This article emerged from my MA Thesis as an attempt to complicate the question, “Who Freed the Slaves?” I attempt to show that you can’t understand the question apart from African American agency as well as Union troop movement, making emancipation a process mediated by personal experience and geographical location. It was rarely a sharp break with the past in clear terms of ideology, status, or policy.
EBSCO has a PDF of this article freely available, “The Contours of Emancipation: Freedom Comes to Southwest Arkansas.”
A late morning in early summer was a strange time to hear the plantation work hom blow on a southem cotton field. It was June 4, 1865, nearly two months after Confederate forces surrendered at Appomattox. The slaves toiling in the fields of the Isaac Jones plantation in Hempstead County, Arkansas, barely broke pace, believing the whistle a mistake. Their overseer—who took control of them for the Jones family after Isaac, the patriarch, was killed in a boiler explosion—was supposed to have been on a trip to the nearby town of Washington, and it was too early for the lunch call. Once more, however, their pace was interrupted by the steam whistle’s blow. Rather than face punishment for ignoring the call, the lead row slave rounded everyone up and led them to the cabins. What they saw when they got there must have confused them: a federal official was perched beside their overseer, who had a slip of paper. On it were all of their names. They were no longer the names of enslaved people to be counted as the property of the Jones family; they were the names of free men and women. The slaves on the Jones plantation were finally free, and this northern man was their liberator.