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Matrice coloniale du genre et les femmes dans la construction nationale

African-American Women in Reconstruction in the Shenandoah Valley

Ann Denkler


Les manuels d'histoire américains et les sites historiques de l'est des États-Unis sont remplis de faits et de fiction sur la guerre de Sécession (1861-1865). La région de la vallée de Shenandoah en Virginie, dans la partie nord-ouest de l'État, par exemple, a vu sa part de conflits et a été marquée par la présence de "grands" chefs militaires pendant la guerre, faits que soulignent les sites historiques locaux. Au cours des vingt dernières années, cette région s’est employée à exposer et interpréter l'histoire afro-américaine. Cet article contribue à documenter cette histoire qui reste à écrire en se centrant sur les femmes afro-américaines (libres ou libérées au moment de la défaite des États confédérés) dans la vallée de Shenandoah durant la Reconstruction (1865-1877). Un point crucial de cette étude est d’évaluer comment l’expérience que font ces femmes de la servitude et de la liberté (à la fois pendant et après l’esclavage) ressemble ou diffère de celles vécues dans d’autres régions du Sud. Ainsi, le stéréotype des grandes plantations placées sous l’autorité patriarcale de maîtres blancs ne décrit pas adéquatement l'histoire de l’esclavage en Amérique et nie aux femmes afro-américaines les rôles qu'elles ont joués dans la fabrique de cette histoire. En outre, pendant la Reconstruction, les représentations racistes de femmes afro-américaines sont apparues dans des publicités écrites et sur des cartes postales, véhiculant une image fausse et romancée des Noirs dans le Sud. L’article analyse certaines de ces images, mais se concentre essentiellement sur les dossiers du Bureau des Affranchis afin d’explorer les formes d’agentivité des femmes noires dans la vallée de Shenandoah et de peindre un tableau plus riche de leurs expériences à l’époque de la Reconstruction.

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1The American Civil War, 1861-1865, saturates historical narratives of all types—from textbooks, to film, to public history sites. Millions of dollars are poured into preserving the heritage of battlefields, building museums, and creating interpretive programs, especially in the southern state of Virginia. Consequently, interpretation of the war here is ubiquitous and draws thousands of tourists yearly for their Civil War history fix. The Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia, in the northwestern part of the state, saw a significant share of conflict and most historic sites in the area focus on the war. Over the past twenty years or so, this region has embraced the exhibition and interpretation of the African American story in the Civil War a story long neglected. As a more inclusive history is pursued, there are still two glaring omissions—stories of women of color in the Civil War and the entire history of the volatile Reconstruction Era (1865-1877), the postwar period that gave rise to the full emancipation of slaves, but also the implementation of Jim Crow laws and de jure segregation.

  • 1 This moniker comes from the name of a documentary series created by the Public Broadcasting Service (...)

2My goal in this paper is to contribute to the dearth of this scholarship by looking at one angle of Reconstruction—an exploration of African American women in the Shenandoah Valley--women who were already free and women who found freedom upon the South’s surrender in the Civil War. Through examining primary sources—namely, letters written by, and to, the Freedmen’s Bureau, the first “welfare” agency dedicated to providing financial relief to African Americans—I will argue that Black women created their own visions of freedom through their experiences of exploitation, accommodation, and resistance in a distinctive area of the South. I believe their lives have been overlooked because of racism and sexism in historical scholarship, an over-emphasis on militaristic heroism, but also a pervasive belief that after1865, when African Americans became legally free, their stories of bondage and struggle simply ended; their history becomes triumphant and unidirectional toward racial progress. This more popular-culture based understanding of American history is simply false—the struggles for racial equality were still a long way off and the fact that the Reconstruction period is called “The Second Civil War” is telling1.

3As an American Studies scholar, I am devoted to crossing disciplinary boundaries. Consequently, my paper also examines how the touristic narratives of the latter part of the nineteenth century—postcard imagery and travel brochures—sought to freeze African-American women in images centered on poverty, work, and sex. These depictions, I believe, helped to create a morally and commercially satisfying and digestible image of African Americans for white readers especially in the North and a burgeoning white consumer market. Thus, at the same time African American women were struggling to recoup from the ravages of slavery—finding loved ones, searching for the basic necessities of life such as food, shelter, and clothing—the white media created and profited from portraying Black women in stereotypical and derogatory ways. The essential question that plagued the United States after the Civil War, what did we our nation to be, dominates our history books. But one other essential question should be: what did we want African Americans and, for this paper, African American women to be? Certainly, and as I will demonstrate, organizations after the Civil War supplied some relief for Black women, helping them reunite with their families, and pushing notions of individual and racial uplift through work. Idleness among African Americans was seen as the worst possible outcome of Reconstruction, and African-American women did work in myriad capacities to try to begin new lives. The imagery, however, of Black women smiling in fields of cotton, of playfully chewing on hay, of larger-set women laughing in their kerchiefs, was another expectation that a white public desired to see fulfilled in post-Civil War America. Women of color in the Shenandoah Valley and in other regions of the country were caught in the crosshairs of the racialized politics and a ruthless consumer market popular culture of the post-war period.

The Role of the Freedmen’s Bureau and African-American Women’s Experiences

  • 2 See: Dunaway Wilma A., Slavery in the American Mountain South, New York, 2003, p. 5. Virginia’s uni (...)

4What is important to this study is how Black women in the Valley, both during and after enslavement, experienced slavery and freedom similarly and differently from other regions in the South, or what is labeled the Deep South—Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, where the Black population was highest. Sociologist Wilma Dunaway recognizes this dearth of scholarship in the Upper South of the United States by claiming “The prevailing scholarly view is that slavery was largely absent from the Mountain South and the region’s few slaveholders were more kindly than their Lower South peers.”2 Thus, the dominant paradigms and mythologies of large plantations overseen by single white patriarchs do not adequately describe the entirely of slave history in America and denies African American women the agency they deserve as historical actors.

5Since slavery was a varied and dynamic system of oppression, and perhaps no two slave experiences were alike, so too was rehabilitation and reconstruction, and the coming of freedom had to meet a wide range of needs. To combat the challenges and dangers of everyday life faced by the formerly enslaved, the federal government created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (most often called, simply, the Freedmen’s Bureau) in March 1865. The Bureau supplied food, helped build schools and homes, and also served as a quasi-police force scattered throughout the southern states. And since it was a federal agency, it yielded an immense amount of archival documentation largely in the form of letters written by officers for the newly freed population and reports written by officers assessing Reconstruction in each state and each region including the Virginia’s Valley. These primary materials are the main source of my paper.

6From its beginning, the Bureau was entrenched in ideals of free labor, an antebellum philosophy rooted in the inherent moral uplift of work and the chance of self-fulfillment and social mobility through work and working for wages through contractual obligations. Executing these ideals proved very difficult. Officers, who numbered only in the hundreds in the entire south, were housed in a small buildings with a desk, a bed, and stove, and saw a nearly-constant line of Blacks and whites knock on the door and ask for assistance. Black women in the Valley asked for help to find food and shelter, the basic necessities. But these largely illiterate women, most of whom were mothers, sought information on their children, protection from former masters, and legal justice centered on wage denial and other forms of exploitation. Women of color, then, began fighting for their lives and families in any way they could.

7In many areas of the South, and in the Valley, African American women were forced to deal with living with their former masters for work, shelter, and support in whatever ways they could find it. One other challenge for them was to be the brunt of a former master’s or mistress’s anger over the struggles they were having after the Civil War. White owners found themselves destitute, homeless, traumatized by death, and now, so they felt, forced into a position of giving relief to their former slaves at the direction of an occupying northern army and ideological presence. This anger and resentment found its way into the lives of African Americans, especially African American women, who were more likely to depend on the welfare of their former masters for the basic necessities of life because of being the sole providers for their children. The tragic cases of abuse at the hands of master and mistress are numerous and found often in the Freedmen’s Bureau letters and reports.

  • 3 Unidentified author to Captain Stover How, date unidentified, in War Department, Letters Sent, Bure (...)
  • 4 Unidentified author to Captain Stover How, date unidentified, in War Department, Letters Sent, Bure (...)
  • 5 D.W. Cook to Office of Superintendant, July 21, 1866 in War Department, Letters Sent, Bureau of Ref (...)

8African American women must have traveled for many miles on landscapes they knew nothing about to try seek some kind of recourse for abuse, and to gain money due to them or a safe haven for their families. Laura Scott, an African American woman owned by Robert Garrett, senior on the Greenway Plantation in King William County, Virginia complained that Garrett, Jr., beat her, refused to support her and her five children, who, she claimed, were fathered by Garrett. Laura also reported that the elder Garrett “left his entire estate to the colored people living on it” and the younger Garrett, unsurprisingly, denied this claim.3 Not only then, did African American mothers have to worry about supporting their children after freedom, but they were forced to deal with their children as illegitimate products as slavery. Masters, and now, former masters felt no obligation to the children with women left with no legal foundation on which to stand for protection. Maria Barnett of New Kent County filed a complaint about Isiah Higgins because he promised to pay her, but “kept her till the crop was secured and turned her off, beating her severely”4 In July 1866, Julia Reynolds presented her case to Provost Marshal Cook in Staunton, Virginia stating that Susan Alexander owed Julia forty-five dollars for labor stretching from April 1865 to March 1866.5 The date of when her labor began is telling: she insisted on begin paid the same month the Civil War and slavery ended. That Julia waited a year to file this complaint is intriguing, but perhaps Alexander could not pay her and kept promising her she would get paid.

  • 6 P.S. Evans to Captain R.S., 16 August 1865, in War Department, Letters Sent, Bureau of Refugees, Fr (...)

9In a complaint filed in August 1865, Sally Jackson visited P.S. Evans, a Bureau officer to try seek justice and probably protection from John Taylor of King William County who “promised to feed and clothe her and her three children till Christmas.” According to Sally, Taylor “with no provocation beat her very severely and drove her and her little ones away paying her nothing and threatening to shoot her if she returned”.6 Black women found themselves in a convoluted web of expectations and realities that left them focused on food, shelter, and protection for themselves and their children, but left them forced to deal with labels of dependency, laziness, “sassiness”, and situations involving beatings and rape. The sacrifices that African American women made during slavery for their children did not simply vanish after the war; in many ways the challenges of womanhood and motherhood and merging of the two were only now beginning.

  • 7 G.R. Choneller (sp) to 9th District, Department of the Potomac, Winchester, Virginia, 23 November, (...)

10The first desire for African American women was to reunite, if possible, with their families, and their hopes are reflected often in the letters of the Freedmen’s Bureau. In November 1866, Mary Robinson of Winchester, Virginia visited the local Freedmen’s Bureau office to inquire about her two sons, George and Shirley, 16 and 11 years old, both of who were sold in Richmond in 1862. Mary asked that an advertisement be placed in a local Richmond paper with “the largest southern circulation” for any word of her children.7 African American newspapers assisted with this effort for years after emancipation, which must have been a daunting task. These women, as chattel with no rights to their own children, are left with relying on strangers, extended family, newspapers, and word of mouth to find their families. Trying to communicate with displaced family members must have also severely limited the free woman of color the opportunity to travel to find shelter and work since her movement would jeopardize her chances of a loved one who may have been returning to find her. Her reluctance to move contributed to the false idea that African American women refused to migrate to find work and were lazy and insubordinate.

Race and the Creation of a Tourism Market

11As men and women of color continued to secure the freedoms they had fought so hard for in the post-war period, a new industry emerged, mass tourism, and so too did trends in journalistic and touristic literary traditions to feed this industry. Some of these magazines, newspapers, books, and postcards gave rise to the “plantation tradition”, a genre glorifying a pre-war ordered and patriarchal world of southern plantations in which all members, including and especially African Americans felt intense and loving bonds. The central part of this tradition was the representation of African Americans, newly freed and at the forefront of political, cultural, and racial change. These works and pictures harmlessly situate Black men and women working in fields, sitting in front of log cabins, always safely contained in the southern landscape.

  • 8 See: Johnson Charles, Highways and Byways of the South, New York, 1903, p. 345. There are hundreds (...)

12A large number of touristic images of African American women in the South show them working on plantations—nostalgic settings that belied the struggles they witnessed and the personal and racial gains they made during Reconstruction. Men and families are often pictured alongside them, and they all seem content with their work. There are also images of the “mammy” figure in the written accounts, an asexualized, very popular stereotype of the period, but there are also more “pornographic” postcards—revealing a young woman gazing back at the observer with a flirty eye, and yet still in her “safe” plantation setting. Perhaps most shocking to me in my research thus far was the discovery of, Highways and Byways of the South, written in 1903 by Clifton Johnson.8 Each chapter in this book written to be a tourist’s guide, describes a particular southern state, but the final chapter is simply titled “The Niggers”. Here, literally, African Americans, become tourist attractions in of themselves. A typical observation by the author reads:

A reckless expenditure of case in hand is a marked tendency of the race, and I recall it was mentioned to me in one village where I was stopping

that, ‘If the nigger women see a white woman go past with a new-style dress on, they must get one just the same if they die for it. They’re bound

to be as like white folks as they can.

  • 9 See: Urry John, The Tourist Gaze, London, 2002. For a brief but informative description of racializ (...)

13Writers like Johnson and photographers, then, created fantastical, racist, southern bucolic landscapes far removed from the horrors and destruction of the Civil War, and in these works, the fields of the South gleamed with landscapes of slow-moving rivers, fields of cotton, and what appear to be peaceful and hard-working African American women. In creating this imagery, these writers, photographers, and postcard makers (of whom many were originally from the South), fed the American public’s need for news from the vanquished territory and circulated this reinterpretation of these idyllic landscapes cleansed of any sign of racism, severe economic woes, and poverty. These photos also created a distinct tourist gaze—in the John Urry definition—based on racial difference and racism, in which African Americans were denied any performance potential of their own.9 This possessive gaze imposed upon marginalized cultures, increased with intensity as part of the spread of the tourism market in the late 1800s. The gaze also forced another sense of physical and psychological ownership upon the subjects (African Americans), and was not an expected result of the growth of travel and tourism; instead, the tourist gaze was and is a process of construction and negotiation of power relationships orbiting in a web of consumerism, nationalism, and racism.


14The Reconstruction Era remains a neglected historical period in both written narratives and on American public history landscapes. The interpretation and decades of reinterpretation of the American Civil War, especially in the southern state of Virginia, usurps the crucial history that occurred after the emancipation of enslaved men and women. What might seem to be a period in which freedom was realized for African Americans became a time of great national economic and racial strife. Women of color, in particular, suffered immensely as they attempted to find their lost loved ones, secure the basic necessities of life, and create and sustain economic and social power. With a varied amount of assistance from the Freedmen’s Bureau, a national governmental agency that was designed as a welfare agency, African American women did begin their arduous journeys to fulfill roles of mother, worker, companion, and educated citizen. At the same time, however, American consumer culture rose to unprecedented highs, including a burgeoning and lucrative tourism market. This capitalist expansion and a racist backlash that characterized the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods gave rise to false and stereotypical imagery of African American women as sexualized, asexualized, and seemingly relegated to lives as agricultural laborers. Thus, at the same moment African American women were realizing a new and expanded version of independence and motherhood, these popular images and narratives collapse them into stereotyped figures designed for public consumption. Despite these severe obstacles, women of color did begin the long journey of loving and caring motherhood, work, worship, education, and companionship after the surrender of the South.

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Dunaway, Wilma, Slavery in the American Mountain South, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Dunaway, Wilma, The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Johnson, Charles, Highways and Byways of the South, New York, Macmillan, 1903.

Mellinger Wayne, “Toward a critical analysis of tourism representations”, Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 21, n°4, p. 756-779.

Urry, John,The Tourist Gaze, London, Sage, 2002.

Primary Source Collections

Various Authors (1865-1870). Letters sent through the War Department, Bureau

Of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105. National Archives: Washington, DC.

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1 This moniker comes from the name of a documentary series created by the Public Broadcasting Service in December 2003: Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.

2 See: Dunaway Wilma A., Slavery in the American Mountain South, New York, 2003, p. 5. Virginia’s unique geography determined the varied forms of slave labor. The “Tidewater” area, or the southern region that lines the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, saw large numbers of slaves who worked on mostly substantial tobacco plantations. The slaves who worked in the northwestern section of the state, including the Shenandoah Valley, worked on smaller farms where the population of both whites and African Americans was smaller. Many “official” histories of the Valley, written in the early twentieth century, claim that since there were not many slaves in the Valley region, that slavery was not vital to the economic survival of the region. See: Dunaway Wilma A., The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, New York, 2003.

3 Unidentified author to Captain Stover How, date unidentified, in War Department, Letters Sent, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, National Archives, Record Group 105.

4 Unidentified author to Captain Stover How, date unidentified, in War Department, Letters Sent, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, National Archives, Record Group 105.

5 D.W. Cook to Office of Superintendant, July 21, 1866 in War Department, Letters Sent, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, National Archives, Record Group 105.

6 P.S. Evans to Captain R.S., 16 August 1865, in War Department, Letters Sent, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, National Archives, Record Group 105.

7 G.R. Choneller (sp) to 9th District, Department of the Potomac, Winchester, Virginia, 23 November, 1866, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, National Archives, Record Group 105.

8 See: Johnson Charles, Highways and Byways of the South, New York, 1903, p. 345. There are hundreds of accounts in book and journal forms describing life in the post-Civil War South. Many contain illustrations and/or photos. Although these works most often rely on racist imagery and language, they are also important first-hand accounts of the effects of the Civil War on the southern landscape and its people.

9 See: Urry John, The Tourist Gaze, London, 2002. For a brief but informative description of racialized tourist imagery, see Mellinger Wayne, “Toward a critical analysis of tourism representations”, in Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 21, n°4, p. 756-779.

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Ann Denkler, « African-American Women in Reconstruction in the Shenandoah Valley »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 08 avril 2014, consulté le 30 mai 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Ann Denkler

Associate Professor History
Shenandoah University
Winchester, VA, USA

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