Citizenship of Former Slaves ‘Fearful to Contemplate’

May 25, 1865 (Friday)

Henry William Ravenel
Henry William Ravenel

Henry William Ravenel was a botanist from South Carolina. Through his studies he discovered numerous new species of fungi and is still remembered for his work. He was, however, also a slave owner. He had inherited his plantation from his father, and with this inheritance came families of slaves.

As the war ended, he realized that slavery too was at an end. He despised abolitionist and Republicans, and had no idea how even the concept of emancipation might work. In his diary, on the 25th and 30th, he addressed this question, coming to no conclusions, but giving a slight glimpse into the complex relationship of the slave and slave owner.

We still remain in doubt as to the emancipation policy. No official announcement except President Lincoln’s amnesty proclamation has been published… The party in power now are radical abolitionists and will do all in their power to urge it forward. Both policy and humanity would dictate that it should be gradual, so that both parties at the South may accommodate themselves to so radical a change in social and political economy…

My Negroes have made no change in their behavior, and are going on as they have always hitherto done. Until I know that they are legally free, I shall let them continue. If they become free by law then the whole system must be changed. If the means which I now possess of supporting the old and the young are taken away, they must then necessarily look for their support to their own exertions. How they can support themselves at present, I cannot see… If Emancipation prevails, the negro must become a laborer in the field, as the whites will soon occupy all the domestic and mechanic employments…

South Carolinian slaves as photographed by Timothy O'Sullivan.
South Carolinian slaves as photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan.

Continued on May 30th:

My Negroes all express a desire to remain with me. I am gratified at the proof of their attachment. I believe it to be real and unfeigned.

For the present they will remain, but in course of time we must part, as I cannot afford to keep so many, and they cannot afford to hire for what I could give them. As they have always been faithful and attached to us, and have been raised as family servants, and have all of them been in our family for several generations, there is a feeling towards them somewhat like that of a father who is about to send out his children on the world to make their way through life.

Those who have brought the present change of relation upon us are ignorant of these ties. They have charged us with cruelty. They call us, man stealers, robbers, tyrants. The indignant denial of these charges and the ill feelings engendered during 30 years of angry controversy, have culminated at length in the four years war which has now ended. It has pleased God that we should fail in our efforts for independence and with the loss of independence, we return to the Union under the dominion of the abolition sentiment.

The experiment is now to be tried. The Negro is not only to be emancipated, but is to become a citizen with all the right and privileges! It produces a financial, political and social revolution at the South, fearful to contemplate in its ultimate effects. Whatever the result may be, let it be known and remembered that neither the Negro slave nor his master is responsible. It has been done by those who having political power, are determined to carry into practice the sentimental philanthropy they have so long and angrily advocated. Now that is fixed. I pray God for the great issues at stake, that he may bless the effort and make it successful – make it a blessing and not a curse to the poor Negro.”


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