What Would Black History Look Like if the Reconstruction Had Continued?

black history, African-American history, African American history, reconstruction era, civil rights movement, black union soldier and family, blacks fight with the union army, emancipation proclamation, reconstruction, black code, kim crow, president Abraham Lincoln, black regiments, runaway slaves, slaves as contraband, Civil War, abolition, union army, ,
This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Slavery on My Mind

If the Federal Army had stayed in the South longer, if the Reconstruction had lasted longer, if America didn’t experience the century-long setback that came after the Federal Army left, what would black history look like now?

black history, African-American history, African American history, reconstruction era, civil rights movement, black union soldier and family, blacks fight with the union army, emancipation proclamation, reconstruction, black code, kim crow, president Abraham Lincoln, black regiments, runaway slaves, slaves as contraband, Civil War, abolition, union army, ,(04-02-2014, updated 07-15-2018)  Lincoln went to war to get the South back into the Union. Although the war was mostly about slavery, his initial aim was not to abolish it. He wrote as much in a letter in 1862:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it, and if O could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.

Because of this stand, when runaway slaves headed north during the Civil War, at first the Union army returned them south, seeing it as somehow the honorable thing to do. Then they started considering the slaves as contraband, to be withheld from their rightful owners because it would thwart the Southern war effort. More Southern white men would have to stay home and work on the plantations to ensure continuation of the food supplies.

But the North still believed blacks should be kept out of the fight. They shouldn’t be enlisted as soldiers or given weapons. They feared that the weapons would end up in Confederate hands.

However, while the politicians in Washington were arguing the issue, the Union generals in the field were faced with reality: lots of runaway slaves offering to help. The generals began to free the slaves on the spot and gave them land or paid them to work on abandoned plantations in the areas that came under Union control.

This worked out extremely well and gradually the army began employing blacks as cooks, drivers, diggers, etc. Running a little after the facts, Lincoln  freed all slaves in the rebel states with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The army formed Black regiments and by the end of the war about 10% of soldiers were black.

These are the reasons why the slaves were freed. It was more that the North was faced with a fait accompli than that they were all adamant abolitionists. This probably explains why the Reconstruction was so short-lived. Why the North didn’t have the patience to keep federal troops in the South for longer. Imagine if they had, though. What that would have meant for American history, and for black history in particular.

Some people would argue that what-if exercises are pointless, but I do wonder what the country would look like now if the incredible changes made during Reconstruction had continued, if there hadn’t been a hiatus of almost a century until the Civil Rights Movement regained the freedoms won in 1866. What would black history look like?

It seems to me that the North is to blame as well for the Jim Crow era and the systemic racism in the South and, well, everywhere. Reconstruction could have been successful — it just needed more time to really take root. Pulling out of the South too soon was one of the biggest fuck-ups in American history, I think.

Let me know your thoughts.

The next and probably last post in this series is a list of books and movies I recommend about slavery and black history. (Ha! See how I did that, search engines?)

(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Reconstruction: What If?”, 04-02-2014)

 

Sources:

“United States Colored Troops”. Wikipedia. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/United_States_Colored_Troops

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Series Navigation<< The Meridian Race Riot of 1871: the Failure of the Rickety ReconstructionA Few Books and Movies About Slavery I Can Recommend >>

4 thoughts on “What Would Black History Look Like if the Reconstruction Had Continued?

  1. Slavery is our countries original sin. I’m not sure that we’ll ever come to grips with the issue of what we call race in this country, which is still divided clearly over those same lines from over 500 years ago. If President Obama has one white parent and one black parent representing a white lineage as old as his African lineage then why is he a “black” man rather than a “white” man (neither color is the color of anyone’s skin anyway) and not just simply a man or rather just simply an American? In this country, The color of a person’s skin is still his or her most defining trait (and in many American’s minds the only defining trait) and that is just plain stupid and sad.

    1. It is. I like your comparison to original sin. It sure is. Although it’s African Americans who still suffer the most from this part of American history, not the people who did the enslaving.

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