The 12 short years of Black Reconstruction

Timeline for today’s lesson:
*Slavery 1619-1865
*Jim Crow 1880 to 1968
*Reconstruction 1865 to 1877
Conclusion: Slavery and Jim Crow lasted for approximately 335 years and Reconstruction lasted for only 12 short years…

When Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865, thus ending the Civil War, there were nearly four million enslaved Blacks in the south who suddenly were free men and women. After nearly three centuries in bondage, newly freed blacks found themselves despised by the vanquished Confederates, and held in contempt by many Union soldiers and northerners who wondered whether the masses of  black humanity foraging for food and competing with them for jobs had been worth the price in blood paid after four years of war.

In the waning days of the Civil War, Congress set about the task of assisting the newly liberated men and women with this transition period. On March 3, 1865, Congress established within the War Department the “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands,” an agency that was shortened to the “Freedmen’s Bureau.”  While the new legislation was opposed by some northern whites and the entirety of the former Confederacy (as the picture below show), Congress, within the same legislation, also established the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company,  a thrift that became the first banking institution to cater to blacks.

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The Freedmen’s Bureau by conception was designed to be a temporary assistance agency; as Congress bitterly debated the nature of Reconstruction upon the war’s conclusion, one of the hot political sub-issues was precisely what levels of relief should be provided for slaves whose ancestors had toiled for nearly 250 years with little education, social infrastructure or job skills beyond those required for agriculture and for certain highly skilled positions such as blacksmiths and construction workers.

Prior to his death, President Lincoln had indicated his desire for a fairly simple reconciliation with the south and within his plans included the possibility of facilitating a mass colonization of blacks to Cuba, Panama or West Africa. After Lincoln’s assassination in April of 1865, Andrew Johnson, his successor and a native of Tennessee, shared Lincoln’s concerns with respect to the ability of blacks to successfully live with their former owners, a position that was in staunch contrast to Radical Republicans who not only wanted the South to suffer for its insurrection, but also wanted to see blacks gain a measure of revenge against their former oppressors by succeeding.

Undaunted, the Bureau, under the leadership of former Union General Oliver Otis Howard (namesake of Howard University in Washington, DC) provided clothes, food, shelter and education for the former slaves. During its brief existence, the Bureau provided job training and placement in addition to legal assistance and redistribution of confiscated and/or abandoned Confederate property.

In 1866, responding to the efforts of former Confederates to wrestle power and property back from the former slaves, Congress passed a more extensive Freedmen’s Bill that allowed the Bureau to supervise labor contracts to help prevent blacks from being tricked into a new form of “legal” slavery. President Johnson vetoed the Bill, citing his concerns that the same infringed upon the rights of the sovereign states. Congress overrode Johnson’s veto and the Bureau continued in this vein until 1872, when northern indifference to the plight of former slaves and concerns over funding led Congress to dissolve the Agency.

As for the Freedmen’s Bank, its initial design was to provide services to Black Union soldiers but in time, many former slaves opened savings accounts as well. By the early 1870’s, the bank held assets totaling nearly 4 million dollars. During the economic panic of 1873, the bank suffered greatly and in 1874, former abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass was named its president. Douglass deposited 10,000 of his own dollars into the bank, but as this was nearly seventy years before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was formed under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” individual investors and depositors were left unprotected and when the bank finally folded in June of 1874, nearly 61,000 blacks lost all of their hard-earned savings.

Where Reconstruction was highly successful was in the establishment of black schools across the United States, many of which would become the predecessors to the more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities that still exist including my alma maters, Morehouse College and Florida A&M University; Hampton Institute, whose most famous graduate of the era, Booker T. Washington, later founded Tuskegee Institute (now University); Spelman College, Clark College and Atlanta University (Now Clark Atlanta University) and many others. Similarly, newly freed blacks soon found themselves in positions of political prominence with two, Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, serving in the United States Senate from Mississippi. P.B.S. Pinchback briefly served as Louisiana’s 24th governor. Most southern state legislatures were filled with black representatives since most of the white men at the time, loyal Democrats before the war and rebellious Confederates during the war, were still badly outnumbered at the ballot box.

The numerical advantage and the attendant political clout that blacks enjoyed would last only a short while as the era of Reconstruction, begun in 1865, ended with the Compromise of 1877. Yes, just twelve short years of Reconstruction after 256 years of slavery!

During the bitter 1876 presidential election, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden were tied in a dead heat. Hayes’ presidency was authorized under one major condition, that he remove all remaining federal soldiers from the still occupied former Confederate states. The federal soldiers were the only buffer between still unrepentant–and bitter–former Confederates and blacks who had gained considerable political and economic clout along with Republican carpetbaggers from the north.

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When the federal troops left, so, too, did any semblance of order as the era of lynching, one in which black men, women and children could be summarily hanged and/or burned for any perceived disrespect (uppity)or criminal offense, soon became the order of the day.

More crucially, within 20 years of the 1877 troop withdrawal, the former Confederates were in complete control of politics in the south. New laws, later called “Jim Crow” laws, were enacted that relegated blacks to second class citizenship status. Other laws were created to prevent blacks from voting including the poll tax, literacy tests and grandfather clauses. Perhaps the most sinister laws, however, dealt with crime, punishment and the right to vote. By the mid-1890’s, most southern states had developed a number of laws that created felony offenses for loitering, theft and other non-violent crimes, thus allowing many southern sheriffs to arrest black males on a whim for standing idly by.

Even more critically, the Southern states enacted laws that made being a convicted felon an automatic disqualifier for voting and holding elected office–a stain that remains fully in effect well into 2018 in the states down in Dixie. Further, during this period, most southern jails and prisons were exclusively filled with black prisoners. As the so-called Jim Crow laws became more prevalent, black prisoners often found themselves relegated to “Convict Leasing,” a system not too dissimilar from the fate of those suffering during slavery.

While the 13th Amendment forever ended legal slavery in the United States, its language allowed forced servitude as punishment for criminal behaviors. While many northern states contained some variation of forced labor as punishment, in the south the practice was soon raised to a macabre art form as jails farmed out workers and administered whippings. The first such provision was enacted in Mississippi in 1867, when Governor Benjamin G. Humphreys signed into law a measure that allowed convicts to be hired out to wealthy patrons who paid a fee to the state for cheap labor. Qualifying felony offenses included the “pig law” that made the stealing of a pig and other livestock grand larceny. Among the misdemeanor offenses that found black men in particular relegated to a system of perpetual servitude included vagrancy laws that penalized men for congregating during the work day.

With less than salubrious conditions within the barracks and tents that often housed the leased prisoners, mortality rates were extremely high–by some estimates nearly 15 times that of northern penal institutions. By some historical accounts, some of the condemned who had experienced the wiles of slavery considered the forced labor system worse in that slave-owners had held a financial interest in ensuring the health and vitality of their workers; businessmen who used convict labor held little concern in this regard as the nature of the justice system ensured a ready supply of fresh replacements.

Eventually, the practice of convict leasing died out as the states that promulgated such measures in earnest like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana realized that the fees that they derived for providing the labor supply was negligible. By 1920, most states had officially ended the practice although in some areas, it continued in varying forms well into the 1950’s as documented by writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, one who studied the practice of forced labor in Florida’s turpentine mines in earnest. Still, the legacy of this practice is found to this very day in states that utilize chain gangs and prisoner work details for public works, including the infamous Angola Prison in Louisiana that continues to force inmates to pick cotton by hand as punishment—much like their ancestors in bondage