Reconstruction took place in the aftermath of the Civil War which ended in 1865 when the Confederates of the Southern States surrendered to the Union of the North. Its aim was to reorganise the States so that they could become part of the Union.
After taking part in the war and having been granted Emancipation by Abraham Lincoln in September 1862, blacks believed that Reconstruction was going to mean a time of sweeping change and increased rights. To some extent this was the case with ‘Congressional Reconstruction’ resulting in the passing of the first Civil Rights Act (1866), and the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments in 1868 and 1870.However, before this period, President Andrew Johnson implemented his ‘Presidential Reconstruction’ plan.
A former slave owner himself, he ‘showed little concern over the status of freed people and believed they needed to be controlled by Southern whites’1. Ensuring that the Southern States ratified the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery, Johnson allowed States to appoint former slave owners and Confederates as delegates to rewrite their constitutions. This resulted in the creation of policies such as ‘Black Codes’, which limited the freedom of blacks. Furthermore, many authoritarian whites were unable to contend with blacks having equal status.As a consequence groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were formed which saw a ‘wave of violence rage almost unchecked in large parts of the post war South’2. These factors combined, Reconstruction not only meant a time of increased rights and opportunities, but also a time of great frustration, and often great fear.
The ratification of the 14th Amendment saw African Americans become citizens in the eyes of the law.This had a dramatic effect on the social side of their lives. One aspect of change involved family life. No longer restricted to the land of their master, blacks were able to live with their family members. Similarly, masters were unable to dictate who their slaves married, whilst establishments such as the Freedman’s Bureau legitimised unions by providing marriage licences. This marital legitimacy meant that parents were the legal owners of their children.
As a consequence, for the first time, parents had some autonomy in deciding how to bring their children up. Reconstruction also ‘transformed the roles of the family members’.Slavery imposed a sense of equality between male and female; however with emancipation, the male became the head of the household; signing contracts and receiving wages for the whole family. This often caused tension and was considered to be the cause of many marital problems. Reconstruction also saw a change in social groups.
As the large communities from plantations began to split, African Americans looked to other means to create a community. This resulted in numerous clubs and societies being developed, examples being the Masonic lodge and the ‘Voluntary Fireman’s Association’.Of particular importance to the community was the role of the Church. No longer required to attend services with their master, blacks built their own churches, often raising money to buy land and build premises. Working together also created a ‘sense of shared interests and goals’4, and their achievements created a feeling of pride which had never been felt before. Most blacks went to Baptist churches whilst others went to Methodist or Catholic institutions. This was irrelevant; the important factor was that blacks had the right to choose. Education was also transformed.
With the help of Charles Summer in the Senate, the Freedman’s Bureau and other ‘Missionary Associations’ established 740 schools during the Reconstruction period.Higher education institutions such as Clark University were also developed. People of all ages attended classes, attempting to gain the tools to maximise their freedom and increase their job opportunities.
In states such as Rhode Island and Connecticut in the North of America, blacks and whites even attended school together. The spirit of ‘self improvement’ and self worth embodied in the organisation of clubs, churches and especially schools, was a significant part of what Reconstruction meant to African Americans. Irrespective of these changes, many writers point out that Southern blacks were facing the problem that Northern blacks had experienced in the past, ‘that of a freed people surrounded by many hostile whites’5, who did not believe that blacks were equal, and instead continued to treat them as slaves.As a consequence, Reconstruction usually meant segregation. This was applicable in public places such as hotels, restaurants and theatres. Facilities were supposed to be ‘separate but equal’6; however this was rarely the case with blacks being offered inferior seats or rooms.
In certain cases, such as the New Orleans Opera House, blacks remained excluded completely. Furthermore, irrespective of legalised marriages, white land owners often gained custody of black children to ensure free labour.This was achieved by claiming that parents were unfit to look after children. Black women also continued to be treated as objects, often being sexually abused or raped. The court room also continued its bias in favour of whites. There was also some change to the economy.
However this was not as dramatic as had been hoped. After labouring free of charge during slavery, blacks believed that they were entitled to the ownership of land which would make them economically independent. Experiments off the South Coast of Carolina and Davis Bend, Mississippi, where land was divided between blacks, suggested that this might be the case.However during ‘Presidential Reconstruction’, Johnson handed the majority of land back to the slave owners, and ‘betrayed’7 the faith of African Americans. A small minority of blacks did become landowners, whilst others attempted to lease land.
Unsurprisingly, the cost of such ventures was deliberately extortionate , whilst vagrancy laws, enforced at the beginning of Reconstruction, stated that blacks had to be employed by whites or risk arrest. This was obviously a deliberately imposed disincentive for blacks who were trying to buy their own land. As a consequence, ‘most African Americans were doing the same kind of work as they had done as slaves’.
The obvious difference was that the law now stated that white owners had to pay blacks for their work, or take part in ‘crop sharing’9. However, despite the fact that the Freedman’s Bureau often helped to organise contracts, their rate of pay was considerably lower than that of a white man, whilst the crop failures of the mid 1870’s often meant that their employers failed to pay them at all. Although the National Negro Union was eventually founded, the majority were not represented by any union.As a consequence, they were often helpless. Laws imposing strict laws on African American fishing were also introduced. Unable to fish for food, blacks were forced to work in order to provide for their families. This returned them to the mercy of their white employers.
Other laws changed also. Minor crimes such as steeling pigs had long term prison sentences attached to them. This increased the ability of whites to take advantage of ‘convict leasing’, which once again meant black’s worked for nothing.