THE RECONSTRUCTION ERA AND THE BLACKS
The twelve-year era after the Civil War was called the Reconstruction Period. Reconstruction was a federal policy established immediately after the South surrendered; it was an attempt to create a new Southern society and heal the terrible wounds between the North and South. The three main goals of the Reconstruction were to “protect the rights of the freed slaves…, rebuild the South’s devastated economy, and enforce the loyalty of the ex-confederates (Scholastic 14). In spite of tremendous efforts, the Reconstruction Period failed to completely accomplish any of the three goals, but it was especially lacking in its attempts to make Blacks and whites equal and was a time of intense discrimination toward the Blacks.
In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, the South was destroyed. Plantations were demolished, the economy was ruined, the labor system was shattered, and several million slaves were now free laborers. South Carolina looked like a “broad black streak of ruin and desolation” (Unger 414). In the Shenandoah Valley hardly any farm animals were left alive. Many cities had almost nothing left of their business districts (Unger 414). People in both the North and South were angry. The North was upset at the losses suffered in putting down an illegal insurrection and the South was angry at not being able to break away from what they felt was the oppressive government in Washington (Baldwin and Kelley 206).
Some of the more serious problems from the white viewpoint were the social difficulties created by emancipation. Where did the Blacks fit in? Most Southerners certainly did not want them as neighbors or social acquaintances. Southerners felt strongly about their prejudices and were unwilling to make the changes in their society or value system to raise the social standing of the Blacks. Although the Southerners reluctantly accepted the end of slavery, they seemed determined to “find some legal device to put in the place of slavery” (Williams, History 5). In their minds, Blacks would never be their equals.
Great difficulties became evident as four million slaves were free for the first time in their lives. After generations of being dependent, it was no surprise that many Blacks were terribly unprepared for freedom. In fact, some were literally incapable of understanding the legal concept of freedom and what would be expected from them. Many Blacks thought “emancipation” meant they could travel and go where they wanted while President Lincoln’s soldiers furnished them with the necessities of life (Baldwin and Kelley 206). As a result, many Blacks were taken advantage of by unscrupulous whites and Blacks.
One of the first attempts to help the Blacks was in the establishment of the Freedman’s Bureau. It was the only official agency created to deal with the economic matters of the Reconstruction and was established to help the slaves, or “freedmen” make the transition from slavery to freedom (Coulter 50). This bureau assisted former slaves in the way of food, clothing or medical attention, and established schools to teach Blacks to read and write (Coulter 80). The bureau’s agents attempted to help the freedmen advance in their new freedom and helped protect them from people who tried to take advantage of them. Unfortunately, the powers of the Freedman’s Bureau were weak (Todd and Curti 400).
Two of the main challenges the Freedmen’s Bureau had to deal with were: first, the cruelty of the white employer, and second, the shirking by the Blacks (Foner 157). As previously described, uring the slavery period the Blacks had been supplied with all the necessities of life and most expected this support to continue without having to work for it (Coulter 51). As the Negroes did not receive all the material goods they felt they should, stealing began to be a significant problem (Foner 156).
In response to the increase in crime, the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Florida ordered the arrests of vagrant Blacks who “lacked written evidence of employment” (Foner 157). The Bureau’s courts began punishing Blacks convicted of crimes by sending them to plantations where the Blacks had to work for whites who would pay for their fines. A white minister stated, “What a mockery to call those ‘Freedmen’ who are still subjected to such things” (Foner 57).
The Southerners became increasingly angry with the Freedmen’s Bureau and the difficulties faced in finding workers for their plantations. As a result, the Slave Codes, or more commonly, the Black Codes were passed. These were very strict laws created to stop former slaves from progressing. For example, interracial marriage was punishable by death (Mckissack 27). One state even said that any Black man wanting work must be employed by a “reputable white man.” Other regulations of the Black Codes stated that Blacks could not own or carry arms, they could only work in farming or domestic occupations and they forfeited back pay if they left their jobs (Garraty 274). In addition, white attitudes were demonstrated in the educational system. Two years after the war, public schools were established for white children, but not for Blacks (Baldwin and Kelley 207).
The North became extremely alarmed about these codes and felt that the “South was perpetuating slavery under another name” (Garraty 274). Angry Republicans declared that they would not allow the Black Codes “to disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep and over which the flag of freedom flies (Unger 424).
In response to the Black Codes, the 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified. The 14th Amendment stated that former slaves were now citizens and that the states could not put limits on this privilege without due process of law. Unfortunately, the 14th Amendment was not as comprehensive as many of the Republicans wanted because it did not make all racial discrimination unconstitutional. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, gave Blacks the right to vote. It stated ” ‘race, color, and previous condition of servitude’ were eliminated as grounds for denying any one the right to vote” (Unger 425).
These amendments supporting Blacks’ rights served to increase negative responses by old- thinking Southerners. Poor white farmers especially resented the Blacks and felt every advancement for Blacks weakened their own difficult economic and social circumstances (Garraty 282). The violence towards Blacks that had been sporadic, now began to be organized. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was one such organization. The Ku Klux Klan began in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866. Six veterans of the Confederate Army claimed they were “bored” so they formed a club, calling it the KKK. These men also maintained that it was an organization to protect all of the South from “niggers and nigger lovers” (Mckissack 325). But it soon came to be headed by men who had the goal of wanting to drive Blacks out of politics and voting.
Anyone who wanted to be in the club was asked ten questions. Two of these were: “Are you opposed to Negro equality, both social and political?” and “Are you in favor of a white man’s government in this country?” (Mannetti 47) All of the members of this club were sworn to absolute secrecy. They were only allowed to go out in public if they were a costume that consisted of a white mask with holes for the nose and eyes, a high cone shaped hat and a long flowing robe. When the Klan members went out in public, they had small whistles they used as signals, or they talked with muffled voices so that no one could identify them (Meltzer 5).
In 1869, the KKK along with other groups such as the Knights of the White Camelia and the Pale Faces terrorized and attacked Blacks and Black sympathizers. Because the acts of the KKK were so violent, President Grant sent in extra troops to the South to keep peace and to insure that the Blacks and their white supporters were allowed to register and vote (Mckissack 75). Unfortunately, the violence continued. Between 1882 and 1936, 4,672 lynchings occurred in the United States and three-fourths of them were Blacks (Garraty 282).
The South continued to be segregated and unequal in its application of laws. The laws that had allowed segregation to work for so long were called “Jim Crow Laws.” They were called this because there was a popular minstrel show character whose name was Jim Crow and he soon became a representation of Black people (Mckissack 17). These laws prohibited such things as Blacks riding on streetcars and trains, going to public parks, appearing at public meetings or even attending public schools (Coulter 65).
The Hayes administration soon took over and under this President, the white supremacists started to create laws that were later deemed unconstitutional. For example, they created poll taxes to stop the Blacks from voting. A person had to have money to pay the tax or he couldn’t vote (Foner 205). Most of the Blacks did not have the money to pay for this privilege. While not all the whites agreed with this tax, they were afraid to say anything against it for fear of the Klan and what its members might do to their families.
Intimidation became one of the most effective ways of controlling the Negro and his vote. This intimidation was most often carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan organized what it called “rifle clubs” which drilled and practiced shooting in public view. They left the impression that any Black who showed up to vote would be killed (Coulter 28) Another way racist groups tried to keep Blacks from voting was to force the Blacks to pass literacy tests. These tests were designed to test a person’s competency to vote. Some of the questions they asked were similar to these: “How many angels can dance on the head of a needle?” “How far is far?” “How long is forever?” “How high is up?” (Mckissack 19). Even Blacks who had college degrees were denied their right to vote because they could not answer these vague and ludicrous questions. When intimidation failed, the Klansmen did not hestitate to beat and even murder hundreds of men.
When these complicated tests started preventing certain white people from voting, some states set up “Grandfather Clauses.” This clause allowed a person to qualify to vote if their grandfather could have voted in the 1860 election. Obviously this effectively barred Blacks from voting since none of their grandfathers had previously been qualified to vote (Williams, Reconstruction 171).
Economic pressure was another powerful weapon used by the whites to keep the Blacks from receiving all the rights they were legally due. Even though the Negroes were free, they still depended on white men for their living. Employers could force Negroes to vote as they were told, or not to vote at all, by refusing to give them jobs or rent them land to live on (McKissack 174).
By 1876, the Reconstruction effort was falling apart. The South actively resented the efforts from the Northerners and were angry at the Northerners who they felt “dominated their local government and businesses, and the presence of federal troops was a constant reminder that they were a conquered people” (Reconstruction 14). This anger from the South easily combined with a declining commitment from the North. Reconstruction was an expensive policy and was growing more and more unpopular. Republicans leaders became reluctant to enforce its policies. Also, the Northerners had little true love for Blacks and their interest in racial equality seemed to diminish once the North felt fairly sure that Blacks would not be returned to slavery if the North pulled back (Garraty 283).
In 1877, in spite of wide spread reports, President Hayes refused to accept or believe any reports of the Klan’s beatings, burning or any other violations. This was a major disappointment and setback for Blacks’ rights. As a result of this, the “Call” was written. The Call was a document that called for Blacks and whites to “work actively towards obtaining legal rights for Black Americans” (Mckissack 214). This was an attempt by Blacks to push for the rights that had been guaranteed by the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments. This later became the foundation for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The Blacks recognized that their rights were being taken away in spite of the laws and amendments which guaranteed them. Many educated Blacks decided that they would fight back, not with force, but by furthering education and using the press. One of their big concerns was that racism and prejudice was no longer restricted to the South, but was occurring all over the country (Williams, History, 34).
Most of the good accomplished during the Reconstruction Era was through the passage of laws that guaranteed the Blacks certain rights. Even though these rights were violated for many years, the laws passed during the Reconstruction Era created the basis for future legislative decisions. These laws continue to be interpreted and examined in America’s legal system almost daily.
Overall, the Reconstruction Era was a dismal failure.
As W.E.B. Du Bois put it, “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery” (Foner 602). Definitely, the Blacks did not achieve the economic or social independence hoped for when the Reconstruction Era first began. For a small number of Blacks, there was gain as landowners, businessmen and professionals, but discrimination during this time was severe. Unfortunately, this discrimination did not end with the Reconstruction Era; it continues even today. Americans must continue to “reconstruct” and change the thinking that allows discrimination to exist in a country where all people are guaranteed freedom and equality by the law.
“A Great Divide,” The New Yorker. 29 Apr. and 6 May 1996, v72, 126-7.
“Reconstruction’s Last Gasp,” Scholastic Update. 22 Sept. 1997, v130, 14-16.
Unger, Irwin. These United States. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989.
A History of the United States Since 1865. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.W