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Freedman and Southern Society Project

The Freedmen and Southern Society Project was established in 1976 to capture the essence of the social revolution by depicting the drama of emancipation in the words of the participants: liberated slaves and defeated slaveholders, soldiers and civilians, common folk and the elite, Northerners and Southerners.

Drawing on the rich resources of the National Archives of the United States, the Freedmen and Southern Society Project's editors pore over millions of documents, selecting some 50,000. They are presently transcribing, organizing and annotating them to explain how Black people traversed the bloody ground from slavery to freedom between the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 and the beginning of Radical Reconstruction in 1867. The documents vividly speak for themselves, and interpretive essays by the editors provide historical context.

The documents convey with first-person immediacy the experiences of the liberated: the quiet personal satisfaction of meeting an old master on equal terms and the outrage of being ejected from a segregated street car; the elation of a fugitive slave enlisting in the Union army and the humiliation of a laborer cheated out of hard-earned wages; the joy of a family reunited after years of separation and the distress of having a child involuntarily apprenticed to a former owner; the hope that freedom would bring a new world and the fear that, in too many ways, life would be much as before.

The National Endowment for the Humanities in 2017-2020 awarded a $300,000 grant to the Freedmen and Southern Society to continue its work on Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, a volume on family and kinship in the transition from slavery to freedom.