Imagine a life in which you cannot read or write, where you sign your name with an X to vote, exchange money or buy land.
This was the reality for many African Americans in Maryland before and during Reconstruction, the period of readjustment from 1856 to 1877 following the Civil War.
Institute of Museum and Library Services fellow Krystal Appiah has been using the Maryland State Archives for the past seven months in a new approach to understanding African Americans' experiences during Reconstruction.
"This is an area that's ripe for research," Appiah said in her lecture, "Life After Freedom," at the Laurel Historical Society March 8.
"It's just a time period that we don't know much about."
By scrutinizing census data, fliers for runaway slaves and other documents from the Reconstruction era, Appiah has been able to weave a fuller picture of what she calls an "understudied period of U.S. history."
"It's really a lot of fun to be able to sketch out so much information about people that we thought to be anonymous," she said.
As a boarder state, Maryland did not secede from the Union during the Civil War. While federal Reconstruction largely did not apply to Maryland, state-wide reconstruction gave African Americans more autonomy over their families, political rights, education and institutions.
The Maryland Constitution of 1864, passed on Nov. 1 by a small margin of 375 votes, abolished slavery in the state.
"However, there were several stumbling blocks," Appiah said.
From 1864 to 1867, anti-slavery laws could be circumvented by "proving" African American parents unfit to care for their children, forcing children to leave their families and serve as apprentices, she said.
Some African Americans struggled to keep their families together, as evidenced by the experience of Perry Wilmer, a free black man living in the second half of the 19th century. Wilmer was able to purchase his wife and children from slavery in 1858, but had to sell his youngest son, John, into slavery for nine years to afford his family.
Taking advantage of voting rights
After achieving family unity, the right to vote was imperative to African Americans during this time, Appiah said.
The Maryland Senate and House of Delegates opposed the 15th Amendment's granting of suffrage to all men. Despite this, Baltimore hosted the nation's largest celebration of the amendment's passage, with more than 20,000 attendees hosting a citywide parade.
Between 1882 and 1912, African American voter registration rates in Maryland reached 89 percent —just three percent below registration rates for whites.
Voter turnout in elections increased to 77 percent during that period, suggesting that newly registered African American voters were taking advantage of their right to suffrage.
The high percentage of illiteracy in African Americans during the Reconstruction era staggered many who attended the lecture.
While Maryland established a public school system in 1864, education remained segregated and unequal: InPrince George's County, only 148 of 9,780 African Americans attended school, compared with 1,491 of the county's 11,358 whites. African American schools were sieged by discrimination, from arson of schoolhouses to landowners' refusals to sell plots of land for the construction of the schools.
The African American communities banded together, providing housing for teachers or school supplies, Appiah said.
Despite these struggles, she described the 1870s and 1880s as "great periods of hope for African Americans."
Tricia Most, who came from Adelphi to attend the lecture, felt a similar hope for race relations today.
"I would like to think that people would be smarter and make smarter decisions" with a better understanding of history, she said.
The lecture also resonated with Harold Skipper, of Laurel.
"I've been through all this we're talking about," he said. "When I first came to Maryland (40 years ago), it was a prejudiced place. You couldn't sit down in a white restaurant."
Appiah said sharing her research has been one of the most rewarding parts of her fellowship since she began seven moths ago.
"It helps explain the present," she said. "When you see inequalities that still exist in society, you can see how they formed in the past. We never learned this kind of school (in high school), and it's so relevant," she said. "It makes history come alive."