chapter  1
41 Pages

Free Labor and Intimate Capital: The Postwar Autobiographies of Douglass, Brown, and Washington

IN THE LIFE AND TIMES OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS (1881), HIS THIRD REVISION of his life story, Douglass recalls that in forty years of public life,

I never found myself more widely and painfully at variance with leading colored men of the country than when I opposed the effort to set in motion a wholesale exodus of colored people of the South to the northern states [in 1879] …. It was said of me that I had deserted to the old master class and that I was a traitor to my race-that I had run away from slavery myself, and yet I was opposing others in doing the same. (428)

An immediate question might be, how could others still be “doing the same”—in other words, running away from slavery-over a decade after the Thirteenth Amendment had outlawed that institution? The period following the Civil War was supposed to be a time in which slave labor became free labor and relations of status between a master class and a slave class were replaced by relations of contract between freely acting, equal parties. But the persistence of the older system (or, alternatively, the resemblance of the new system to the old) is implied in Douglass’s words, or at least in the words of his critics, and in the events themselves of what was commonly known as the Exodus.