ku Klux Klan and other similar groups used violence and intimidation to suppress African-American participation in both the community and politics. Despite the challenges, the freedmen of Vicksburg displayed remarkable resilience. They built thriving communities, established churches, and contributed to the cultural and social fabric of the city. Their determination to overcome adversity and strive for equality laid the foundation for the civil rights movement that would emerge in the 20th century.
It is important for us to look at multiple perspectives when studying any historical period of time. While those living in Vicksburg prior to the Siege might have seen occupation as a period of hostility, others were just beginning to experience the rights promised to all people in the United States due to reconstruction. Truth, being relative and dynamic, requires us to study all possible perspectives to fully understand its historical significance.See a typo? Report it here.