Emancipation and Freedom During Reconstruction: A Study of Cumberland County, Virginia, 1865-1870

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This thesis studies the African-American experience of Emancipation during the early years of Reconstruction in Cumberland County, Virginia. Located in the Piedmont region of central Virginia, Cumberland County’s African-American population experienced some highs and lows as they adjusted to their newly won independence in the years leading up to the re-entry of Virginia into the Union in 1870. Using primary sources ranging from census records and reports to Freedmen’s Bureau archives, this study evaluates three areas of Emancipation to understand how African Americans in Cumberland County participated in advancing their civil rights. Despite not being able to legally marry until after Emancipation, freed individuals engaged in long-term marriages that stretched back into enslavement, often defying their White owners even though most of the relationships involved individuals on two different plantations. From an economic perspective, African Americans of the county fared more poorly, having to sign onto onerous labor contracts that tightly controlled their behavior. Additionally, by 1870, almost no one in the Black community owned any land, something that would have given them more autonomy over their lives. Finally, because Cumberland County was an African-American majority population during the initial years of Reconstruction, they experienced more initial success in rallying for and receiving their voting rights, voting two African-American men into office to represent them in the General Assembly. All in all, while they may have experienced some success, particularly politically, ultimately minority White planters reasserted control over formerly enslaved individuals, preventing them from advancing themselves economically. Although everything changed with Emancipation, in reality, very little changed.