African americans and reconstruction

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Farming and the Freedmen’s Bureau

The Thirteenth Amendment freed the slaves. Now, freedmen (freed slaves) had to adjust to life after slavery. Although they had their freedom, they had no land or money, In order to survive, many turned to sharecropping. Under this practice, a family farmed a portion of a landowner’s land in return for housing and a share of the crop. Many sharecroppers, unfortunately, fell victim to dishonest landowners who subjected them to a subtle form of slavery. Sharecroppers who were fortunate enough to have an honest landowner and good crops sometimes tried tenant farming. Tenant farmers paid rent to farm the land, owned the crops they grew and were less at the mercy of white landowners than sharecroppers.

In 1865, Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau. As the first federal relief agency in US history, it served to provide clothing, medical attention, education, and even some land to free blacks and some poorer whites. Lacking strong support, however, it disbanded in 1869.
Education and the Church

The desire for freedom led to the rise of African American churches following the Civil War (the first new building constructed in Charleston, SC, following the war was a black church). As one of the few institutions truly controlled by African Americans, black churches became the centers for African American social and political life. Within these churches, African Americans could discuss issues relevant to the black community and organize strategies to meet the needs of freed blacks. As a result, African American ministers came to be seen not only as spiritual shepherds but as political/ social leaders as well.

Blacks also sought education. Often with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau and/or the churches, the southern African American community established the first black schools. Teachers were often African American soldiers who had acquired some education while in the service. Students included both children and adults. In 1865, the Avery Normal Institute was established as a private school for Charleston’s African American population. It is now a part of the College of Charleston.


Politics and Social Debate
African Americans also played a role in Southern politics during Reconstruction. Allowed access to the political process by Republican policies, African American delegates often attended state political conventions. South Carolina’s state convention actually had a black majority for a brief time. Some six hundred African Americans served in southern state legislatures, a few were elected to offices as high as lieutenant-governor, and one even served as acting governor of Louisiana when the white governor was charged with corruption. On a national level, a few blacks represented southern states in Congress.
New opportunities presented by Reconstruction also led to conflicts within the black community. Northern blacks and some “elite” southern blacks (usually considered elite because they had been raised free) tended to oppose policies designed to take land from private landowners and redistribute it to poorer freedmen (blacks freed from slavery after the war). Although they wanted political equality for all blacks, these “elitists” often saw themselves as socially superior to poorer, uneducated blacks who had only recently been emancipated. Meanwhile, southern blacks often resented the northern African Americans who came south and assumed positions of political influence that might otherwise have gone to southern blacks. Overall, however, African Americans’ remained unified in their struggle to assert themselves in the post-war South.

Black Codes and the Ku Klux Klan
After Johnson took office and before Congress could convene to enact its own plan for Reconstruction, many states in the South passed Black Codes. These were laws meant to keep African Americans subordinate to whites by restricting the rights of freed slaves. For instance, blacks could not meet together after sunset, own weapons, or rent property anywhere other than in rural areas (this kept them working on the plantations). Blacks convicted of vagrancy (not working) could be whipped or sold for a year’s labor. Black codes, in effect, continued the practice of slavery. It was in response to such laws that Congress ultimately passed the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Under Radical Reconstruction, these black codes lost much of their power.
In response to Reconstruction, some whites advocated violence against freed blacks. Perhaps the most notorious group to use such tactics was the Ku Klux Klan. A secretive organization whose members often dressed in hooded white robes, the Klan used violence, murder, and threats to intimidate blacks and those who favored giving African Americans equal rights. The Klan practiced lynchings (mob initiated murders in which the victim is kidnapped and hanged) and other acts of violence against blacks throughout the remainder of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. Although some of their goals and tactics have changed and their numbers decreased over time, the Ku Klux Klan continues to exist today.

Jim Crow Laws
With the end of Reconstruction and the rise of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans soon lost whatever political position they gained the years following emancipation. Southern states soon began passing Jim Crow Laws that required blacks and whites to use separate public facilities. Many states also tried to avoid upholding the Fifteenth Amendment by requiring citizens to pass literacy tests or pay poll taxes in order to vote. Literacy tests required that a citizen prove he could read/write, while poll taxes required voters to pay a set amount of money in order to vote. Since most African Americans in the South tended to be poor and uneducated, the new laws prevented many of them from voting. In order to keep these laws from hindering poor and illiterate whites, some states instituted grandfather clauses. These were clauses that exempted citizens from restrictions on voting if they, or their ancestors, had voted in previous elections. Since whites had enjoyed the right to vote for years, grandfather clauses allowed poor and illiterate whites to vote while excluding African-Americans.

Plessy v. Ferguson
Following the end of Reconstruction, states began to pass Jim Crow laws. These were laws that established racial segregation (separation based on race) in restaurants, hospitals, schools, public transportation, etc. There are two kinds of segregation: De jure and de facto. De jure segregation is segregation based on law. De facto segregation is segregation that is not officially instituted by law but rather evolves due to economic or social factors (ie, when members of different races tend to live in different neighborhoods because on race tends to be more economically disadvantaged than the other).
In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld de jure segregation in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The case involved a 30 year old man named Homer Plessy. Plessy, who was one-eighth African-American, was jailed for sitting in a “whites only” railway car. Under Louisiana law at the time, Plessy was guilty of a crime. He sued, claiming the law was unconstitutional. After considering the case, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was lawful as long as the separate facilities and services were equal. The case set the precedent that segregation was legal so long as separate facilities held to the standard of “separate but equal”. In reality, however, the facilities for whites were usually far superior to those of blacks.

Booker T. Washington
A number of notable African Americans emerged in the years following reconstruction. One of these was a former slave named Booker T. Washington. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Tuskegee served to train African Americans in a trade so that they could achieve economic freedom and escape the oppression often suffered by uneducated blacks. Washington taught his students that if blacks excelled in teaching, agriculture and bleu collar fields (trades requiring manual labor), they would eventually be treated as equal citizens.
While Washington’s school became an important center for technical education in the South, some blacks found his philosophies controversial. Washington, for instance, saw no problem with segregation. In a famous speech given in Atlanta in 1895, Washington stated, “In all things that are purely social we (whites and blacks) can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
W.E.B. DuBois

Another key African-American leader of the day was W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois was the first black Ph.D. graduate from Harvard University and adamantly disagreed with Booker T. Washington. He was offended by the ideas expressed in Washington’s Atlanta speech and viewed Washington as someone who had sold out to try and please the white community. For this reason, he labeled the speech the “Atlanta Compromise.” Instead of accepting segregation and “settling” for achieving in blue collar fields, DuBois argued that blacks should pursue occupations in the humanities and in white collar (managerial or professional fields). DuBois, unlike Washington, believed that blacks must be politically, legally and socially active in order to obtain true equality.

DuBois helped to organize a group of black intellectuals known as the Niagara Movement. Their goal was to outline an agenda for African-American progress in the United States. In 1905, these leaders met on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls after being denied hotel accommodations in the US. In 1909, DuBois was instrumental in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP. The organization devoted itself to the progress of the African-American community. It also founded an official magazine called The Crisis, which featured journalism, editorials calling for social reform and even poetry. Today, the NAACP continues to be a prominent political voice among the African-American community.
Ida Wells-Barnett

Ida Wells-Barnett was one of the most influential African American women of the post Reconstruction era. At a time when groups like the Ku Klux Klan were terrorizing southern blacks, she boldly led a campaign against lynching that made many northerners aware of some of the crimes happening in southern states. She also played an active role in the women’s movement. She gained notoriety for her refusal to march at the end of suffrage parades simply because she was black. Wells-Barnett also helped DuBois and others organize the NAACP.

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