Black America from Civil War to Civil Rights

Reconstruction

Reconstruction refers to the process of reorganizing the southern states and readmitting them to the Union. It generally began once U.S. forces occupied a Confederate territory, and involved freeing local slaves and extending political rights to them. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan foreshadowed the difficulties that African Americans would face once the last Federal forces withdrew from the south in 1877, leaving blacks vulnerable to segregationist “Jim Crow” laws.

First Federal Issue revenue stamp on slave girl photograph, c. 1864

refer to caption
refer to caption
 

The National Freedmen’s Relief Association sold a series of slave photographs to raise money for educational projects in occupied New Orleans. They favored images of obviously mixed-race children, which appealed to a white audience. Photographs were taxed according to their retail value, and a government revenue stamp is found on the reverse.

Curator Daniel Piazza on the photograph of Rebecca Huger

My name is Dan Piazza. I’m the National Postal Museum’s chief curator of philately, as well as the curator of the Freedom Just Around the Corner exhibit, and we’re looking at a carte-de-visite entitled “A Slave Girl,” from late 1863 or early 1864. The American Civil War coincided with the immense popularity of these cartes-de-visite, which is really just a fancy name for a small, relatively inexpensive photograph mounted on cardboard. People exchanged these little pictures of friends, relatives, and celebrities almost as eagerly as later generations would pursue cigarette, baseball, or even Pokemon cards. Now, a slave girl might seem to be a strange subject for what is essentially a trading card, but the key to understanding this item is printed on the back, where it reads: “Nett proceeds from the sale of these photographs will be devoted to the education of colored people in the Department of the Gulf.” This is a reference to the National Freedmen’s Relief Association, which ran schools for emancipated children in Louisiana and Alabama. This particular carte-de-visite is from series produced by the Association as a fundraiser; they sold them for about twenty-five cents each, with the profit going to teacher’s salaries and supplies. The young sitter for this photograph was eleven-year-old Rebecca Huger of New Orleans. Before the war, Rebecca was enslaved by a master who was almost certainly also her father, and she worked as a ladies’ maid for one of her white half-sisters.


Baltimore Association cover, c. 1865

refer to caption

Addressee Rebecca Primus was an African American teacher from Connecticut brought south by the “Baltimore Association for the Moral and Education Improvement of the Colored People” to open a school for freed blacks in eastern Maryland.

 

Freedmen's Bureau cover, c. 1865-1872

refer to caption

Private charity could only partially meet former slaves’ needs, which ranged from food and clothing to employment and education. Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865 with Major General Oliver O. Howard as its commissioner. A Medal of Honor recipient, he later served as president of Howard University. His signature indicated that no postage was due.

 

First Federal Issue revenue stamps on sharecropping contract, March 6, 1868

refer to caption

Southern landowners no longer owned slaves, and most freedmen owned no land. This dilemma resulted in the sharecropping system, in which free blacks (and many poor whites) farmed someone else’s land in return for one-quarter to two-thirds of the crop, depending on how much the landowner was obligated to provide for them.

refer to caption
 

Loan from Michael Mahler

 

½ lb., 3 lb., and 5 lb. tobacco taxpaid stamps, 1868

refer to caption

Long before famous African Americans were celebrated on postage stamps, poor black sharecroppers appeared on a series of revenue stamps issued to collect the tax on one of their major crops—tobacco. Similar images appeared on banknotes and checks of the period.

 
refer to caption
refer to caption