Highlights from the Gates Collection of African American History and Culture

Antebellum and Civil War

By 1830, abolitionist groups had succeeded in passing laws limiting slavery or providing for its gradual elimination in most Northern states.  As public opinion about slavery began to shift, tensions grew between states that restricted the practice and those where it remained an integral part of the social and economic way of life.  Passage of the Federal Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which forced cooperation between states in the enforcement of slavery, and the Dred Scott Decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1857, which upheld the constitutionality of slavery in an expanding nation, drove opinions further apart.

During the Civil War, the issue of slavery divided the nation.  Once preserving the Union and emancipating slaves became a coherent purpose, compromise was impossible.  The war took a devastating human toll and left swaths of destruction across the South.  The fall of the Confederacy and the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865, officially abolishing slavery, left many emancipated slaves, previously forbidden to own property or gain an education, to face uncertain futures.

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