The History Cat Classroom
African Americans After Slavery
The day immediately following a natural disaster a weird phenomenon occurs where the survivors just walk around dazed, looking like zombies. Their whole world has been abruptly changed and nobody seems to know exactly what to do and so they just wander. The combination of the Civil War and Emancipation had a similar effect on the South. Four years of brutal fighting had blasted the South’s major cities into piles of rubble. Once great plantations stood in ruins. But the biggest shock came as four million emancipated slaves came to realize that they were no longer under white control.
Emancipation produced some pretty strange effects as whites and blacks tried to grapple with this new world order. Some slave owners were honest and told their former property that they were now free. Others tried to hide the truth and used intimidation and even a little tearful begging to keep their slaves working. Now free to move about without those hated passes, African-Americans by the thousands walked off the plantations. Some headed to the cities in search of jobs that didn’t involve picking cotton. Others went in search of mothers, fathers, spouses, and children that had been sold off to other masters. Freedmen put ads in newspapers trying to locate their loved ones. Others just walked chasing one rumor after another. Some of these reunion stories had happy endings but most did not. Some families had been separated by hundreds of miles and trying to locate them in the days before the internet was nearly impossible. Sometimes these reunions came with a mixed bag, finding their spouse after years of separation was bittersweet when they found out that they had remarried.
In a society dedicated to white supremacy the worst part for whites was when blacks stood up to their old masters. The once docile and obedient slave suddenly became ‘sassy’ and ‘insolent’. One woman told her former mistress that if she wanted dinner she could cook it herself. Some freedmen left the plantation, but not before taking the silver, silks, and furniture. Blacks refused to yield the sidewalk to whites and some even taunted them by yelling “I’m a free man, now!” This was more than some could handle. One Florida planter had this to say about the New South: “The damned Republican Party has put n$#@* to rule us and we will not (tolerate) it.”
But being emancipated was one thing, surviving in this new world was another. Most slaves were illiterate, had no skills other than manual labor, and were flat broke. The biggest problem facing freedmen was finding a job. If they thought that they’d be able to find work in the city they were in for severe disappointment. Many were unable to find work either because whites refused to hire them or because the reality was that were too many people and not enough jobs. Shanty towns outside of the cities sprung up that made the slums of South Chicago look like the Hamptons. Only a handful of slaves and free blacks had been trained as artisans and mechanics and with no other skills except a strong back and two hands, many were forced to back into working as domestics and field hands. With so many people walking off the plantations whites were desperate for labor. All southern states passed Black Codes to return things back to the bad ol’ days. To force blacks back to work in the fields these codes required freedmen to sign work contracts for one year. To keep wages low they also made it illegal for whites to compete with one another for black labor. But the icing on this racist cake came in the form of vagrancy laws which made it a crime, punishable by hard labor, to not have a contract. The Black Codes outraged northerners who saw this as a not-so-sneaky way of bringing back slavery. These codes would be outlawed in 1867 but soon made a comeback during the Jim Crow era.
The Freedmen's Bureau
Even before the end of the war politicians were talking about what was to be done about the four million ex-slaves. As the Union Army conquered more of the Deep South the slave system broke down completely. Thousands fled their plantations or openly refused to work. Some joined the army but many just followed behind the army. William Tecumseh Sherman on his March to the Sea came up with a plan to both punish the conquered rebels and help the freed slaves at the same time. Under Special Field Order 15 a swath of land that whites had abandoned was set up for freed blacks. Extending 30 miles wide and 250 miles long from Charleston to Pensacola freed black families were given forty acres to farm. For many African-Americans, real freedom meant owning land but with the best land already taken by the planters, blacks were forced to settle wherever they could. Some squatted on vacant government land or in the mountains. Most refused to grow cotton, for obvious reasons, and instead focused on raising corn and hogs. Subsistence farming kept them poor but at least now they were laboring for themselves.
In the spring of 1865, just weeks before Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater, Congress created a government agency to do something about the crisis situation. The answer was the Freedmen's Bureau––a temporary government program to help smooth the bumps of emancipation for African-Americans. The Bureau was given many tasks and little funding to do it with. Bureau officials helped freedmen find jobs, reunite families, settle legal disputes, set up schools, the list goes on... To deal immediate crisis of so many homeless freedmen it established tent communities––sort of like refugee camps–– here freedmen could find temporary food and housing. It also tried to provide blacks with land to farm. Some of this land came from the confiscated southern property; most of the land was taken from the Indians who were living in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The Homestead Act of 1862 had promised 40 acres of land to anyone who was willing to farm it and now this act was extended to include people who had just a few months before been slaves. Some of the more radical Republicans in Congress wanted to push forward a plan to confiscate land owned by traitors and distribute it to freedmen and poor whites. But the idea was never gained much traction and any plans for helping Freedmen gain cheap land pretty much either failed or were dropped entirely. If freemen couldn’t get help from charities or find a piece of land to squat on, the choices left were to sign a contract on a plantation or starve.
Having been denied the right to an education for so long one of the first things that freedmen did was to establish schools where adults and children sat side by side learning to spell and read. These schools were set up in abandoned warehouses, old slave markets, churches, in private homes, even in open fields under a tree. Most teachers tended to be former slaves who were just a little more educated than their students. Northern whites and free blacks headed south to open up schools and colleges. Their job was pretty daunting. Over 90% of the southern black population were illiterate. One northern teacher wrote about a 61-year-old black woman “just beginning to spell, seems as if she could think of anything bur her book, says she spells her lessons all evening, then dreams about it, and wakes up thinking about it.” Black schools were opened in barns, stables, and ironically, even buildings that once had housed slave auctions. Freedmen eagerly drank up any chance to learn because in their eyes education was the one thing that could truly set the black population free. Of course, the racists tried to prevent it any way they could. One woman confronted a teacher at a black school that “I do assure you, you might as well try to teach your horse or mule to read, as to teach these n#$%*. They can’t learn.” The idea of educating blacks threatened some to the point of violence, beating teachers and burning down school houses. One Louisiana teacher was even shot and killed outside of her schoolhouse. The Ex-Confederates were angrier than before. The war not only ended slavery but was threatening to make them equal to blacks.
Up until the civil war spending taxpayer money on public education in the southern states had been opposed by the planter aristocracy. Why did they have to spend their hard earned money on someone else’s kids? Now the doors to public education were being thrown open across the South including dozens of universities and colleges. Many blacks began to attend all-white universities such as the University of South Carolina. However, many white students and teachers just quit rather than sit beside people they saw as inferiors. White teachers and missionaries flooded into the South to set up schools for poor black and white children often at the risk of their lives. Their efforts paid off, by 1891 illiteracy among blacks had fallen to 58% and whites to 31%. “Every little negro in the county is now going to school and the public pays for it. This is one hell of a fix but we can’t help it…”This quote by one opponent of educating blacks summed up the attitude of many whites was bitter.
Klan Violence and Black Codes
Politics is a tricky business and the Radical Republicans like Stevens and Sumner realized that without a Constitutional Amendment blacks would never be treated fairly or be given the right to vote. Radicals kept introducing laws to Congress which failed every time. Few whites were willing to accept equality with blacks and had no interest in blacks becoming citizens or voting. Some whites sided with President Andrew Johnson saying that the freedmen should be shipped back to Africa. Basically, thanks for putting up with two hundred years of back-breaking work, rape, and kidnappings… now get out. But ironically it was the South that would get people to change their minds about racial equality. Northerners reacted to the news reports of the Black Codes with anger and dismay. Violence was raging across the South as the planters tried to reassert their power over both blacks by passing laws that restricted their travel, banned them from public accommodations, and made it illegal for them to rent land. Basically, the new freedmen were to be slaves in all but name. Congress fired back with the Fourteenth Amendment which outlawed discrimination based on race and followed up with the Fifteenth Amendment which gave black males the right to vote.
African-Americans began voting in droves. Some waited all day in the pouring rain just for a chance to cast their ballot. One white observer commented that “the negroes are absolutely crazy about politics.” During Reconstruction 1,500 African-Americans were elected to positions of power. Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback became the only black governor of a Southern state (Louisiana) and five African-Americans rose as far as the U.S. Senate. It looked like African-Americans might finally be on the road to real freedom.
A week after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery a secret paramilitary organization was being formed by a group of friends who had all served together in the Confederate army. On Christmas Eve, 1865 in Pulaski Tennessee, the group of friends drew up a code of conduct, rules, and a uniform that would inspire terror in the hearts of blacks and white sympathizers for nearly a century.
'Klansman burned churches and schools, lynching teachers and educated blacks. Black landowners were driven off their property and murdered if they refused to leave. Blacks were whipped for refusing to work for whites, for having intimate relations with whites, for arguing with whites, for having jobs whites wanted, for reading a newspaper or having a book in their homes... Or simply for being black. Klan violence led one black man to write:
"We have very dark days here. The colored people are in despair. The rebels boast that the Negroes shall not have as much liberty now as they had under slavery. If things go on thus, our doom is sealed. God knows it is worse than slavery."'- PBS
Beginning in 1866 and continuing for the next four years the KKK would grow increasingly violent. Lynch mobs would suddenly appear out of the darkness at the home of a freedman who had spoken up to loudly about gaining rights for blacks. Sometimes things would end with a beating. Other times the family would be shot, hung, or raped. Their homes burned to the ground as a reminder to others who dared speak up for equality.
In Memphis and New Orleans riots of angry white mobs attacked blacks who were organizing their citizens to win the right to vote. The 14th and 15th amendments seemed to scare white supremacists more than emancipation had. On July 30th, 1866, In New Orleans, a mob of policemen and angry citizens attacked a meeting of the Freedmen’s Bureau beating anyone of color who happened to be unlucky enough to be in the streets. Over 100 people, both black and white were killed or seriously injured by the mob. Not a single arrest was made of those responsible. A similar scene had happened a few months earlier in May when a group of Memphis policemen attacked went through the city attacking black neighborhoods. In that riot, 49 people had been killed and 91 homes burned to the ground.
Ten years after the last shots of the Civil War, many northerners were growing tired of having to police the south. The equality being pushed by the radical republicans was becoming a broken record to many whites who wanted to put the whole reconstruction thing behind them. The country was pushing west, the railroad had connected the Atlantic and Pacific, and a whole new round of Indian Wars was taking the attention away from black equality. The U.S Attorney General had this to say about sending more troops to protect black voters: “The whole public are tired of the annual autumnal outbreaks in the south”.
In 1869, President Johnson was out and the hero of the Union army–Ulysses S. Grant– was now sitting in the Oval Office. The Radical Republicans had a friend in office who would support their get-tough approach on reconstruction. Northerners were horrified by the news coming out of the South of the lynching and fire bombings being carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK’s mission of scaring voters away from the polls was working, and the Republicans decided to strike back with a set of laws known as the Ku Klux Klan Acts of 1870.
The Klan Acts made it a crime to run around in white sheets, the official uniform of the Klan. It also made it a crime to interfere with voting and in extreme cases, soldiers were stationed at the polls to protect voters. But sadly, the Klan Acts had more bark than bite because they were rarely enforced. Blacks continued to be harassed and intimidated throughout the South. Black registered voters peaked in 1870 and then began to drop like flies. In 1875, many counties across the South had no black registered. One Louisiana Parish only had one African-American on the roster. Sadly, throughout the end of the 19th century, you could always tell that voting season was approaching when violence against blacks began to surge. By 1900, every southern state had passed literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent blacks from voting. The era of Jim Crow segregation was now in full swing.
Richmond, like nearly all major Southern cities, was in complete ruins after the war.
Freedman's Village in Arlington, VA
Source: Oshkosh Public Museum
Aftershock: Beyond the Civil War
(warning: harsh language)
This newspaper enforced the idea held by many white supremacists of the freedmen being lazy and unwilling to work without white supervision. The Freedmen's Bureau was seen as giving handouts to blacks who wouldn't want to work for a living. Kind of ironic considering that white masters lived off the labor of their slaves.
Just days after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April, 1865, abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In his speech, Douglass explained why the black man wanted the right to vote “in every state of the Union”:
"It is said that we are ignorant; admit it. But if we know enough to be hung, we know enough to vote. If the Negro knows enough to pay taxes to support government, he knows enough to vote; taxation and representation should go together. If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag for the government, he knows enough to vote ....What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice."
Eyewitness to a Klan Attack
"There has been houses broken open, windows smashed and doors broken down in the dead hours of the night, men rushing in, cursing and swearing and discharging their Pistols inside the house. Men have been knocked down and unmercifully beaten and yet the authorities do not notice it at all. We would open a school here, but are almost afraid to do so, not knowing that we have any protection for life or limb."
- African-American citizens of Calhoun, Georgia, requesting protection from federal troops, 1867