As many readers of this blog are aware, the New York Times has established a blog, Disunion, exploring various aspects of the Civil War as part of the sesquicentennial. The articles often look at events exactly or almost exactly 150 years ago from the date of publication. “Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded,” as the blog describes itself.
Today’s Disunion, written by Lois Leveen, entitled “The North of the South” examines Richmond, Virginia, as it existed in early 1861. While this city would soon become the capital of the Confederacy, in January 1861 it was still a bastion of Unionism and would remain so until Lincoln’s call for volunteers in April 1861 tipped the balance in favor of secession. Leveen, in particular, concentrates on the African-American community of 1861 Richmond, where one in five of the city’s black population was free and even many slaves lived independently of their owners hiring out their own labor. Leveen’s piece highlights that in Upper South states like Virginia, and even more so in Maryland and Delaware, slaves and free black lived side by side, working, worshiping, socializing, and interacting in many ways–including intermarriage. Richmond even had a huge black church, the First African Baptist Church, with 9,000 members. (At a time when black churches did not exist in much of the slave states) Hence, in the Upper South of the Chesapeake region, freedom had already made considerable inroads even before the Civil War and African Americans, within the constraints of slavery and circumscribed lives of free blacks, were able to achieve a high degree of autonomy in prewar Richmond.
So I highly recommend Leveen’s piece. Indeed, so far Disunion appears to be doing a good job of including coverage of the experience of African Americans in the Civil War. Last Wednesday (January 19, 2011), Disunion ran another African-American related piece by Carla L. Peterson. Entitled “Dr. Smith’s Backroom,” it examines James McCune Smith, an African American in antebellum New York City, and a leader of the black community there. This piece does a nice job of situating the place of African Americans in the North before the Civil War.
In short, with these two fine contributions on African Americans in Disunion, I am hopeful this blog will be an important resource for exploring emancipation as part of the sesquicentennial.