In 1935, Du Bois published a massive scholarly work called Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, in which he undertook to rewrite the story that mainstream historians had been telling about slavery and its aftermath. In a brief statement “To the Reader,” placed at the very beginning of the book, Du Bois announced his intention to challenge the story accepted and repeated by
"It would be only fair to the reader to say frankly in advance that the attitude of any person toward this story will be distinctly influenced by his theories of the Negro race. If he believes that the Negro in
At the center of Black Reconstruction is a startling thesis that completely rewrites the story told by the Southern historians and their followers, North and South, about the Civil War. In their account, the slaves were perhaps the object of the war – that is to say, they were in great part what the war was fought over. But they were not subjects in the war, they did not exercise the choice, deliberation, and agency that are the mark of human beings. In the standard accounts of Du Bois’ time, the war was fought by two groups of White men. At issue were the union, or disunion, of the
The core of Du Bois’ challenge is a dramatic and highly controversial claim. During the Civil War, he insisted, the slaves played an active role in the struggle against the South, and in the last years of the conflict, their actions proved the decisive element that enabled the North to win. How was this possible, confined as they were to plantations and farms where their daily lives were controlled by the whips and chains of their masters? In three ways, Du Bois suggested.
First, drawing on European theories of working-class struggles against capitalism, Du Bois argues that the slaves withheld their labor from the productive activities of Southern agriculture, thereby fatally weakening the ability of the South to supply its troops in the field. The slaves could not strike, as free workers did in the North or in Europe, but they slowed down the temp of their work, sabotaged the raising and bringing in of the crops, secretly set smokehouses and storage barns afire, and in all the ways they could, worked against rather than for their owners. This was not a coordinated effort centrally planned, of course. As Du Bois points out, the slaves were isolated in rural settings, for the most part unable and indeed forbidden by law to read or write. It was extremely difficult for them even to communicate with their fellow slaves at the next plantation down river, let alone organize across the entire South. But, Du Bois insists, the slaves understood what was happening and what was at stake, and they took every opportunity they could to sabotage the essential supply of the Confederate Army.
The second thing the slaves did was to run away from the plantations whenever the Union Army forces got close. Scores of thousands of slaves made it to the Northern army camps. There, they were put to work doing much of the essential work of maintaining an army in the field. The Northern troops were scarcely less contemptuous of Black men and women than their Southern opponents, needless to say, but they needed the labor, and understood that it weakened the South to lose so much of its labor supply.
The third, and perhaps most important, way in which the slaves fought the South was by taking up arms in the Union Army and going into battle. As the terrible war ground on, year after year,
Returning to the image with which I began these remarks, we can think of Du Bois as climbing to the crest of the hill, surveying the events on the great plain, and calling back to those below: “I see things that my fellow historians on this crest have not told you of. I see Black men and women taking their fate into their own hands. I see them struggling against great odds for their freedom. I can see that they, like their White counterparts, are capable of labor and of sacrifice, of heroism and of cowardice. In fine, I can see, and I am now able to tell you, that Negroes are ordinary human beings.”
The historical profession was not ready to hear Du Bois’ story. By and large, mainstream historians ignored it, and continued to tell the old tale well into the 1960's. As it turned out, Du Bois was just about fifty years ahead of his time. In the 1980's, a distinguished group of historians at the
Their conclusion, to sum it up very briefly, was that Du Bois had been right all those years before. There in the archives was the documentary evidence to support his claims – that the slaves had withheld their labor in the fields, that they had run away by the scores of thousands to the Northern lines, and that they had been recruited into the Union Army, enabling the North to win the war.
What is so remarkable, looking back on this evolution, is that Du Bois had virtually none of the archival materials at his disposal when he wrote Black Reconstruction. I do not think it exaggerates the case to say that the ability of Du Bois to see the truth, with only the scantiest of original materials on which to draw, is explained by his fundamental recognition that, as he put it, “Negroes are ordinary human beings.” Once we take this simple fact as our starting point, it is not difficult to find evidences of their active engagement in the unfolding of their own fate. Indeed, it would be very odd indeed if a group of people were to stand idly by while their very freedom was in the balance. Historians as distinguished as Morrison and Commager were unable to see this truth because, whatever they might say, they did not really consider Black people to be fully human.