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ch a pter thr ee Exodus and Jubilee Exile narratives from Israel’s past may have helped some African Americans imagine a place for themselves in the post-­ Reconstruction South, but for 1,500 sharecroppers in Lenoir County in eastern North Carolina, by 1877 living in exile had become too difficult to bear. In fact, as they planned an exodus, they referred to the South not as a land of exile but as a “House of Bondage,” the same term Israelites used for Egypt. When the Israelites fled their captors, they entered a vast desert and grumbled at the lack of food and drinkable ­ water. Some wanted to return to Egypt. The mi­ grants from Lenoir County had cause to grumble as well. Their exodus failed in almost­every way. In late 1879, many of them huddled together in a church building in Indiana, freezing, broke, and exhausted, wanting to return to North Carolina but unable to afford the return trip.1 Few black Southerners thought of Indiana as the Promised Land, but the sharecroppers stranded ­ there ­ were not the only ones seeking their destiny in an exodus out of the South. All across the South in the late 1870s, disgruntled African Americans or­ ga­ nized migrations, to Kansas, farther west, or to Liberia in West Africa. Migrations ­were hardly new to black Southerners. Indeed, their history had been one of successive migrations. Slaves had migrated across the African continent, across the Atlantic in the ­Middle Passage, and often between destinations in the Amer­ i­ cas before arriving in the American South. Former slaves had participated in colonization schemes in the early nineteenth­ century, leaving for Canada, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. In the de­ cades before the Civil War, more than a million slaves left their homes in the Upper South for the new plantations of the Deep South. Dubbed “the second­ Middle Passage,” it was larger than the first, forcibly relocating more slaves than had ever come to the United States during the Atlantic slave trade.­After emancipation, black Americans traveled the country searching for lost relatives and higher wages. ­After Reconstruction, deteriorating po­liti­cal and economic circumstances prompted black Southerners to once again consider moving. Post-­Reconstruction movements ­were but the next chapter in a long history of migration.2 The sharecroppers from Lenoir County left in search of land; they had come to believe that, in God’s plan for the race, they 66 Exodus and Jubilee would become landowners ­after emancipation. By 1877, they had waited for land for more than twelve years. Freedmen’s Bureau agent James Sinclair noticed that expectation of land back in 1865 when he traveled among North Carolina’s freedpeople. They eagerly expected to receive titles to confiscated lands of ex-­ Confederates. They believed that the property distribution would take place around Christmas Day 1865 or New Year’s Day 1866. At a meeting in Lumberton, North Carolina, Sinclair tried to dissuade black farmers from their “extravagant ideas in relation to confiscated lands,” with ­ little success. He told them­ there would be no scheme to redistribute plantation ­ owners’ land among former slaves, but his audience remained convinced that “something very impor­tant [was] ­going to happen” around Christmas Day.3 Black Southerners’ “extravagant ideas” about property re­distribution ­were widespread. Former Union Army officer Carl Schurz reported to Congress in late 1865, “In many localities I found an impression prevailing among the Negroes that some­ great change was ­ going to take place about Christmas.” Schurz continued, “They ardently desire to become freeholders. . . . ​ In the in­ de­ pen­ dent possession of landed property they see the consummation of their deliverance.”4 In the minds of former slaves, with freedom came land. The connection black Southerners made between land and freedom had two biblical pre­ ce­ dents, Exodus and Jubilee. Black Protestants saw themselves in both of ­these stories; and in both stories, freed slaves acquire land. The role Exodus played in black American life has been well documented.5 Exodus told the dramatic story of God’s deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The narrative portrayed the power of Israel’s God and the emancipation of God’s ­people. It inaugurated the national period of Israel and showcased the Hebrews’ long and troubled journey from Egypt, across a wilderness to Canaan, the land of their ancestors.6 The meaning of Jubilee is not as well known. Levitical law, which developed ­ later in Israel’s national history, called for...


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