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Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction

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From one of our most distinguished historians, a new examination of the vitally important years of Emancipation and Reconstruction during and immediately following the Civil War–a necessary reconsideration that emphasizes the era’s political and cultural meaning for today’s America.

In Forever Free, Eric Foner overturns numerous assumptions growing out of the traditional understanding of the period, which is based almost exclusively on white sources and shaped by (often unconscious) racism. He presents the period as a time of determination, especially on the part of recently emancipated black Americans, to put into effect the principles of equal rights and citizenship for all.

Drawing on a wide range of long-neglected documents, he places a new emphasis on the centrality of the black experience to an understanding of the era. We see African Americans as active agents in overthrowing slavery, in helping win the Civil War, and–even more actively–in shaping Reconstruction and creating a legacy long obscured and misunderstood. Foner makes clear how, by war’s end, freed slaves in the South built on networks of church and family in order to exercise their right of suffrage as well as gain access to education, land, and employment.

He shows us that the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and renewed acts of racial violence were retaliation for the progress made by blacks soon after the war. He refutes lingering misconceptions about Reconstruction, including the attribution of its ills to corrupt African American politicians and “carpetbaggers,” and connects it to the movements for civil rights and racial justice.

Joshua Brown’s illustrated commentary on the era’s graphic art and photographs complements the narrative. He offers a unique portrait of how Americans envisioned their world and time.

Forever Free is an essential contribution to our understanding of the events that fundamentally reshaped American life after the Civil War–a persuasive reading of history that transforms our sense of the era from a time of failure and despair to a threshold of hope and achievement.

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A Timeline of Emancipation

In Forever Free, Eric Foner, the leading historian of America's Reconstruction era, reexamines one of the most misunderstood periods of American history: the struggle to overthrow slavery and establish freedom for African Americans in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. Forever Free is extensively illustrated, with visual essays by scholar Joshua Brown discussing the images of the period alongside Foner's text.

1787 The United States Constitution is ratified, containing several protections for slavery, including the Fugitive Slave Clause, three-fifths clause, and a cause prohibiting the abolition of the slave trade from Africa before 1808.
1829-31 Publication of Appeal ... to the Coloured Citizens of the World by David Walker and The Liberator, a weekly newspaper edited by William Lloyd Garrison, marks the emergence of a new, militant abolitionist movement.
Diagram of a slave ship from an 1808 report
1831 August 22 Nat Turner launches a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, resulting in the deaths of 55 whites persons before the uprising is crushed.
1846 August Congress adjourns after intense sectional debate over the Wilmot Proviso, a proposal to prohibit slavery in all territory acquired in the Mexican-American War.
1860 November 6 Election of Abraham Lincoln as president, representing the anti-slavery Republican Party
1861 February 4 Seven seceded southern states form the Confederate States of America
April 12 The Confederate attack on South Carolina's Fort Sumter begins the Civil War.
A woodcut published in an 1831 account of the Nat Turner uprising
May 24 Gen. Benjamin F. Butler declares fugitive slaves at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, "contraband of war," who will not be returned to their owners.
August 6 First Confiscation Act provides for the emancipation of slaves employed as laborers by the Confederate army.
1862 April 16 Congress abolishes slavery in the District of Columbia with compensation to loyal owners, and also appropriates funds for "colonization" of freed slaves outside the United States.
July 17 Second Confiscation Act frees slaves of disloyal owners.
September 22 Five days after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issues the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which warns the South that if the rebellion has not ended by January 1, he will emancipate the slaves. It also promises aid to states that adopt plans for gradual, compensated emancipation and refers to colonization of freed people outside the country.
1863 January 1 Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in areas under Confederate control. It exempts Tennessee and parts of Louisiana and Virginia and does not apply to the border states, and also authorizes the enlistment of black soldiers.
"Contrabands" in Cumberland Landing, Virginia, May 1862
July 30 Lincoln insists black Union soldiers captured by the Confederate army be treated as prisoners of war, not escaped slaves as Confederate president Jefferson Davis has threatened.
December 8 Lincoln issues the Proclamation of Amnesty of Reconstruction, offering a pardon and restoration of property (except slave property) to Confederates who take an oath of allegiance to the Union.
1864 September 5 New constitution of Louisiana abolishes slavery; new constitutions in Maryland, Missouri, and Tennessee follow suit in the next six months.
November 8 Lincoln reelected as president.
January 16 Gen. William T. Sherman issues Special Field Order 15, setting aside land in coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida for settlement by black families in 40-acre plots.
March 3 Congress orders emancipation of wives and children of black soldiers.
March 13 Confederate Congress authorizes enlistment of black soldiers.
April 11 In the last speech before his death, two days after Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln favors limited black suffrage in the South.
Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln, Washington, DC
April 14 Assassination of Lincoln.
December 18 Ratification of the 13th Amendment irrevocably abolishes slavery throughout the United States.
1866 April 9 Over the veto of President Andrew Johnson, Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, establishing citizenship of black Americans and requiring that they be accorded equality before the law, principles later written into the Constitution in the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868.
John Wilkes Booth assassinates Lincoln, April 1865
1867 March 2 Congress passes the Reconstruction Act, again over President Johnson's veto, extending the right to vote to black men in the South and inaugurating the era of Radical Reconstruction, America's first experiment in interracial democracy.
1877 February After intense bargaining to resolve the disputed presidential election of 1876, Democrats agree to recognize Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president, and Hayes agrees to end federal support for remaining Reconstruction governments.
A March 1867 cartoon, following the passage of the Reconstruction Act, shows President Johnson and his southern allies angrily watching African Americans vote.

About the Author:

Eric Foner, a winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books include The Story of American Freedom and Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. He lives in New York City.

Joshua Brown is the executive director of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books include Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America. He lives in New York City.

This book is the first effort of the Los Angeles-based Forever Free Project, an ongoing collaboration among film and television producers and writers and our most distinguished historians and scholars. The Forever Free Project is preparing a film on Emancipation and Reconstruction.

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