"Of the Dawn of Freedom" is the title of the second chapter of W.E.B. Du Bois' celebrated masterpiece Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois tells the story of Reconstruction as rarely heard in 1903, and at least as little known in 2011. I have heard it said that Souls of Black Folk is too conventional and difficult text for our time but I find it difficult to imagine how one can be adequately introduced to the disappointments and horrors of Federal Reconstruction, particularly for the first time, in a better manner.
This chapter is a work of poetry at the same time that reading it can leave no doubt as to what the problems were, why Reconstruction failed. Du Bois makes it clear, it failed because it did not go nearly far enough. It did not go nearly far enough because of bitterness and racism that loomed over the newly freed slaves in the wake of the Civil War.
The chapter begins and ends with exactly the same sentence as if to represent a hopeless and circular process: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line . . ." It's a famous line often taken out of context and used to represent the importance and the depth of the entire book, as though this prediction in 1903 was the most important thing about the book, when in fact what the book communicates about the world that preceded 1903 is much more important than what it can tell us about the future.
But also the beauty of the book is first revealed in the poetry of this chapter in the passages in which Du Bois attempts to capture the misery and hopelessness of the former slaves, a picture he evokes from imagination since he was not yet born when the Civil War occured in the early 1860s.
Quotations from Chapter 2, Of The Dawn of Freedom--
***The war had naught to do with slaves, cried Congress, the President, and the Nation; and yet no sooner had the armies, East and West, penetrated Virginia and Tennessee than fugitive slaves appeared within the lines. They came at night, when the flickering camp-fires shone like vast unsteady stars along the black horizon; old men and thin, with gray and tufted hair; women, with frightened eyes, dragging whimpering hungry children; men and girls, stalwart and gaunt, --a horde of starving vagabonds, homeless, helpless, and pitiable, in their dark distress.
***Then the long-headed man with care-chiselled face who sat in the White House saw the inevitable, and emancipated the slaves of rebels on New Year's, 1863. A month later Congress called earnestly for the Negro soldiers whom the act of July, 1862, had half grudgingly allowed to enlist. Thus the barriers were levelled and the deed was done. The stream of fugitives swelled to a flood, and anxious army officers kept inquiring "What must be done with the slaves, arriving almost daily? Are we to find food and shelter for women and children?"
***Some see all significance in the grim front of the destroyer, and some in the bitter sufferers of the Lost Cause. But me neither soldier nor fugitive speaks with so deep a meaning as that dark human cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift columns, swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing and choking them. In vain were they ordered back, in vain were bridges hewn from beneath their feet; on they trudged and writhed and surged, until they rolled into Savannah, a starved and naked horde of tens of thousands. There too came the characteristic military remedy:
'The islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice-fields about the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. John's River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of Negroes now made free by act of war." So read the celebrated 'Field-order Number Fifteen.'
The purposes of the Freedman's Bureau:
****Forthwith nine assistant commissioners were appointed. They were to hasten to their fields of work; seek gradually to close relief establishments, and make the destitute self-supporting; act as courts of law where there were no courts, or where Negroes were not recognized in them as free; establish the institution of marriage among ex-slaves, and keep records; see that freedmen were free to choose their employers, and help in making fair contracts for them . . .
See lecture by Professor David Blight on Reconstruction at Yale University at the following link: