Evidence of Atrocity: How Hundreds of Thousands of African Americans “Disappeared”

The initial inspiration for this post came from a really fascinating, if internet-antiquated, online resource. The Freedmen’s Bureau Online is a scattered digital archive of a considerable amount of Freedmen’s Bureau records; the bureau was the frustratingly short-lived federal support organization for formerly enslaved African Americans to aid in their transition from slavery to freedom after the Civil War. Included in the archive were the bureau’s list of “Murders and Outrages,” an at-times voluminous — and other times sparse — documentation of violence against African Americans primarily by whites after the end of the Civil War. The lists, and descriptions of the incidents, include harrowing accounts of disappearances and near-murders, illuminating the depth of the terror Southern whites were carrying out against African Americans.

Reading through these lists, I wondered about my own readings of Reconstruction, and the relatively brief descriptions of the violence after the War. Most of the focus was on the well-publicized massacres of African Americans, in places like Memphis and New Orleans. But, as we know, an overwhelming majority of African Americans, around 90%, were not located in such urban areas; most, either by choice or coercion, found themselves still in the rural south, and sometimes on the exact same plantations on which they had suffered and toiled before the War. That means the more common violence was very likely far from public eye, and one’s individual plight and inclusion in a Freedmen’s Bureau record likely a combination of luck and, perhaps, sympathy from a witness.

This is why Robert Smalls becomes such an important figure in an inquiry of post-Civil War violence against African Americans. Among many other Reconstruction activities (including serving as one of the few African American Representatives in South Carolina’s history), Smalls kept record of the atrocities, as well as he could manage, and estimated that the death toll numbered around 53,000. As the linked article from the previous sentence indicates, Smalls likely was drawing considerably from the same Freedmen’s Bureau records of murders and outrages. It seems like such a high number, though…until you consider another War-era atrocity, the gross and often-deliberate negligence of African Americans who fled the plantations towards cities and the Union Army.

Both the Union and the Reconstruction federal government terribly under-served African Americans who escaped towards their freedom; as Connecticut College history professor Jim Downs observed in his book Sick From Freedom, African Americans were often viewed as laborers first, and humans in crisis a distant second. What’s more, Downs also noted the prevailing federal attitude — supported by some in the medical field — that African Americans were biologically susceptible to the diseases they were contracting in their encampments on the outskirts of the Union Army and major cities. If that rationale seems false and opportunistic, you’re right: Europeans in the 18th and 19th century often argued the exact opposite when it came to enslavement in malarial or yellow fever-ridden regions, that Africans had greater resistance to the endemic diseases. In any case, the federal government resolved to drag its feet upon the news of disease epidemics among African Americans, incurring deliberate, frightening costs of life among a malnourished and displaced population. In one smallpox epidemic alone, spanning roughly five years throughout the Southern states, Downs estimated a loss of 60,000. Yet that’s just one epidemic, in a region also playing host to that plague of humanitarian crises, cholera, as well as mosquito-born malaria and yellow fever.

At minimum, then, we are looking at an immediate post-war environment where over 100,000 African Americans are killed due to violence and negligence. For a population of around 4 million in 1860, that is not an insignificant number. Surely a loss of that magnitude would show up in macro-data…so I decided to take a look at the U.S. Census Bureau records, with a focus on the Census years 1850 through 1880. I compared the population growth of Southern whites versus Southern Blacks across the decades of the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, and what I found was astonishing:

I fully expected to see a drop in population growth for both Blacks and whites in the South across the 1860s…who wouldn’t? The Civil War was devastating for the entire Southern population. But, despite the fact that the Confederacy generally barred African Americans from service, and saw the enslaved as an important labor force to keep the Confederate coffers and infrastructure afloat, African Americans saw a near-identical percentage growth drop. If we were to see population growth as a trend from the decade before the War through the decade subsequent and unfettered by it, the shortfall is even scarier:

Certainly, a free African American population could be expected to see a considerable increase in population, as relationships were likewise freed and lost the specter of separation. Instead, the macro-data shows a reverse trend — which could (and should) be viewed as not merely a surprising trend, but likely demonstrating the human cost of the atrocities described above. To put a number to it, if we expected African American growth to trend towards its peak of nearly 35% growth in the 1870s, then we are essentially “missing” 18.6% of our expected 1870 population…or 400,000 African Americans. Even if we expected the drop below expected growth to mirror the drop experienced by Southern whites, the actual numbers are still “short” 250,000 African American lives.

Where did they go, these hundreds of thousands? Read the records, the murders and outrages, Downs’ descriptions of disease and negligence, and you’ll see that Reconstruction history has focused on outstanding cases but missed what should be considered a massive, American atrocity.