The “Contraband”—A Precarious Freedom


As the Civil War unfolded, slavery began ending.  It didn’t end through a single act or pronouncement, any more than it had gotten started that way.  Instead, as battle followed battle, humans began chipping away at slavery on an extemporaneous basis, as opportunities arose.  White officials in the North, agents of the Union cause, did something to facilitate this process of emancipation, which yet required Southern slaves’ own determination and action to become a real thing.  To become free was momentous, but it was also a curiously precarious and fearfully abstract condition.  It was “nothing but freedom,” as historian Eric Foner aptly put it.

This photograph captures the momentousness and curious sameness of emancipation.  In 1862, as Union and Confederate troops battled in Virginia, slaves seized the moment, leaving their putative masters and seeking refuge from bondage by crossing over into Union camps.  The slaves pictured here were newly free, but their freedom was tenuous and geographic, dependent on the Northern forces’ advance onto enemy ground.  Before the war, such fugitives could never rest easy, for a federal law passed in 1850 required Northerners to respect slaveholders’ rights and allow them to recapture their “property,” even if their property had fled into the North and resided on “free ground.”

All that went by the boards when the sections warred.  Union strategists recognized that hastening slavery’s end was key to defeating the rebel states.  Hoping to deprive the Confederates of a captive labor force and to disrupt slave-master relationships, Northerners began encouraging and harboring the freedmen, as former slaves were called.  Besides, many of those leading the Union effort were abolitionists who recoiled at the inhumanity of the “peculiar institution.”  To many Northerners, though by no means all, liberating and “uplifting the slave” was a principled, intrinsic part of what the war was for.

Others saw the refugee slaves as more problematic.  Laws had yet to be written or passed establishing that former slaves should enjoy the status of free citizens and the attendant rights.  Years would pass before the legal and civil status of former slaves was settled.  In the meantime, some folk regarded the freedmen as more akin to “lost property”–chattel who fell short of being truly human and free.  White ambivalence toward the freedmen was reflected in the word they used initially to define them: “contraband,” a word for forbidden or illicitly held property.

The Union army, willing to facilitate the former slaves in their passage to freedom, hastily staked out and ran provisional “contraband camps.”  The refugees pictured above had been assigned an outbuilding on a farm in Cumberland Landing, Virginia, where Union officers were also headquartered.  Eventually, the Union army would shelter a population of contraband estimated at as many as one million souls.  In 1862, though, when this picture was taken, fleeing slaves were a novelty: they were the emissaries of a race of people white northerners were unfamiliar with, whom they would previously have had little chance to see or know.

The strangeness of this historic moment lives on in the photograph, in the stances and facial expressions of the newly free, whose difference from the photographer and the army around them is registered in expressions of watchful gravity.  Only one woman in the center is smiling, and no wonder.  Despite having survived their first flight to “freedom,” these intrepid souls were right to doubt whether they had truly arrived.  They needed to keep the army between themselves and the Southern rebels, or else face the awful risk of being re-enslaved.

Image: from this source

Truman Capote


Several beautiful portraits by Carl Van Vechten, who photographed many of the 20th century’s most illustrious intellectuals and artists, have recently shown up on the Library of Congress’s Flickr feed.  Among them is this particularly surreal composition, featuring a young Truman Capote, photographed against a dreamlike marbled background with puppets.  At just 24 years of age, Capote was already attaining the status of a celebrity with the publication of his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Image: from this source

Why The Republican Party Must Die

Dear Readers, Thank you so much for watching and commenting on last week’s video about living through a paradigm shift. I truly appreciate our dialogue, which you enrich every time you choose to go public with your thoughts.

This week I discuss the troubling political situation we face in the wake of the January 6th insurrection. This 12-minute video covers three points: 1) On the 6th, we saw the emergence of an unprecedented kind of violent anti-federalism, whose adherents come from all regions and classes of American society.  2) These elements pose an ongoing threat to the rule of law. Most of the people who perpetrated and participated in the violent attack on the Capitol, and federal government itself, have not been called out or held accountable.  3) The Republican Party has chosen to harbor and defend these elements, thwarting every effort to identify seditious people and temporizing when it comes to the threat that militant anti-federalism poses.

We can’t sit on the sidelines waiting to see what new horror the Republican Party sanctions. We must encourage the formation of a new centrist third party to draw off support from the Republican Party and hasten its demise.


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Chicago’s Downtown: Dead or Alive?

LaSalle Street is deserted. A post-pandemic norm

Though the pandemic is waning, downtown Chicago remains semi-comatose.  On a Monday at mid-day, the financial district was empty except for a handful of pedestrians.  Absent were the Ubers, trucks, and cabs usually clogging this part of town.  South LaSalle Street, which has been in decline since the Chicago Board of Trade (center) closed its trading floors, is even more of a ghost town than before.


How sound are the balance sheets of these massive commercial buildings?  The Real Deal reports that, by the end of 2020, the vacancy rate in Chicago’s central business district had climbed to a “grim” level of 14.2 percent, with 148.2 million square feet of unrented office space.  Meanwhile, businesses still holding leases tried to reduce their obligations by offering to sublease 5.4 million square feet of vacant space, a 93-percent increase over 2019.

Commercial real estate broker MBRE reports that the vacancy rate has since increased to 15.36 percent at the end of March, 2021.  When the sublease space is thrown in, the total rate of surplus office space comes to 19.20 percent.  (Office vacancy in the Chicago suburbs has been rising, too.)


With so few Chicagoans commuting downtown, and tourism at a standstill, entities that provide ancillary goods and services are languishing.  It’s eerie seeing so few people on this particular stretch of Adams.  Normally, people would be strolling toward the Art Institute (center), going for lunch at the Revival Food Hall (left), or doing business at the Federal Court Buildings and Post Office (right).


In-person activity in the vicinity of the Federal Court remains subdued.  Chicago’s downtown, while paralyzed by COVID, was also gravely injured by the opportunistic violence perpetrated during the summer of 2020.  Many businesses went under in the wake of the looting and the trauma; others, though solvent, remain indefinitely closed for want of custom.  Some storefront businesses, like the Intelligentsia in the Monadnock Building (center), stand poised to reopen should their former clientele materialize.

Given the relative expense of doing business in Chicago and prevailing wait-and-see atmosphere, it’s doubtful when the city will wake up and regain its health.

Living Through a Paradigm Shift

Dear Readers,
I’ve turned to video to cover topics that I think are important but that I can best present in an informal and patently speculative way.  Today’s video is about living through a paradigm shift, which occurs when a society must abandon the concepts and practices that formerly governed its culture.  Do you think, as I do, that, in the wake of the insurrection and the pandemic, a new set of values and interests will come to prevail in the American mind?  Let me know.