The Familial Fight Against Racism

Brigadier General Benjamin Davis conducting rifle inspection of United States Colored Troops, England, 1942? (Library of Congress)


The Civil War remains one of the most discussed and published historical topics. Often, public and academic discourse on United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments focuses on issues, including but not limited to military battles, racial discrimination in service, and the important role that freedmen (who later became soldiers) and their kin played throughout the Civil War Era. Meanwhile, the antebellum lives of freeborn northern USCT soldiers and their families are finally receiving scholarly attention as well. Similar to James G. Mendez, this piece seeks to illuminate the civilian lives of northern USCT soldiers to reveal how they, and their families, fought every day against racial discrimination. By taking this approach, it is plausible to establish a more inclusive historical interpretation that reveals their complex living situations and familial dynamics that later shaped their wartime and postwar lives.

In northern cities, such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, slavery was illegal, but a well-established abolitionist network continually fought against racial discrimination that permeated every facet of northern society. White northerners successfully created and maintained legal and informal policies that denigrated and jeopardized the lives of Black people to promote white supremacy. For instance, in 1854, Pennsylvania legalized racially segregated public schools (if twenty or more Black pupils attended the school). An unfortunate consequence of this policy was that Black public schools became overcrowded, underfunded, and sometimes employed racist educators, which angered Black Pennsylvanians. 

As children, future Pennsylvanian USCT soldiers—Wilson Day, Samuel Benson, and George Glascow—were examples of school-age youths who, for differing reasons, did not attend the public schools. Perhaps their parents’ desired to shelter them from experiencing racial discrimination in a “Colored” secondary school where white teachers were openly hostile and racist towards their Black students. For instance, in a Christian Recorder article, Black Philadelphian parents complained about Miss Donnelly, a teacher, when they threatened to “break the school up by preventing our children from going” if she remained at the Colored School in Sixth Street.1

Numerous Black people considered access to education as one of the most important rights to simultaneously refute racist stereotypes, advance notions of citizenship, and potentially create a more racially egalitarian society for future generations. Some even claimed that public educational institutions trained boys to develop notions of citizenship that both privileged their minds and manhood. For example, as a child, Jacob C. White, Jr. (a future USCT recruiter and abolitionist) told Pennsylvania Governor James Pollack as much, during a visit, in 1855. “We are nevertheless preparing ourselves usefully for a future day, when citizenship in our country will be based on manhood and not on color.”2 White, Jr.’s statement illustrates how his demands for racial equality denied girls in public schools, such as Anna and Mary Poulson, Mary Glascow, and Maria Deets (who were sisters of future Pennsylvanian USCT soldiers). At the same time, by privileging education, White, Jr’s inadvertently attacks (even if unintentionally) the agency of Black parents, including Jesse and Hester Glascow, Robert and Jane Day, and John and Elize Benson, who decided (for differing reasons) to keep their school-age sons from attending school.3

Meanwhile, racially discriminatory policies in the workplace impacted all Black people. Whites forced Black men to work physically demanding and low-paying jobs that required all household occupants to find work. In some cases, school-age youths had to forgo a public education and find wage-earning work to contribute to their household finances. In 1850, William Henry, for instance, worked as a servant (at sixteen years old) over a decade before enlisting in the Sixth United States Colored Infantry. William lived with his parents—Thomas and Mary—and siblings—Thomas, Mary, and Sarah. Excluding Mary and Sarah (four and one years old, respectively), every other person in their residence worked a full-time wage-earning job. Both parents were waiters, while William and Thomas were servants.4 Their collective employment reveals that their living situations and material realities mattered more than gender ideologies that only adult men could be the sole wage-earner (or “breadwinner”) in the households. Furthermore, acknowledging how adults and teenagers, male and female worked together in an attempt to establish economic stability to their entire family highlights how this Black Philadelphian family, due to racially discriminatory practices, forced for a reframing of gender ideology that emphasized the important contributions that people work-eligible kin had to perform to survive.

As some future soldiers reach young adulthood, they had to assume either assume the sole full-time wage-earner in the hopes of keeping their households financially stable. Andrew White found work as a farm laborer after his stepfather, James Reeves, experienced a ruptured hernia and rheumatism while working as a laborer (a common occupation for many Black Philadelphian men). Andrew earned eight dollars per month, which he sent home to his family, including four siblings. It was well-known locally that Andrew’s earnings were critical to his family, especially for his mother (Sarah). Henry Hopkins, a family friend, stated: “As he[, Andrew,] earned money[,] he gave his mother nearly all of it for her support. He was a good industrious young man and done all he could for his mother.”5 

The White family reveals that the occupational racial discrimination not directly impacted the body of James, but his entire family as he was no longer able to earn wages regularly. At the same time, it reframed gender ideology as Andrew, the son, assumed the idealized breadwinner role while living with his parents and siblings. From a societal standard, James was not demonstrating his manhood, and he used a dependent role. In contrast, Andrew’s familial role switched as he was no longer (financially) dependent on his father. This does not imply that Andrew’s siblings or mother did not find seasonal or temporary wage-earning work. Many northern Black women successfully did this throughout the nineteenth-century. Ultimately, the White family revealed that economic survival was more important than idealism. And that racially discriminatory practices often had the potential to jeopardize the living situations of multi-generational northern families. 

Years before enlisting in various northern USCT regiments, future soldiers and their kin fought daily against racial discrimination. Whether it was employment or education, Black Pennsylvanians (like countless other Black northerners) engaged in an unending battle for survival and equality. Understanding these points allows us to have more inclusive and meaningful conversations about USCT soldiers that recognize their lives as children and young men. They came from families and communities that desired to protect and empower their lives as northern whites sought to oppress and vilify them. By including the antebellum civilian lives of northern USCT soldiers, we can understand how critical their families were in shaping the men who have a profound role in reaching the U.S. Their families and lives before service matter just as much as their wartime and postwar experiences.

  1. “Colored Public School, Sixth St., Philadelphia,” Christian Recorder, January 23, 1864.
  2. “—,” Provincial Freeman.
  3. Seventh Census of the United States, 1850;(National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter U.S. Census, 1850, M432). 1860 U.S. census, population schedule. (NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls.) Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. (hereafter U.S. Census, 1860, M653).
  4. U.S. Census, 1850, M432; U.S. Census, 1860, M653.
  5. Deposition of Francis Hayes, on September 11, 1889, in Andrew White, Sixth, USCI pension file.
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Holly Pinheiro

Holly Pinheiro received his doctoral degree from the University of Iowa. He is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Furman University in the History Department. His research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in the military from 1850 through the 1930s. Counter to the national narrative which championed the patriotic manhood of soldiering from the Civil War through the 1930s, his research reveals that African American veterans and their families’ military experience were much more fraught. Economic and social instability introduced by military service resonated for years and even generations after soldiers left the battlefield. He has published articles in edited volumes and academic journals, in and outside of the United States. His manuscript, The Families’ Civil War: Northern African American Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice, will be released in the summer of 2022. It is under contract with The University of Georgia Press in the UnCivil Wars Series. The manuscript highlights how racism, in and outside of military service, impacted the bodies, economies, family structures, and social spaces of African Americans long after the war ended. He has also started preliminary work for a new monograph that will examine all Pennsylvania born soldiers who trained at Camp William Penn. Follow him on Twitter @PhUsct.