Were African Americans free during Reconstruction?
Historians know the period from 1865 to 1877, after the American Civil War, as Reconstruction. The difficult task of rebuilding America faced the citizens of the North and South. Americans were able to rebuild the ruins of the war, but the emotional toll of the war and what came after would last for many years. The legal status of African Americans changed after slavery ended. This happened with the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments granted equal citizenship and voting rights to Black men. Many white Southerners resented the transition of African Americans from property to citizens. They wanted their lives to return to how they were before the war.
Despite being legally free, African Americans were still treated as inferior by many white Americans. African Americans experienced discrimination everywhere, especially in the South where they mostly lived. Certain white people in the South sought to regain control over freed individuals by finding loopholes in the laws. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan secretly formed to frighten and hurt African Americans. They wanted to prevent Black people from being equal. With these acts of racial terrorism, African Americans could still experience the fears they had while enslaved. While they were free, they still lived in fear of violence and struggled to exercise their new rights.
As soon as opportunities for African Americans began, they were met with limits in politics, economics, and society. The 13th Amendment ended slavery, but people could still be enslaved as punishment for a crime. In the Southern states, there were laws called Black Codes. These laws unfairly targeted African Americans. If someone broke these laws, their labor could be sold to private companies or individuals.
The 15th Amendment allowed African American men to vote, but their voting rights and ability to hold office were under attack. To prevent African Americans from voting, white officials passed new laws. The laws had literacy tests that voters found confusing. Voters also had to pay fees called poll taxes. Officials and white citizens used violence and intimidation to keep Black people from voting and running for office.
After the war, sharecropping became a major economic opportunity for African American families in the South. They had to give a large part of their money or crops to white landowners. Most families got trapped in poverty and debt, destroying their hope for economic freedom. Socially, segregation was already happening during Reconstruction, which separated Black and white people. Segregated African American schools got less funding per student than white schools. This put African American students at a disadvantage.
The radical promise of Reconstruction would have to wait. Most African Americans would live with discrimination, segregation, and disenfranchisement. These challenges continued until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s.
Inferior: lower in place or position
Terrorism: illegal intimidation and violence
Radical: drastic policial, economic, and social reforms
Disenfranchisement: being denied the right to vote and participate in the political process
Discuss the following question: What does it mean to be free?
- First, complete a quick-write to record your immediate thoughts on the answer to the question. You have one minute to write.
- You have two minutes to share what you wrote with your small group (assigned by your teacher). Be ready to share with the class as a whole.
- You will now participate in a class discussion on what it means to be free. Please take notes on what your classmates share.