On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, promising freedom to the estimated 3 million African Americans living as slaves in the Confederate States of America. Shortly after, his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, formed the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission to create a plan to ensure Lincoln’s promise would become reality. Col. James McKaye (also spelled McKay), a New York business leader and an original member of Wells Fargo’s board of directors, led the three-person AFIC. McKaye was a fervent abolitionist, opposing slavery throughout his life. He wrote news articles and pamphlets about emancipation and became friends with William Lloyd Garrison, Horace Greeley, and other leading abolitionists of the time. Writing in 1862, McKaye declared, “Slavery must die, and die now, by the enlightened will of the nation, or the nation itself must die.”
As a commissioner for the AFIC, McKaye took testimonies from freed African Americans in Union-held areas and traveled to Louisiana and other Southern states to gather information — a perilous trip during the Civil War.
The following is testimony of Solomon Bradley to the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission:
Q: Solomon, you are in uniform ― do you belong to the South Carolina regiment?
A: Yes sir… I used to pray the Lord for this opportunity to be released from bondage and to fight for my liberty, and I could not feel right so long as I was not in the regiment.
In 1864, the commission issued its recommendations, calling for the creation of a federal bureau to protect the rights of African Americans. Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau later that year.
Not fully satisfied, McKaye realized that further action was necessary. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not extend to Union states on the border with the South, like Maryland and Kentucky, and African Americans in those states continued to have no freedom or legal protection.
McKaye published an additional report advocating for the full abolishment of slavery everywhere in the U.S., and calling for a constitutional amendment to guarantee protection of civil rights, such as voting. His work came to fruition when the Reconstruction Amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments) passed between 1865 and 1870, promising freedom for all Americans and protection of voting rights. McKaye even recommended breaking up plantations and redistributing land, arguing that it was the right thing to do.
Despite the hard work of McKaye and the other commissioners, the changes they helped make did not last long. The Freedmen’s Bureau was closed in 1872. The federal government did not enforce the Reconstruction Amendments, and Jim Crow laws and polling taxes emerged to disenfranchise African Americans.
Nevertheless, the work of McKaye and the AFIC continues to be an important resource for historians and researchers today, offering a unique glimpse into the lives of African Americans during a time when freedom was promised, but not yet realized.