Read More: Black History Month – the American Civil War and the End of Slavery

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

This is an entry in our Read More series. These are ‘long-form’ articles, where staff offer a curated and detailed look at areas of our book collections, usually based around a specific theme or subject. These posts aim to guide the interested reader through to those books that offer a more in-depth look at a topic, or which are classics in their field.

October is Black History Month – and 2015 is an especially significant year for Black History as it marks the 150th-anniversary of the end to the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the horrors of slavery. As always, our Information and Research department holds some key titles and resources to help you gain a deeper understanding of these events.

It does not take huge reservoirs of imagination to understand the horrors of African-American slavery in the United States, a barbaric practice that flourished, for the main part, in the Southern States from the 17th-19th centuries. Nevertheless, background reading is essential to truly grasp the pain caused by human chattel. Vital studies include Phillip Foner’s History of Black Americans: Volumes 1-3 and Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution.

Of further interest are the thoughts and impressions left by contemporaries. In that regard, the library holds a fascinating collection of pamphlets written by prominent anti-slavery groups, as well as editions of Fanny Kemble’s diary of her time on a Georgian plantation and an 1863 volume entitled The Slave Power: its character, career and possible designs – being an attempt to explain the real issues involved in the American contest.

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That ‘contest’ was, of course, the American Civil War. While there isn’t space here to analyse fully the causes and effects of that conflict, it is surely beyond contest that the war resulted in the ending of African-American slavery. John Hope Franklin’s The Emancipation Proclamation is a short, but lively, study of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 decree “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be, free.”

In-depth studies of the conflict that are available in our collection include Shelby Foote’s magisterial three-volume work and James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. The after-effects of the War on African-American lives were nearly as shattering as during the pre-War era: after a brief period of equality, known as Reconstruction, the white South re-claimed power and instituted the terrible system of legalised segregation. Studies of that period include Kenneth Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction and W.E.B Du Bois’ Marxist classic Black Reconstruction. Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm so Long is a thorough examination of African-American communities in the aftermath of slavery.

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What affects did the American Civil War have in Leeds? The city was a hotbed of anti-slavery campaigning throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries, especially through the local branch of the Whig Part and with the support of Liberal newspapers such as the Leeds Mercury. Ex-slaves, like Frederick Douglas, and other campaigners, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) visited the city to make speeches in support of the anti-slavery movement. Funds were raised by the people of Leeds to set up schools and chapels in Canada for escaped slaves and, during the war itself, money was also collected to aid the distress the conflict was causing on a local scale. And, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a mass crowd gathered in the Town Hall to propose a resolution expressing their “feelings of horror”.

Although the first recorded mention of a black person in Leeds was in 1749, there was only a small black presence in the town at the time of the American Civil War. In two weeks, this blog will be taking a closer look at the story behind the emergence of that black community in Leeds. And, as part of Black History Month, the library is running workshops to assist members of the Leeds community trace their ancestry. Sessions will be available on the 12th and 21st of October, from 2.30-4pm and 10.30am-12pm respectively.

Please contact our Local and Family History library via localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk or on 01132 478290 for further details and to book a place.

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