- Laura Plantation: A Sugar Plantation Tour With Barely a Mention of Slavery
- Slavery and the American Civil War: A Quick When and Why
- What Is Good History Education: Civil War Battles or Why They Were Fought?
- Free People of Color: Before Abolition It Was a Freedom with Qualifications
- Slaveholders, Militant Immediatists and Others on the Abolition Spectrum
- The Reconstruction: Federal Army, Carpetbaggers, and Blacks in Office
- The Meridian Race Riot of 1871: The Failure of the Rickety Reconstruction
- What Would Black History Look Like if the Reconstruction Had Continued?
Then, in 1875, federal army and the carpetbaggers leave, the KKK wins, Black Codes are put in place and the Jim Crow era begins. The Reconstruction is barely even mentioned in history textbooks.
(03-24-2014, updated 07-15-2018) After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, in 1866, the Radical Republicans came into power in Congress, and they came down on the South like a ton of bricks to make sure they freed the slaves and gave them equal rights.
But let’s back up a little. Ultimately, it was in large part due to the slaves themselves that abolition was pushed through. During the war, droves of runaway slaves met the Union army, forcing the generals to do something. Many slaves were freed on the spot and given jobs despite the political opinions in Washington. Most proved to be good workers and fighters and it gradually became clear to all that freeing the slaves would help the Union army win the war.
As for the war itself: lots of battles, lots of burning, lots of bloodshed. In the end, the Union army won, and some four million slaves were freed. That was the beginning of the Reconstruction Era.
Lincoln wanted to bring the Southern states back into the union as quickly as possible, and with as little resentment as possible. He did, however, intend to impose the right to vote on the South and he had given land to former slaves. He was assassinated before things were finalized.
His successor, Andrew Johnson, was different. He was a strong believer in states’ rights to determine who could vote. He also took the land the former slaves had been given and gave it back to the previous owners. In short, the South was pretty much allowed to get back to business as usual–whites firmly in charge.
Yes, slavery was abolished, but the white Southerners imposed “black codes” which severely limited blacks’ rights and secured black labor by prohibiting blacks from leaving the area they were from.
Apart from no longer being slaves, Southern blacks still had no rights.
Now, Lincoln and Johnson were moderate Republicans–Republicans being the progressive party at the time. The more radical Northern Republicans, many of whom were free men of color, were enraged by the black codes. They wanted complete equality for blacks. Johnson vetoed several of their proposals but his vetoes got vetoed.
In 1866 elections in the North gave the Radical Republicans more power in Congress, and they came down on the South like a ton of bricks. In 1867 the South was divided into five military districts with a federal army presence, and many Republicans from the north were appointed as temporary state governors, temporary mayors, etc., tasked with the establishment of government entities based on complete equality.
Teachers, missionaries and businessmen also came south. They were tasked with rebuilding Southern infrastructure, establishing schools and churches for blacks, and making sure blacks got paid fairly and that they could vote in safety.
Now that Southern blacks could vote, under protection of the Federal army, they voted Republican. So two years after the Civil War, there were black mayors and black representatives in both state and federal governments.
The Republicans from the North who came down to ensure the establishment of fair government and an economy based on paid labor were called “carpetbaggers” by resentful Southern whites, who saw them as opportunists come to make money off their misery. Southern white Republicans were called “scalawags“.
Many whites couldn’t stand to see such freedom and equality for a people who a few years ago hadn’t been considered anything more than assets, like cattle and machinery.
The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups rose up, while at the same time the North was getting tired of paying for a military presence in the South. They felt that slavery was over and done with. Radical Republicans put up a fight, but it became hopeless after the federal army withdrew from the South in 1875.
In the presidential election of 1876, the vote was very close, and the South struck a deal with Rutherford that he would be president in exchange for the North leaving the South alone to do as they pleased again.
Yes, African-Americans, who had only just gotten a taste of freedom and equality, were sold out in a political maneuver.
White supremacists drove the last remaining Republicans out of office and reestablished black codes–now called Jim Crow laws–which segregated society–from separate schools to separate water fountains.
The right to vote was restricted in various ways, for instance by requiring blacks to take a literacy test. Even those who passed all the requirements had a hard time voting, because intimidation by the KKK and other racists made it virtually impossible.
By 1877 reconstruction was over and undone with. It would take almost another hellacious century before the Jim Crow laws were completely abolished in 196* as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.
The next post in this series is about an event in Meridian, Mississippi during the Reconstruction Era.
(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Reconstruction: Now You See It, Now You Don’t”, 03-24-2014)
Header image: oil painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled “Let Us Have Peace, 1865.” Lee surrenders to Grant. (AP Photo/New-York Historical Society)