1.1 Race, Reunion, and the Aftermath of War
- Identify the vision for Reconstruction held by former slaves, white Southerners, and presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Identify how each group worked to further their objectives.
- Describe the provisions of the Black Codes, being sure to explain the intent and the impact of these laws. Explain how African Americans responded to the Black Codes. Explain the role of the Black Codes and violence in the early years of Reconstruction.
- Describe the differences and similarities of Lincoln’s and Johnson’s plans for Reconstruction. Identify the top priority for both of these men in framing their policies. Explain how the Republican and Democratic parties differed in their views on the rights of former slaves.
Aftermath of War in the South
The physical, financial, and emotional toll of both war and emancipation had shaken the core assumptions of the antebellum South. Confederate currency was worthless, as were the bonds purchased by the Southern people to support the Confederate war effort. Cities were in ruins, property values had collapsed, and the fortunes of many Southerners evaporated in the wake of emancipation. A degree of bewilderment, fear, and even anger might be expected from white Southerners after their attempt to defend their “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery had ironically led to its sudden destruction. However, nothing fueled the indignation of white Southerners like efforts of former slaves to reconstruct lives that were independent of white control. The world must have seemed turned upside-down to the former slave masters, many of whom now possessed only enormous debts. The frustration of military defeat, indignation toward Yankees, and racial antipathies toward African Americans blurred together into a single vein as former masters watched those they had once held in bondage leave their declining plantations in search of new lives. While a few thousand Southerners left the country in hopes of developing plantations in South America and the Caribbean, most remained in the country and hoped that the postwar South could somehow reinvent itself. Some hoped to reconstruct Northern success through factories, farms, and free labor. Others clung to the past and vowed to reconstruct the antebellum order by keeping laborers tied to the plantation system even after the demise of chattel slavery.
For former slaves, freedom from plantation labor brought both joy and uncertainty. Freedom loosed the chains of slavery but also brought the possibility of starvation, homelessness, and even arbitrary imprisonment. Former slaves knew that emancipation was only real if they could achieve a degree of economic security through landownership or the acquisition of wealth. They also knew that genuine citizenship was predicated on the recognition of political rights that carried the force of law. Freedom also meant the recognition of one’s manhood or womanhood, expressed at this time by addressing an adult as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” During slavery, black women and men endured diminutive titles such as “uncle” or “aunt” or “boy” or “girl.” At best, they were called by their first names—names that could be changed at the whim of their owners.
The first priority of former slaves, however, was to reunite with loved ones and resume or reconstruct family life. Former slaves traveled enormous distances in search of lost family members, investing what little money they might have in newspaper advertisements describing a beloved parent or child they hoped to find. While white planters expected former slaves to spend every waking hour working in their fields for low wages, many black women and men accepted these jobs as a means of financing their continued search. Others devoted their time and resources to helping family members in need. To a planter at harvest, these wanderings throughout the countryside and assistance to others could appear as laziness or improvidence. However, to the former slave this ability to control of one’s time and labor represented the first test of their freedom.
After the reunification of family members, the next priority for former slaves was economic security, followed by education, and the recognition of basic civil rights. Former slaves pooled their resources and financed the operation of thousands of schools. Their herculean efforts were matched by hundreds of black and white teachers, many of whom moved to the South and taught for little or no pay. Others formed organizations that petitioned for voting rights and the elimination of discriminatory laws. Most white Southerners viewed each of these actions through the prism of white supremacy. From this perspective, the establishment of schools and demands for equal rights was evidence that former slaves had forgotten their rightful place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. For those who believed in white supremacy, any refusal of employment, no matter the conditions or pay, was proof that former slaves thought emancipation meant freedom from personal responsibility. Furthermore, the assumption that blacks were incapable of intellectual advancement rendered black education pointless and made black citizenship a threat to the well-being of the republic. White supremacy also required that black men and women display deferenceThe act of humbly submitting to another and acknowledging their superiority and/or authority. While deference is appropriate in some relations, during Reconstruction whites expected all black people to demonstrate deference toward them as a manifestation of white supremacy. to whites. From this perspective, every manifestation of black agency was a threat to the social order.
As black men and women increasingly demanded their rights and refused to work under the same conditions as had typified chattel slavery, many Southern whites began to argue that a similar system of rigid white supervision was needed to keep black laborers “in their place” for the greater good of society. Former slaves responded by drawing on traditions of protest and collective action. For example, black workers near Montgomery in 1865 collectively negotiated wages and each contributing a portion of his or her salary to care for those in need. Others openly discussed the possibility of insurrection against landowning whites. Similar to the slave rebellions of the past, rumors of armed insurrection led to greater demands for government intervention to uphold white supremacy and restrict the freedoms of black women and men. However, due to the economic concerns of planters who were dependent on the labor of former slaves, these expressions of militancy also forced landowners to concede better conditions for agricultural laborers in the near term.
Shortly after the war had ended, members of Richmond’s black community circulated a petition that protested the city’s pass system. At this time, the city required African Americans to acquire “passes” from whites before they could travel freely—a practice that had been common during slavery. The petition also highlighted the economic success and self-sufficiency that typified black Richmond. The petition also responded to President Andrew Johnson’s mistaken assumption that government aid was being lavishly bestowed on former slaves. The petition addressed the president directly and explained that blacks in Richmond contributed their own funds to care for the orphans and elderly who had been left to fend for themselves by their callous former masters. Contrary to the president’s public statements, few blacks sought or had been given the aid that was being distributed by federal agents, the petition exclaimed: “Which have been so bountifully bestowed upon the unrepentant rebels of Richmond.”
In this contemporary drawing, a Freedman’s Bureau agent is seen preventing a possible riot between Southern whites and former slaves. In reality, there was usually less than one bureau agent per county or parish, and agents spent the bulk of their time negotiating labor contracts with wealthy plantation owners on behalf of former slaves or facilitating the efforts of black communities to form schools. Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868.
As this petition suggests, many African Americans were able to care for themselves, even in the aftermath of Civil War. For millions of former slaves as well as white Southerners, however, the postwar period was a time of tremendous suffering. Anticipating this condition, the US Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in the spring of 1865; this bureau distributed food to destitute Southerners regardless of race. The primary mission of the Freedman’s BureauA temporary department of the army charged with caring for Southern refugees regardless of race. They were also directed to provide for the welfare of former slaves. Officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the Freedman’s Bureau was originally intended to finance its operations by selling abandoned land. After Johnson returned this land to the original owners, Congress had to provide funding to the bureau, which led to political controversy. quickly changed from administering aid and managing abandoned lands to negotiating labor contracts between former slaves and planters and working to make sure that all former slaves were employed. Former slaves hoped to receive land as compensation for years of unpaid labor, or at the very least, to be allowed to purchase land on credit. As a result, the establishment of a federal agency designed to return black women and men to work on white-owned plantations seemed like a betrayal of the promise of emancipation and their wartime support of the Union. At the same time, black Southerners recognized that bureau agents often sought to represent the interests of former slaves as they sought fair labor contracts. Planters perceived the bureau agents as Northern interlopers, especially when special courts operated by the Freedman’s Bureau mandated higher wages and better working conditions for field laborers. The bureau also established schools and provided medical care, each of which earned the enmity of Southern whites who sought a return to a system of labor and life that more closely resembled chattel slavery.
Many white Southerners feared black autonomy and economic progress for a variety of reasons. If most white Southerners were impoverished prior to the war, four years of service in an army that paid its troops in now-worthless Confederate money did little to help. Yet no matter how poor white Southerners became, the region’s racial hierarchy assured whites that even the poorest of them could never fall below the 4 million slaves and free blacks of the antebellum South. The end of slavery threatened to end white privilege as poor whites and former slaves now competed for land and labor. Furthermore, black agency and material progress would prove the falsehood of white supremacy, erode the historic justification for slavery and racial discrimination, and disrupt the self-identity of many whites. If former slaves became self-reliant farmers, then those who had justified slavery as a beneficial system that provided structure for a people incapable of governing themselves would be discredited in ways that would have clear implications on the present day as the South transitioned to free labor during Reconstruction.
The process of Reconstruction—rebuilding the political and economic system of the United States—actually began during the war in many parts of the South that were occupied by the Union army along the Mississippi River, the Border States, and even sections of the Atlantic Coast. Abraham Lincoln viewed wartime Reconstruction in these areas as a way to undermine the Confederacy by offering Southerners the possibility of reunification under the most lenient and generous terms possible. Lincoln’s plan granted amnesty—an official pardon—for nearly all of the officers and men who had supported the Confederacy if they only accepted reunification under his terms.
In December 1863, President Lincoln offered the residents of the section of Louisiana that were occupied by the Union army the opportunity to be readmitted into the United States under an agreement that became known as the Ten Percent PlanPresident Lincoln’s plan for readmitting Confederate states back into the Union during the Civil War. The plan allowed the states to elect delegates who would begin the process of recreating their government as soon as 10 percent of eligible voters swore an oath of allegiance to the United States.. Lincoln stated that once 10 percent of the residents of these communities who were eligible to vote in 1860 agreed to pledge their loyalty to the Union, these residents could hold elections and begin the process of self-government. Governments organized under these terms could even return to full statehood, provided that they rewrite their state constitutions and ban slavery. Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas were each readmitted to the Union in 1864 under these terms, a stinging defeat for the Confederacy. Although the Ten Percent Plan made no mention of political rights or compensation for the former slaves, it represented a triumph for those who wanted to end slavery. Unlike the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which explicitly exempted every county and parish under Union control by name from its provisions, Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan demonstrated a commitment to ending slavery.
Many congressmen supported Lincoln’s aims but believed that the Ten Percent Plan was too lenient given the treasonous act of secession and the tremendous cost of the war. Republican Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Representative Henry Davis of Maryland proposed what became known as the Wade-Davis BillAn alternative to Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan that was approved by Congress but never became law. This plan allowed Confederate states wishing to return to the Union to begin the process of readmission once half of the eligible voters swore and oath that they had never supported the Confederacy. as an alternative to Lincoln’s plan. Congress approved this measure, which required a majority of adult males to take what was known as the Ironclad Oath—a pledge that stated they had never supported the Confederacy. Lincoln believed that this requirement would prevent most Confederate states from ever returning to the Union, thereby undermining his attempt to promote reconciliation and end the war. Because Congress adjourned shortly after the bill’s passage, Lincoln’s refusal to sign the Wade-Davis Bill prevented it from becoming a law; a strategy known as the pocket veto.
Behind the mists of ruin and rapine waved the calico dresses of women who dared, and after the hoarse mouthings of the field guns rang the rhythm of the alphabet…they came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses among the white and black of the South. They did their work well. In that first year they taught 100,000 souls, and more.
—W. E. B. Du Bois on the efforts of female school teachers during Reconstruction
Although their plan outlining the terms for readmission of former Confederate states was derailed by President Johnson, Congress succeeded in passing two important laws regarding Reconstruction. Even before the war ended, Congress proposed the Thirteenth AmendmentAn amendment to the Constitution that forbids slavery or involuntary servitude except as the punishment for a crime. to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery throughout the United States and its territories. Members of the National Women’s Loyal League (NWLL)A national women’s political organization established during the Civil War and dedicated to the abolition of slavery. Members collected 400,000 signatures in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment., undeterred by their government’s failure to recognize their right to vote, presented Congress with a petition of 400,000 signatures in favor of the movement. “Women can neither take the Ballot nor the Bullet,” NWLL leader Susan B. AnthonyOne of the most influential leaders of the nineteenth century, Susan B. Anthony was an opponent of slavery and a teacher in Rochester, New York, prior to her introduction to the women’s suffrage movement in 1850. Anthony was the publisher of The Revolution, a newspaper that supported the women’s movement. She was also a founder of the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA). exclaimed, “therefore to us, the right to petition is the one sacred right which we ought not to neglect.” At least partially due to the efforts of antislavery women such as those who circulated these petitions, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified before the end of the year. Women were also a leading force in the establishment and operation of schools for former slaves. Women raised funds through a variety of religious and charitable societies, despite the unpopularity of their cause among many white Northerners. Black education was especially detestable to white Southerners. As a result, the hundreds of Northern black and white women who operated schools for former slaves were constantly harassed and even assaulted on occasion.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, elevated Vice President Andrew JohnsonA United States senator who represented a pro-Union section of eastern Tennessee. Andrew Johnson became the only legislator from a Confederate state who did not resign his seat in Congress during the Civil War. In an attempted display of national unity and bipartisanship, Lincoln selected the Southern Democrat as his running mate in 1864. Johnson would become president following the assassination of Lincoln. to the presidency less than a week after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln was a Republican who had selected Johnson as his running mate in 1864 for political reasons. Johnson was the only senator from a Confederate state who remained loyal to the Union. He was also a Democrat and a resident of Tennessee. Lincoln hoped placing Johnson on his ticket would help him generate electoral support beyond his Republican base in the North while undercutting the strength of his opponent’s campaign of reconciliation with the South. Although Lincoln won reelection in 1864, many Northern Republicans were greatly disturbed by the selection of Johnson. They were especially critical of their new vice president after his performance at the March 1865 inauguration in which Johnson appeared to be under the influence of alcohol. “To think that one frail life stands between this insolent, clownish drunkard and the presidency,” declared the New York World just one month prior to Lincoln’s assassination. “May God bless and spare Abraham Lincoln.”
Johnson’s rambling acceptance speech may have been more the result of typhoid than whiskey, but his reputation as an intellectual lightweight was well earned. Johnson had risen through Tennessee politics by appealing to the common man in opposition to wealthy slave holders. However, his conception of the common man was limited to whites and his rhetoric was more calculated toward winning votes than bettering the conditions of ordinary farmers and laborers. While both Lincoln and Johnson hoped Reconstruction could return the nation to the antebellum status quo minus slavery, the two men differed dramatically in what that meant for African Americans. For example, Lincoln wrote many letters in favor of extending the right of suffrage to black Union veterans and even supported limited black suffrage in his final address to the nation. Johnson both publicly and privately embraced white supremacy and continued to oppose black suffrage after Congress approved the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. A comparison of Johnson’s private letters provides a marked contrast to those of Lincoln. For example, while Lincoln worked behind the scenes to promote black suffrage in Union-occupied Louisiana, Johnson was uncompromising in his defense of white supremacy. In a letter to the governor of Missouri, Johnson declared that America was “a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”
Despite their different views about race, Johnson’s goals for Reconstruction mirrored those of Lincoln’s during the war. Both sought a return to the political status quo of 1860 and the elimination of slavery. However, one must remember that Lincoln’s wartime policies were dominated by the need to keep the residents of the slaveholding Border States from joining the Confederacy and by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible by offering Confederate citizens a path toward reconciliation. With Lee’s unconditional surrender, President Johnson was free to demand more sweeping changes such as black suffrage and redistribution of rebel-held lands to former slaves. Frederick DouglassAn escaped slave from Maryland whose autobiography and oratorical skills led him to national prominence, Douglass was the leading abolitionist of the 1860s and the most influential black leader during Reconstruction. was the most prominent black leader during Reconstruction. Douglass had demanded equal suffrage for over a decade and now argued that landownership was key to freedom. Yet even after more than 200,000 black men defended the Union within the army and the navy, only a handful of white liberals, such as Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus StevensA leading Congressman from Pennsylvania, Stevens had been an abolitionist prior to the Civil War and would lead the Radical Republicans in Congress during Reconstruction. He advocated legal and civil rights for African Americans and also called for rebel lands to be confiscated and given to former slaves., supported black suffrage and land redistribution in 1865. As an avowed white supremacist, Johnson simply did not believe that African Americans were deserving or capable of citizenship. In contrast to Lincoln who valued the perspectives of Douglass and other black leaders during the war, the views of African Americans were simply not a consideration in Johnson’s vision for a new South based on limited government and free white labor.
Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 and became one of the leading antislavery orators. During Reconstruction, he continued to speak on behalf of members of his race, leading dozens of black conventions and supporting laws that would have mandated equal rights for all Americans regardless of race or gender.
Congress was in recess from March until December, leaving President Johnson the choice of calling a special session of Congress or simply making decisions regarding Reconstruction himself. Johnson chose the latter option, believing that he was uniquely positioned to understand the challenges of Reconstruction as a Southern Unionist. Johnson was also personally ambitious and politically motivated. He recognized that if he successfully navigated the complicated issue of national reconciliation, he would develop a strong political following in both the North and the South. Understanding that a bullet rather than the ballot had elevated him to the presidency, Johnson recognized that he must use the next few years to develop his own sources of political support. He believed that guiding the nation through Reconstruction would make him the most esteemed public figure in a political system that had been dominated by sectionalism in recent years. If successful, he believed, his strong leadership during Reconstruction would practically guarantee that he would retain the presidency in the election of 1868.
Johnson believed in limited government and took a conservative approach. His efforts mirrored Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan in many ways, such as his willingness to grant a full pardon to nearly all former Confederates who were willing to take an oath of allegiance to the Union. Even those deemed ineligible for amnesty through this pledge—wealthy planters and high-ranking Confederate officers—could personally apply to the president and be restored to full citizenship. In addition, once a state had decided to begin the process of reunification it could elect new state and federal representatives. Before these provisional Southern governments would be considered sovereign, according to Johnson’s plan, they would simply have to pass a resolution declaring that secession from the Union was illegal, ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, repudiate all debts of the Confederacy, and modify their state constitutions to ban slavery. By the fall of 1865, all former Confederate states except Texas had fulfilled these requirements and had been readmitted to the Union. Johnson believed that the nation would be better served by simply moving forward rather than attempting to reconcile the unanswered questions about the status of former slaves. Once the former Confederate states agreed to his terms, Johnson declared that the United States had been restored under his leadership. Johnson’s use of “restoration” rather than “reconstruction” reflected his belief in limited government and his opposition to using the power of the federal government to impose sweeping changes on the South. For 4 million African Americans, however, sweeping changes were required if the promise of emancipation was to be fulfilled.
Violence and Black Codes
Southern congressmen elected under Johnson’s Reconstruction plan arrived in Washington in December 1865. The first order of business within every session of Congress was a procedural vote where the current membership determined whether each new senator and representative had been properly elected. This vote was usually a simple procedural matter, but Reconstruction was no ordinary time in the nation’s history. With the four-year absence of the Confederate states, Congress was dominated by Northern Republicans. These men voted against accepting the Southern delegates because many of them had been high-ranking Confederate officials. For example, the former vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander StephensAn influential Georgia politician and vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens would demonstrate the ability of leading Confederates to regain power during the final years of Reconstruction. Stephens was elected to Congress in 1873 and also became the Governor of Georgia., was elected to the Senate in 1866 by his home state of Georgia. From the perspective of many Northerners, if the same men who had organized secession and led rebel armies were allowed to resume power, the Civil War had been fought in vain. The Northern public wanted reconciliation but was equally angered by what appeared to be Southern intransigence and believed Johnson’s lenient plan for Reconstruction was to blame. Congress refused to allow Alexander Stephens and numerous other former Confederates to take their seats in the House and Senate in 1866, a fact many of these men used to bolster their political support among white voters. From the perspective of these voters, Congress could not represent their interests so long as it was dominated by Northern Republicans who refused to recognize their elected representatives. As a result, white Southerners viewed Stephens as a political martyr for the cause of states’ rights until he was allowed to take a seat in the House of Representatives in 1873.
At the state and local level, Southern lawmakers did not need Northern approval before they could meet and pass laws that applied to their cities and states. Beginning with Mississippi and South Carolina, Southern legislatures passed Black CodesLaws passed by Southern governments after the Civil War that explicitly restricted the freedoms of African Americans.—a series of laws designed to curtail the freedoms of African Americans. Exact provisions of these laws varied, but they shared a common goal of returning blacks to their “place” as subservient laborers under white authority. The codes limited the kinds of employment that were open to African Americans and required them to sign contracts and work under conditions that often resembled slavery. In many states, if a black person could not prove that she or he was employed by a white person, they could be arrested. They could also be arrested for being “discourteous” to any white person or for owning the same weapons that white men could legally carry openly. Punishment for such “crimes” could include up to a year of work without pay. Black employees who decided to quit their jobs automatically forfeited all pay they had earned up to that point and could also be arrested and fined. Other Black Codes forbade African Americans from holding public meetings, purchasing land, consuming alcohol, or living in certain neighborhoods unless they were a servant who lived with the white family that employed them.
Most black codes were passed in the interest of restoring the wealth and status of former planters. However, white craftsmen and laborers also sought laws to prevent former slaves from competing with them in the job market. White workers viewed the end of slavery as a potential threat to their status and well-being, especially if they now had to compete with former slaves, many of whom were skilled craftsmen. In response, states like South Carolina levied heavy taxes on any black person who pursued an occupation beyond the servant or plantation laborer. These laws destroyed the opportunity for thousands of black craftsmen to work as they had during the antebellum period. Many states also passed apprenticeship lawsChildren were regularly separated from their parents during slavery. At the conclusion of the Civil War, a significant number of children were either orphans or simply had no parents that could be located by government officials. In response, Southern governments passed laws that were allegedly intended to care for these children. The laws placed the children with white families who were required to raise them and teach them a trade. In practice, many of these children were used as unpaid labor in fields or domestic service., which required that black orphans live with white families who would raise the children as “apprentices.” The typical white apprentice at this time was a young man who was learning a trade under the tutelage of a master craftsman. However, in the case of these laws passed during the first years of Reconstruction, “apprentice” was merely a euphemism for a black child who was forced to labor in a workshop or field without pay.
Black Codes were explicitly written to apply to African Americans and utilized language reminiscent of slavery. For example, the laws in South Carolina referred to blacks as “servants” and white employers as “masters.” The same law also required that a “servant” must work six days a week from sunrise to sunset as had been customary under slavery. Black Codes also carried provisions whereby black workers who tried to leave a plantation prior to the end of their contracts would be pursued by government officials in ways that mirrored the methods used to track down runaway slaves in the past. Cities also passed their own Black Codes that went beyond the state laws. In Louisiana, for example, a local statute specified that “no negro or freedmen shall be allowed to come within the limits of the town of Opelousas without special permission from his employers.” The penalty for violators of this municipal Black Code was imprisonment, forced labor, and a fine. Other communities placed laws forbidding blacks from being seen in public at night, unless required to do so by their white employer. Most of the punishments for breaking the Black Codes were monetary fines. If the individual could not pay the fine, the local sheriff would hire them out at public outcry, a degrading spectacle where black prisoners in chains were paraded before white men who bid on the opportunity to settle the outstanding debt. In return for the “generosity” of those who paid their fines, the prisoner was required to repay their debt through an extended term of unpaid labor—a procedure reminiscent of slave auctions in all but name.
Black Agency and Resistance
African Americans demonstrated agency by resisting the Black Codes through a variety of methods. Those who did so were often the victims of violent attacks meant to intimidate them and “teach a lesson” to others who might also consider resistance. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of African Americans were murdered in each of the former Confederate states during Reconstruction for their refusal to submit to the dictates of local whites. An estimated 2,000 individuals were murdered in the area surrounding Shreveport, Louisiana, during the first years of Reconstruction. In 1866, two dozen black men, women, and children were lynched near Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The mob left the corpses of its victims hanging in trees and burned the homes of others who had sought to resist the Black Codes. A Freedman’s Bureau report in Texas stated that violence was occasionally waged against former slaves for no reason at all, a situation confirmed by similar reports throughout the South. While observers may have witnessed what appeared to be random acts of violence, taken collectively, these attacks were clearly intended to send the message that emancipation changed nothing. In most instances, however, violence was focused against those who attempted to resist subjugation. When black men organized a convention in Louisiana in the summer of 1866 to discuss their plight, forty of the delegates were murdered by a mob that enjoyed the assistance of local police.
Black schools were especially likely to be attacked because they were symbols of racial uplift. Black churches were also targeted because they were used for community meetings and classrooms. Freedman’s Bureau agents recorded the murder of nearly a thousand black men and women in Texas within three years of the war’s end. Highest on the list of alleged provocations that led to these killings were accusations of “insolence” toward whites. The instigating factors included refusal to tip one’s hat to a white man, refusing to bow and remove one’s hat in the presence of whites, and at least one instance where a black man tipped his hat and bowed his head so dramatically that he appeared sarcastic to his aggrieved white assailant. In South Carolina, one man was shot in church by a white minister after he defended another black man’s right to sit in a particular pew. Admittedly, these examples are among the more astonishing examples of racial violence and some of the thousands of reported murders may have been embellished. However, the frequency with which stories like these were reported by both Southern and Northern observers forced millions of Americans to consider whether the Civil War had been fought in vain. They also led Congress to consider using the power of the federal government to intervene to restore order.
Southern blacks did not simply wait for Congressional assistance to stop the violence; black Civil War veterans used their soldierly skills to defend their communities. Black women and men also turned to institutions like the church for both uplift and self-defense. During the antebellum period, whites often required slaves to attend churches where masters could control the message their slaves heard. White preachers encouraged their black congregations to follow God’s directive by obeying those He had placed in authority over them. By creating thousands of independent black churches throughout the South during Reconstruction, African Americans rejected this message and demonstrated their agency.
One of the greatest challenges teachers and students faced in the nineteenth century was the cost of textbooks. This image shows a page of a reader produced by a Northern charitable society that operated schools. They also utilized the concept of a customized textbook to include people and events that were excluded from other books, such as this story about the African American poet Phillis Wheatley.
The former slaves’ desire for autonomy—their own distinctive religious traditions—and the discrimination they had endured in white churches all led to the establishment of the independent black church at the core of Southern black communities during Reconstruction. These churches hosted educational, social, and political activities and administered to the poor. Reconstruction-era churches even served as meeting places for civil rights rallies, political meetings, and the headquarters for black militias who sought to confront police brutality. Even though these activities are more commonly associated with the civil rights struggle of the following century, historians have uncovered dozens of instances where black man and women refused to give up their seats on steamships or in theaters during Reconstruction. They have also found instances where armed black men captured and delivered white men who had verbally or physically assaulted black women or committed some other crime against black citizens. Their decision to turn these men over to law enforcement despite the unlikelihood of conviction demonstrates a desire for law and order among people well acquainted with the dangers of mob justice.
One of the most important demonstrations of black agency after the war was the establishment of schools. Thousands of white teachers from the North joined thousands of black teachers from around the country who traveled throughout the South and taught at various schools that were initiated during the war and its immediate aftermath. For former slaves, obtaining an education was both a political act and a personal repudiation of white supremacy. After years of being punished for any efforts at education, former slaves placed great faith in learning and viewed education as a right of citizenship. Such ideas represented a radical departure from the antebellum South where education was a privilege of the wealthy. The actions of former slaves even influenced white Southerners who increasingly demanded the establishment of public schools.
Many of the schools established by African Americans were the first of their kind in their communities. As a result, they often permitted any white child or adult who wished to attend the opportunity to do so. The Freedman’s Bureau soon took the lead in recruiting teachers and building schools. By 1867, more than 4,000 schools were serving nearly a quarter million students. The Bureau and black leaders also founded colleges to train teachers and clergy. In January 1866, a group of African American ministers opened Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The following year, another group of black religious leaders and educators opened Howard University in Washington, DC, with the assistance of the Freedman’s Bureau. The faith the former slaves placed in education spread throughout the South, and many whites also established teacher’s colleges on their own or with governmental assistance. In a few locations, such as New Orleans, some of the schools were even racially integrated. While many changes that occurred during Reconstruction were temporary, one of its lasting legacies was the belief that the government was obligated to provide an education for all citizens.
Even though their right to vote was not yet recognized, former slaves organized local political organizations, held conventions, circulated petitions, and drafted resolutions calling for an end to the Black Codes and the recognition of their right to vote. These local organizations were commonly known as Equal Rights Leagues and Union LeaguesPolitically minded organizations within black communities during Reconstruction. These local organizations promoted recognition of civil and political rights and also engaged in community uplift through the establishment of schools and other needed services that were not met by society or the government.—names that reminded the nation of their members’ loyalty during the Civil War and their demand for equality. In hundreds of communities, black women and men formed labor organizations that collectively bargained for higher wages. One of the most effective ways of gaining concessions from their would-be employers was to allow rumors of open rebellion to circulate. Whites had lived in constant fear of slave rebellions and were terrified that the end of slavery would lead to violent retribution. Although most former slaves sought only justice and shunned violence, many followed a religious theology that looked forward to a day of deliverance. Whites sensed this belief but failed to appreciate that black liberation theology rejected violence. Although references to a day of reckoning were rhetorical in nature, whites remembered that slaves had launched dozens of violent rebellions in the past. As a result, any rumor of a general black insurrection appealed to the greatest fears of whites and often inspired a newfound desire for fairness among plantation owners.
When former slaves refused to sign labor contracts prior to January 1, 1866—the date whites feared a general insurrection might occur—white plantation owners experienced a collective change of heart and agreed to the demands of black labor leaders. Once fears of insurrection subsided, however, many plantation owners began backing away from the promises they had made. The ever-present fear of retribution was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it could inspire planters to deal fairly with their employees. However, it also led whites to fear black people and black agency. Whites were suspicious of black meetings and lived in quiet trepidation that freedom would unleash years of justified rage. For this reason, whites carefully monitored black behavior and viewed even the most trivial outward manifestations of black self-assuredness as an indication that a person had become a threat. Whites only felt safe among blacks who continued to manifest the deference that was required during slavery. If a black woman refused to yield to a white woman on a sidewalk or if a black man failed to doff his cap and bow to whites he passed on the street, they might eventually subscribe to more radical doctrines of black unity and violent retribution. Tolerating any behavior short of deference to whites would encourage blacks to “forget their place,” many whites believed, and might even lead to the reckoning they had feared since the earliest days of slavery.
Review and Critical Thinking
- Compare Lincoln and Johnson’s plans for Reconstruction. Might Lincoln have handled Reconstruction differently after the war was over and Union victory had been secured?
- What were the Black Codes? What did whites mean when they spoke of the need to keep African Americans “in their place”? How do African Americans respond to the Black Codes?
- In what ways do former slaves demonstrate agency following the Civil War? What strategies did former slaves employ to define freedom for themselves?
- Why did some whites use violence against former slaves during Reconstruction? What might this tell us about the actions of former slaves and the relationships between former masters and former slaves during this time period?