Emancipation & Self Emancipation



The term "emancipation" describes "the act of freeing a person from another person's control" (Cambridge Dictionary). In the nineteenth-century United States, this term most often referred to an enslaved person's escape from their enslaver's control and legal ownership. Self-emancipation describes "the act of an enslaved person freeing him or herself from the bondage of slavery," by a variety of means legal and extralegal. (American Battlefield Trust)

Occurring throughout the nineteenth century, self-emancipation under the law took the form of an enslaved person purchasing their own freedom through wages made performing trades outside of their enslaver's property. This process most often occurred in urban areas, particularly those in coastal regions of the U.S., but state legal restrictions made manumission virtually impossible by the mid-nineteenth century. Loved ones who purchased family members were forced to legally hold them in bondage, leading to a body of people who "were free by practice, but not by law." (Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Forging Freedom)

The most extreme and least common form of self-emancipation was suicide, which many enslaved people chose rather than remaining in bondage. The most frequent method of self-emancipation, especially during the American Civil War, was to escape from an enslaver's property and flee without their permission. Many notable abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman self-emancipated by running away. Running away signaled how self-emancipation caused legal emancipation for all the enslaved in the United States. During the Civil War, so many enslaved persons self-emancipated and fled to Union lines that the U.S. government had to craft a response. That response manifested first in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, freeing the enslaved in territories under rebellion, and later in the 13th Amendment of 1865, which abolished slavery altogether. Self-emancipation became a primary way for enslaved African Americans in the antebellum U.S. to wield agency over their lives, and their efforts eventually succeeded in producing legislative emancipation from the top down. (American Battlefield Trust)

See also: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/self-emancipation-act-freeing-oneself-slavery#:~:text=Self%2Demancipation%20was%20the%20act,slaves%20were%20able%20to%20do.

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