1865 to 1877 - Reconstruction. What did freedom look like?
The Civil War is over. Slavery is “over” and the period of reconstructing the country is underway.
Slaves are more free than they’d ever been before, but they were also faced with the necessity of re-crafting their entire lives with no certainty of what the parameters of their freedom would be like.
The reconstruction period meant that blacks would have control over the most fundamental decisions of their lives - they could reclaim their rights as human beings. They got married, they took new names, they worshiped and congregated in their own churches.
But what did freedom really look like?
Work Special Field Order 15 gave former slaves their 40 acres and a mule we've all heard about. The former slaves set up shop in the Sea Islands and within a year were doing exactly what they were doing before, farming, but this time they were doing it for themselves. They governed themselves, they supported themselves, they fed themselves. For the first time, blacks could define the terms of their family’s life!
But there’s a hitch. The land the slaves were given belonged to former slave owners and they came back for it. They had the actual titles to the land. The former slaves just had promissory notes. Less than a year after Special Field Order 15 was implemented, Abraham Lincoln was dead and the new President Andrew Johnson began to dismantle the plans for reconstruction, starting with 40 acres and a mule. All the confiscated land was returned to their former owners. Blacks were crushed, again.
Family life For centuries, families had been torn apart. Physically and mentally. Husbands and wives separated, physically and mentally. Parents and children disconnected, physically and mentally. But like most humans, love and family are paramount for a happy existence. Thousand of people had lost their family and friends who’d been sold away. Former slaves did everything they could to rebuild their families and start fresh. They placed information in wanted ads in circulations all over the country including New Orleans' Black Republican, Nashville's The Colored Tennessean, Charleston's South Carolina Leader, the Free Men's Press of Galveston, Texas, and Cincinnati's The Colored Citizen. But since slaves were listed nowhere as people, only stock, most former slaves never found their loved ones and yearning to see their children, their siblings, their spouses, never ended. I believe that the feeling from this tremendous loss continues to affect black families, even today.
Economics Slavery is “over” but don’t forget, cotton was still king, and someone still needs to produce it. 40 acres and a mule were taken away from those who got it but most people didn’t get it anyway. Black Codes were implemented all over the country, north and south with the sole purpose of restricting the freedom of those who’d just been freed. They were restricted from voting in most states, bearing arms, gathering in groups and learning to read and write. Because of this, although slavery is “over” many slaves had to go back to work on cotton plantations, often times for their former master, under poor working conditions and even poorer wages. The new system was called Sharecropping and though it may have looked good on paper, it just left black people in debt to landowners, forever. I.e. they were just slaves again.
During the period of reconstruction, blacks had the “right” to vote in SOME states. However, Black Codes and the negative attitude of whites toward blacks prevented that from “actually” happening in many cases. But not in all states. Between 1868 and 1876, 2000 blacks held government positions including sheriffs, justices of the peace, mayors and senators. Finally, the voice that had been long sought to oppress, could be heard. And it terrified the white population at every level. The idea of black people doing well triggered a violent backlash among whites who saw their way of life being threatened (sound familiar?)
Society Black people become a threat to white supremacy. Most southern whites just couldn’t envision a society where blacks would be treated as humans. They just assumed that black supremacy would replace white supremacy. The terror of this false assumption fueled their desire to do anything possible to prevent it from happening. Attack and or murder anyone who they saw as having achieved unreasonable success - Ideally in public so blacks could know their place, was the name of the game.
As the violence in the south got worse many northern republicans started to resent southern blacks. They’d just fought a civil war, the country was in shambles. They were exhausted. They lost all their sympathy. They rationalized that the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments had fixed everything. Black had everything they needed. Besides, there was a feeling that the Negroes had just about as much as they ought to have… asking for more was just ungrateful.
In a nutshell, the Period of Reconstruction shows us that former slaves were “free” to do whatever they wanted as long as they had no plans to do anything positive or meaningful like have families, build communities, learn to read and write, govern their own communities, protect themselves and create their own wealth - that’s too threatening. (btw, people show hate because they feel threatened)
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hays won the presidential election against William Clay who contested the result. In the end Rutherford B. Hayes struck a deal with Southern Democrats in Congress, who agreed not to dispute the Hayes victory in exchange for a promise to end Reconstruction and withdraw federal troops from the south.
In 1871, 9 counties in South Carolina alone experienced 35 lynchings, 262 black people severely beaten and over 100 home were burned.
The Period of Reconstruction was over.