Our 400 Year Sojourn: Reconstruction Era

Our 400 Year Sojourn: Reconstruction Era

Our 400 Year Sojourn: Reconstruction Era

By Ruby Jones

The bloodiest conflict the nation has ever seen was initiated by uncompromising differences between Union and Confederate states over the power of national government to limit states’ rights. Slavery played a pivotal role during the United States Civil War, as Southern political leaders resisted attempts by anti-slavery political forces in the North to block the expansion of slave labor into newly acquired western territories. The abolition of slavery was a war tactic, meant to destabilize the rebellious Southern states and garner the surrender and reunion of the Confederacy; it was not well thought-out and did not consider the colossal challenges that would affect entire generations.

After 245 years of bondage, over 3 million people of African descent were granted freedom with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Without being acclimated to freedom or returned to their native lands, former slaves were expected to integrate into the foreign country where they had been forced into captivity. Facilitating the transition from slavery to freedom was a tremendous failure on the part of the United States government. The devastating effects of its abortive efforts are still seen in social and political inequities that exist in the outdated systems we use today.

The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, freeing slaves from the rebellious Southern states and crippling the Confederacy. The Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln, was an executive order meant to slow the Southern economy to a halt and suppress rebellion. In 1863, there were approximately 4 million people of African descent living in captivity, but only about 3.5 million of them were living in the 11 Confederate states where the order applied. The issuance of the Proclamation added the emancipation of African slaves as a primary war goal, in addition to maintaining a Union that had been ripped apart because of opposing views on taxation and states rights.

The Emancipation Proclamation was not a law passed by congress; it did not grant freedom to slaves living in the border Union states; it did not outlaw slavery; and it did not grant citizenship to freed slaves. The Proclamation did allow ex-slaves, or freedmen, to enroll in the United States armed forces, and ordered the Union Army and Executive branch of government to recognize and maintain their freedom.

After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, thousands of African slaves were immediately released from captivity in areas under Union control, but for slaves living in Confederate territories, freedom did not come quickly. Many slave owners withheld the news of the Proclamation, but as Union troops advanced through the South, hundreds of slaves were freed each day. Some simply walked off the plantations in search of a better life, and nearly 200,000 enlisted in the armed forces and immediately joined the fight.

With the nation still at war and no formal plan, freedmen faced tremendous challenges, including neglect, disease, and starvation. Described as, “the largest biological crisis of the 19th century,” historians estimate nearly 1 million freedmen either died or suffered from grave illness between 1862 and 1870. After leaving the plantations, many ended up in encampments near Union army bases, where they were abandoned and forced to scavenge for food in the war torn land. Often the only way to leave the camp was to go back to work for plantations.

Slavery was partially abolished in the United States in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment, which provides that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, most of the Southern plantation owners could not afford the cost of labor to produce effective crops. With an economy on the brink of collapse and no cash or independent credit systems following the war, landowners created an exploitative system of sharecropping that allowed poor Southern Europeans and freedmen to live as tenants and work the land in exchange for a share of the crop. Plantation owners leased equipment, seeds, and other items to the sharecroppers but the unregulated system of sharecropping enabled landlords to charge high interest rates that kept most families indebted, requiring the debt to be settled with the following year’s harvest. State laws favored landowners, keeping tenants from selling their harvest back to anyone other than the landlord and restricting them from moving away from the property; thus, the cycle of enslavement continued under the guise of wage slavery.

On March 3, 1865, the United States Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, which created the Freedmen’s Bureau. The bureau, operated through the War Department, was primarily concerned with land management, but despite attempts to disburse ex-Confederate land to freedmen, Congress determined that the land would revert to its original owners. The Freeman’s Bureau distributed food, operated hospitals, helped freed slaves locate family members, provided employment, supervised labor contracts, provided legal representation, and established over 1,000 schools and Black colleges.

When the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, freedmen began to mobilize, with meetings, parades, and petitions calling for the right to vote. President Lincoln revealed his intentions to move forward with reconstruction during a speech on April 11, 1865, in which he proposed that some freed slaves, including those who had enlisted in the military, deserved the right to vote. He was assassinated three days later, on April 14,, 1865, leaving plans for reconstruction to his successor, the Union Democrat Vice President Andrew Johnson.

When Johnson became president, he opposed political rights for freedmen and believed that Southern states did not give up their rights to govern themselves, preventing federal intervention for voting rights. Johnson ordered all land confiscated by the Union army and distributed to freed slaves to be returned to the prewar owners. Apart from having to uphold the abolition of slavery following the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Southern state governments had free reign to rebuild and govern themselves.

With resentment growing amongst Europeans in the splintered South, social order was in a state of rapid decline. Many worried that the Southern economy would collapse without slave labor, so a system of oppressive laws called Black Codes were enacted by each state to keep freedman in control. The Black Codes mandated the use of labor contracts, which gave European landlords rights to control, discipline, and enforce the work of Black tenants. Any violation of the Black Codes was cause for arrest. Upon imprisonment, individuals were forced into hard labor or leased to European landowners and treated as slaves. It was illegal for Black people to be vagrant, possess firearms, make or sell liquor, travel from state to state without permission, or practice any occupation except farmer or servant without permission from a judge. The children of Black Code violators were assigned to European landowners as apprentices, where they were taught a trade and forced to work.

The Black Codes established racially separate court systems in many states; and the punishments for crimes carried very harsh penalties, including the death sentence. Local law enforcement swelled in size and authority as police officers made sweeping arrests to fuel the system of imprisonment. In response, a congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction shifted control of Reconstruction efforts to the Republican Party, extending the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau to combat the mass incarceration of Black people.

In 1866, Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, which established and protected the citizenship of former slaves. President Johnson challenged the legitimacy of the Freedman’s Bureau, but Congress upheld its operation until 1872, when the bureau was abolished.

As racial tensions continued to rise throughout Southern states, a shooting altercation between European police officers and Black soldiers in Memphis, Tennessee, triggered the Memphis Riots of 1866. Police, firemen, and some businessmen rampaged through Black neighborhoods, attacking, raping and killing Black men, women, and children. The three-day massacre began on May 1, 1866 and ended three days later with the deployment of federal troops. On July 30, 1866, another major outbreak of violence occurred after police and firemen attacked Black Republicans marching outside of the Louisiana Constitutional Convention in protest of the Black Codes and voting restrictions. Between both incidents, nearly 200 Black people were killed and hundreds more were injured. As a result of the riots, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act, requiring each state to draft a new state constitution that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and granted voting rights to Black men.

From 1876 to 1877, the Reconstruction taking place in Southern states was known as Radical Reconstruction. Branches of the Union League encouraged Black people to engage in political activism to exercise their power as the majority southern Republican voters. Of the 265 Black delegates elected in some political capacity, over 100 had been born into slavery.

With growing opposition to Black voting rights, new ruling order was ushered in with the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan, a violent terrorist group with a goal of recreating the superiority that had been lost with the abolition of slavery. The underground group was known for committing heinous, cowardly acts of violence while their identity was hidden under hoods. It is estimated that the loathsome group performed over 3,500 racially-motivated lynchings between 1865 and 1900, in addition to the murder of at least 35 Black officials throughout the Reconstruction era. As a result of the domestic terrorism against freedmen at the polls, President Ulysses S. Grant requested help from Congress after his 1868 election. He passed the Third Ku Klux Klan Act, which enforced the Fourteenth Amendment and guaranteed all citizens rights and legal protection.

Later that year, in Louisiana, Oscar J. Dunn, a former slave who had fought in the Union Army for the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, became the first Black lieutenant governor of the United States. He died in 1871, with several examiners saying that his death was the result of arsenic poisoning, and he was succeeded in 1872 by Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, who, after a 34-day interim period as the first Black governor of Louisiana, was forced out of office.


By 1870, each state had Black legislative members. Hiram Revels, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, became the first Black person to serve in Congress when he was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in February 1870. Democrats were livid, still holding onto the Dred Scott Decision that slaves could never be citizens, much less serve in Congress, but in March 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing all men the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous enslavement. In 1871, Benjamin S. Turner, Josiah T. Walls, Robert Brown Elliott, Joseph H. Rainey, and Robert Carlos DeLarge served in the Forty-Second Congress’ House of Representatives. The influence of Black politicians was undeniable.




In 1874, the Democratic Party won control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War. During this time, Robert Smalls, a Black Civil War hero, and Blanche K. Bruce were elected to Congress. The presence of Black politicians contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The law, also known as the Enforcement Act, was enacted to protect all citizens of their civil and legal rights; it mandated equal treatment in public accommodations and public transportation, as well as prohibiting the exclusion of Black people from jury service. The law was later ruled unconstitutional, as it called for Congress to control private people and corporations.

The presidential election of 1876 was the catalyst for the end of the Reconstruction era. With disputes over the legitimacy of the election, Rutherford B. Hayes won the electoral vote despite losing the popular vote to Governor Samuel Tilden. The informal Compromise of 1877 awarded all 20 electoral votes to Hayes, with promises to withdraw federal troops from Louisiana and Florida. With all governing power restored to the former Confederate states, the Reconstruction era was ushered out, and the country was ushered into an oppressive era of economic and political control known as Jim Crow.