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The Battle for Freedom after Slavery: An Amendment Turns 140

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution mandates that: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." The Thirteenth Amendment was approved by the House of Representatives in early 1865 and sent to the states for ratification. President Andrew Johnson required the former Confederate states to adopt the amendment before they could be readmitted to the union. With the ratification by Georgia on December 6, 1865, three-fourths of the states (27 of 36) had ratified, ensuring that the Thirteenth Amendment would become law. On December 18, 1865 the Secretary of State proclaimed the amendment part of the U.S. Constitution.

To commemorate the 140th anniversary of the ratification of the amendment that legally abolished slavery, Documenting the American South invites you to explore its legacy in the work of African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, a late nineteenth century civil rights activist.

Turner believed that Supreme Court justices in the 1880s were working to undermine the rights guaranteed by the Thirteenth Amendment. In his pamphlet "Civil Rights. The Outrage of the Supreme Court of the United States Upon the Black Man" Turner, writing at the beginning of the Jim Crow period of institutional segregation, argues for full civil rights for African Americans. After recent court decisions had effectively overturned many of the rights guaranteed under the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Turner argued that full citizenship for African Americans was guaranteed under the Thirteenth Amendment. "The intention," he writes, "was to entirely free, not to partly liberate." The pamphlet is available in "The Church in the Southern Black Community" collection, which contains autobiographies, biographies, church documents, sermons, histories, encyclopedias, and other published materials.

The Thirteenth Amendment unilaterally outlawed slavery throughout the reunified United States, something black and white abolitionists had fought for over many decades. Some of the most compelling arguments against slavery were written by formerly enslaved African Americans, who documented their struggles for freedom and human rights before and after the end of slavery. Readers interested in these narratives should browse the "North American Slave Narratives" collection for books and articles that document the individual and collective stories of African Americans in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. This collection also includes all the existing autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English.

Jennifer L. Larson