People in Line For Change: African Americans

Black and White Photo: 8 black children and 2 black adults stand in a field and carry shoulder bags.
The 'planter elite' of the South made much of their wealth with cotton, which was picked and harvested by slave labor.

National Archives

In 1860, the United States Census reported that there were a total of 4.4 million African Americans in the country. Of this total, approximately 488,000 were free blacks and the remaining 4 million were enslaved. The first African American slaves were brought to the United States in 1619 and slavery flourished in the largely agrarian colonial economy. By the late 18th century, the institution was in decline. This was particularly evident in the Northern states, where slavery was gradually and incrementally abolished.

In the Southern states, support for slavery also declined, but the invention of Eli Whitney's cotton gin in 1792 renewed demand for slave labor. As the South's wealth and dependency on slavery expanded, the institution became a source of sectional discord that divided the nation. Despite a series of congressional compromises aimed at settling the issue of slavery and its expansion into the Western territories, slavery remained the most absorbing, divisive, and volatile theme of political debate. The failure to resolve the issue in the political arena led to disunion and war.

In addition to the enslaved population, there was a notable population of free blacks living in the country. Freedom could be attained a few ways: escaping, being given freedom by one's master, or through birth (one's status as slave or free followed that of the mother).

black woman in a collared dress sits with a white toddler in a dress on her lap.
Some of the duties of the enslaved were to care for their master's children.

National Archives

On a plantation, slaves were divided into two groups based on their work responsibilities: house slaves and field slaves. A house slave worked in the master's house in close proximity to the master and his family. Their duties involved cooking, cleaning, nannying the children, acting as a valet, amongst a variety of other tasks. Involving more heavy physical labor, the tasks of a field slave included working the land of the master.

The life of a slave was largely dependent of his or her master. Because slaves were considered property, the food they ate, the clothes they wore, if families were kept together or split apart, and whether or not a slave lived or died all depended on their master. Slaves were not considered citizens of the United States, but they were subject to laws known as slave codes. Each state, in which slavery was legal, there existed a slave code which outlined the condition of being a slave, as well as a description of offenses and punishments for said offenses.

Black and White photo: 2 adult males, 3 adult females, 2 young boys, and a baby pose in front of a house. All are black individuals.
Even families of formerly enslaved people faced hardship and discrimination in the post war United States.

National Archives

In the Kennesaw Mountain region, there were populations of both enslaved and free blacks. However, there were not a lot of slaves in this area as a result of the lack of large plantations. Monemia and James Johnson were two free blacks who lived in Marietta during the Civil War. Monemia ran a restaurant and store and her husband, James, was a barber. James' treasonous dealings with a Union spy, Henry Cole, led him to flee to the city of Nashville, Tennessee.

In November of 1864, after the capture of Atlanta, Union troops plundered Monemia's restaurant and home taking nearly everything she owned as provisions for the Union Army. Soon after, the fires set in Marietta by the Union troops destroyed her house and restaurant. History remembers Monemia Johnson because of the claim she filed against the United States government for $2,591.10 in damages. Thirteen years after the end of the Civil War, Monemia finally received a check for a total of $246.

Last updated: July 26, 2022

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