Claiming Union Widowhood

Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South

Book Pages: 320 Illustrations: 8 illustrations Published: December 2020

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > U.S. History

In Claiming Union Widowhood, Brandi Clay Brimmer analyzes the US pension system from the perspective of poor black women during and after the Civil War. Reconstructing the grassroots pension network in New Bern, North Carolina, through a broad range of historical sources, she outlines how the mothers, wives, and widows of black Union soldiers struggled to claim pensions in the face of evidentiary obstacles and personal scrutiny. Brimmer exposes and examines the numerous attempts by the federal government to exclude black women from receiving the federal pensions that they had been promised. Her analyses illustrate the complexities of social policy and law administration and the interconnectedness of race, gender, and class formation. Expanding on previous analyses of pension records, Brimmer offers an interpretive framework of emancipation and the freedom narrative that places black women at the forefront of demands for black citizenship.


“Brandi Clay Brimmer has written an amazing social history that transforms the study of poor black women’s quest for citizenship and recognition. Through finely grained research she revises our understanding of the racialized gendered state from the standpoint of poor women themselves. She advances how we think about the agency of newly emancipated women from after the Civil War into the late nineteenth century, in the process challenging existing interpretations about the origins of social assistance in the modern United States. This is historical research at its best.” — Eileen Boris, author of Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919–2019

“This compelling study of eastern North Carolina black women’s claims for Union widows’ pensions marshals methodologically complex evidence to make striking arguments on questions of racialized motherhood, the origins of the welfare state, class formation, and Reconstruction’s failures. Brandi Clay Brimmer recaptures in rich detail the lives of heretofore unknown women who tried and often failed to secure their full Fourteenth Amendment rights. This book is a timely contribution to current debates on the nation’s history of racial injustice and a poignant saga of promises made and promises broken.” — Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor Emerita, Yale University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Brandi Clay Brimmer is Associate Professor of History at Spelman College.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Cast of Principal Characters  ix
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction  1
Part I. A People and a Place
1. Black Life and Labor in New Bern, North Carolina, 1850–1865  23
2. The Black Community in New Bern, 1865–1920  46
Part II. Encountering the State
3. Her Claim is Lawful and Just: Black Women's Petitions for Survivors' Benefits  77
4. Black Women, Claims Agents, and the Pension Network  101
5. Encounters with the State: Black Women and Special Examiners  123
6. Marriage and the Expansion of the Pension System in 1890  144
7. Black Women and Suspensions for "Open and Notorious Cohabitation"  163
8. The Personal Consequences of Union Widowhood  184
Conclusion  205
Notes  217
Bibliography  277
Index  299
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-1132-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-1025-8