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AfriGeneas Books~Authors~Reviews Forum

[FamilyHistory] Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship

I just finished reading Elizabeth Regosin, Freedom’s Promise: Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation (University of Virginia Press, 2001). By focusing on the transition from slavery to citizenship, this book offers a new perspective on some of the conditions that shaped slaves’ families and how ex-slaves re-patterned their families to meet different conditions after Emancipation.

From a genealogical point of view, the book may introduce some readers to the possibility of U.S. Colored Troops' (USCT) pension applications as a source of family information - but, by examining veterans’ families represented in these records, Regosin offers insights into the wider population of slaves and freedpeople as they adjusted to conditions of freedom and the status of citizenship. The author reinvigorates old topics with new insight - slave marriage and divorce, the role of stepparents, how ex-slaves chose their surnames, and why they sometimes changed those surnames. Regosin even offers one case study that touches on polygamy, a subject generally neglected since Herbert Gutman briefly opened the topic thirty years ago in The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976). The author widens our perspective on who might compose a household – and , although Regosin does not use the 1870 or 1880 censuses, her suggestions and conclusions have obvious relevance to how we interpret families in the census. Intended mainly for historians, this book is in no way a genealogist’s guide to pension applications, but it offers a fresh way to look at these and other records with which genealogists are already familiar.

Regosin shows how (free, white) Americans saw the mutual rights and obligations within a nuclear, patriarchal family as the foundation of citizenship in the broader society. Family was the schoolhouse in which children learned citizenship. To contrast free American families with the enslaved experience, Regosin's introductory chapter beautifully describes how the laws of American slavery declared slaves not citizens, wrote slave families out of any legal protections, and forced slaves to construct and adapt their families in ways that did not match the patterns and behaviors expected of free families. Slave families operated according to a set of unwritten rules and social practices shaped by the conditions of their enslavement, or as one ex-slave called them, the "customs of slaves."

The act of bearing arms in defense of one's country was a mark of citizenship to nineteenth-century Americans - a fact that motivated many ex-slaves to join USCT units. Regosin shows that, as Emancipation transformed former slaves into citizens, they had to reconsider their family relations to meet free society’s expectations of citizens. By claiming the pensions of their deceased soldier-relative, widows, children and parents (Regosin argues) were doing more than seeking a pension – they were staking their own claim to citizenship and family identity. By comparing and contrasting “customs of slaves” with the laws that applied to free families, she shows how widows, orphans and parents of deceased veterans struggled to define their past family relations in terms acceptable to pension officials, and how these pension officials struggled to find in slave families the relationships analogous to free families that could win a pension for meritorious applicants.

Far from attempting to obstruct freedpeople in getting pensions to which they were entitled, Regosin portrays government pension officials as usually sympathetic, and ready to investigate whatever sources they could find to substantiate a claim, but, at the same time, they were often hampered by their misconceptions of slave family life and by free society’s expectations of what a normal family should look like and how its members should behave. Regosin shows how just filling out the forms presented ex-slave applicants with perplexing issues, such as how a widow should respond to the question asking for her "maiden name." She shows how pension officials and ex-slaves continually wrestled with the significance of surnames – while white society expected a surname to identify a person’s patrilineal family, the “customs of slaves” might offer a variety different meanings to any person’s surname.

The book has few weak spots, but, at one point, Regosin's argument is sidetracked by her fascination with the idea that imposters could have masqueraded as ex-slaves absent since childhood from a community, entering that community to claim a pension or other inheritance by assuming a deceased veteran's family identity. She describes the difficulty of certifying identity in a society where, lacking written documentation of their personal history, members rely on community memory and oral history - but her analogy to the story of The Return of Martin Guerre in medieval France is incomprehensible unless the reader has read that book or seen the movie.

Regosin selects over 50 of the most complex pension applications to explore the transformation of Southern freedpeople from slavery to citizenship. She does so in a clear, straightforward style, refreshingly free of most historians’ jargon. This new perspective on the experiences of Reconstruction will more than repay its reading by anyone whose ancestors lived through that period of our history.

Elizabeth Regosin, Freedom’s Promise: Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation is available in hardcover and paperback. I bought a second-hand copy online through Alibris (

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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