Chapter 34 – How Political Reconstruction Affected the Lives of African American People and Native American People, by Gail Jarvis of Georgia, S. I. S. H.
For many of you, this will be the most important chapter in this booklet, for here we again present the story of bonded African Americans – the story of their being emancipated, made immediately independent, and directed to make a living for themselves and their families. A very important event in American history, this story needs to be truthfully presented and we accept that mission. The lives of the African American people were difficult in that era. They were forced to immediately make their own way in what was often a devastated and bankrupt land and to be simply used for political purposes by not-so-caring Carpetbaggers. Also, in what is now Oklahoma, Native Americans would suffer the loss of their land. We hope we have truthfully given balance to this delicate subject. The heroes are the African Americans and Native Americans who endured and raised families in spite of imposed hardships. We now proceed with the story in the words of Society author Gail Jarvis.
When the War Between the States ended, Northerners generally felt that the Federal Government should concentrate its efforts on stabilizing economic conditions rather than attempting a realignment of the South’s social structure. Although the North supported the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery, there were fears that there would be a massive inflow of freed slaves into the region, upsetting the social structure as well as the economy. Many states in the North had vagrancy laws to restrict the movement of blacks, as well as exclusion laws, which forbade blacks from migrating there. Ohio enacted laws to “regulate blacks and mulatto persons.” Similar laws were passed in Illinois, Indiana, and other states in the region. Essentially, these laws created separate facilities for blacks – blacks were prevented from voting, serving on juries, holding public office, or owning property.
Unfortunately, neither fixing the economy nor ending slavery was uppermost in the minds of congressional Republicans. Their essential interest, which could not be publicly stated, was the exploitation of the chaotic conditions created by the war in order to establish a power base for themselves. In the defeated Confederate states, they saw an opportunity to create the apparatus necessary to accomplish their goal. This involved assembling a tremendous voting bloc that would cast ballots in accordance with Republican wishes. By disallowing the vote to white Southerners, and registering vast numbers of freed slaves, they felt that an accommodating voting bloc could be created. The numbers looked convincing. For example, South Carolina alone had roughly 415,000 Negroes to only 290,000 whites.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, created to assist freed slaves in the South, never lived up to its expectations. Also, no one could predict how much it would cost the government, or how long its services would be needed, as its responsibilities were not clearly defined. The Freedmen’s Bureau did produce some benefits for the slaves; primarily assisting with food, housing, and medical needs, but its purpose was gradually altered. Republicans converted it to a device to promote Republican causes. So, when its one year authorization ended, the Republicans, over President Johnson’s veto, extended the Bureau’s life.
Although public schools, for both whites and blacks, rarely existed in the antebellum South, some slaves had been educated in various degrees by ministers and family members of plantation owners. Some slave children were taught to read by their white childhood companions – and even during the war years, members of Northern benevolent societies established schools for blacks in the South – the most famous being the Penn Center on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island. The Freedmen’s Bureau did help build schools and furnish textbooks, but it did not provide teachers. Students were instructed by local white and black volunteers.
The Freedmen’s Bureau gradually became more of a political machine than a charitable agency. Staff members recruited freed slaves into the Loyal League, originally created for persons loyal to and supportive of the Union, which now meant supporting the Republican Party. Freed slaves were told that by registering and voting the Republican ticket, they could prevent their former Democratic masters from re-enslaving them. They were also led to believe that land would be taken from their former owners and redistributed to them. Its Propagandizing of slaves became more vicious – vilifying their former owners, the South, and the Democratic Party.
Many freed slaves did not understand what registering to vote meant. Staff told them that “registration” would be very “beneficial,” so many believed it involved the distribution of food, clothing or other items; that it would lead to grants of land forcibly taken from Southern planters. Most had heard the story that each slave would receive “forty acres and a mule.” Many slaves were awarded so-called “abandoned” land, and an immense area along the Southern coast was confiscated and set aside for homesteading by slaves. But outright confiscation without compensation is prohibited by the Constitution and President Johnson’s Attorney-General formally prohibited outright confiscation.
Northerners who began migrating to the South were called “Carpetbaggers,” implying that all they owned could be carried in a carpetbag. They were soon taking advantage of the unstable conditions, not only by exploiting white citizens, but also freed slaves. One swindle involved a variation of the “forty acres and a mule” story. Portraying themselves as government representatives, swindlers sold red and blue pegs to slaves, claiming that they were official government pegs, and could be used to legally mark off the land grant each wanted to get upon distribution. Each slave had to purchase numerous pegs to demarcate the land he wanted.
The South Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau decreed that marriages conducted while persons were held as slaves were not legally binding. So, these couples had to pay substantial fees in order to remarry. One unscrupulous minister, a former pastor of a Massachusetts Methodist church who had relocated to the South during Reconstruction, amassed quite a sum of money by performing re-marriage ceremonies for previously wedded slave couples.
In South Carolina, a state militia was created, comprised primarily of black Loyal League members. This state militia was allegedly needed to protect blacks from intimidation by whites, but antagonistic acts against blacks were only sporadic until after the militia began menacing white communities. In one legislative session, roughly $375,000 was spent to staff and provide rifles to the state militia ($7,500,000 in today’s money). This organization gradually became more aggressive, holding secret meetings at night, parading through unprotected neighborhoods, firing weapons, chanting antagonistic slogans, and otherwise harassing already frightened households. There were reports of arson and even murder.
In response, former South Carolina Confederates established their own clandestine organizations patterned on other secret societies throughout the South. The most notorious of these secret societies was the Ku Klux Klan. The South Carolina Klan lasted only three years, until the election of Democrat Wade Hampton to the office of Governor. In those years it sought to balance the impact of the Loyal League and the state militia. At times the Klan became overly aggressive, engaging in unacceptable behaviors as vicious as those perpetrated by the state militia. When no longer needed the Klan disbanded.
The Indian tribes that fought on the side of the Confederacy also felt the ill effects of Political Reconstruction. Those five Indian nations: Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole, were never given full citizenship rights, but they lost even the marginal rights that former treaties conferred on them when the Federal Government resettled them in what became known as “Indian Territory.” For aiding the Confederate war effort, these tribes had to agree to a treaty of peace with the Union, and give up land as war reparations (The government actually wanted to relocate all unwanted indigenous people in the Indian Territory). The tribes were also required to agree to a future forfeiture of land that would become “rights-of-way” for railroads. They had to emancipate any slaves they owned, and incorporate them into their tribes or otherwise make provisions for them.
The Federal Government felt it could consolidate all the tribes into just one, but that was just another of the unrealistic Political Reconstruction ploys. Each of the Indian nations negotiated separately with the government’s representatives, but a Choctaw phrase was suggested for the Reconstructed territory: Okla Humma, translated as Red People.
We also wonder why, during and immediately after Political Reconstruction, the Northeast and Midwest gave jobs primarily to European immigrants from economically depressed countries, while ignoring the desperate employment needs of recently freed slaves in Southern states. Former slaves should have been as able as European immigrants to fill the kinds of jobs available at mills, factories, railroads, and coal mines. While promising them free land in the South, no Republican considered allowing them to settle the free land in the West that was being massively given away to immigrants and corporations.
Even while Political Reconstruction was occurring in the Southern states, the Statue of Liberty was being built to stand in New York harbor to welcome struggling European immigrants. At its unveiling, a few years after Reconstruction ended, a poem, which would later adorn its base, was read. It contained these words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your
huddled masses yearning to be free. . . Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me.” These descriptive words could easily have depicted freed slaves. But no such enthusiastic invitation was extended to former Southern slaves, who were closer at hand, and certainly as destitute and “tempest-tossed” as indigent Europeans. Many of the freed slaves emigrating to the North, hoping to find work, were soon disillusioned.
The Freedmen’s Bureau led slaves to believe that simply being independent would bring about their economic salvation. If the transformation from slavery to independence had been accomplished gradually, giving time for survival skills to be acquired, it might have brought economic redemption. Indeed, in the years before Reconstruction, over 250,000 Southern slaves had earned their freedom, and become independent in this manner; now supporting themselves in such occupations as carpenters, tailors, seamstresses, shoemakers, butchers, and barbers. But immediate freedom without any means of livelihood was disastrous. Ironically, the only economic ventures that had long-lasting benefits for the slaves were renewed working relationships with former owners.
Slaves and former owners made use of the ancient farming relationship of working the land on shares – mentioned in both the Talmud and the Bible. This latest version of “sharecropping” allowed freed slaves to work without overseers or drivers. Tillable land, farm implements, seeds, housing, food, and other basic necessities were provided to erstwhile slaves in return for their labor. After crop expenses and family maintenance were satisfied, the income remaining was allocated between farm owners and laborers according to contractual provisions.
“Tenant farming” was also a viable alternative for many black and white farmers. Unfortunately, the War and Political Reconstruction had decimated the finances of both groups, so they had to contract costly crop-liens with local merchants, who, in turn were financed by Northern creditors. Although paying off crop-liens seriously reduced the profitability of this venture, it sustained struggling farmers for many years.
Looking back on the Political Reconstruction debacle, we wonder why slavery in the South wasn’t eliminated in stages similar to its gradual phasing-out in the North. Although the immediate removal of slave labor certainly punished prominent Southerners for their war efforts, it left the slaves without any means of supporting themselves. Removal of whites from government positions and replacing them with carpetbaggers, scalawags and blacks was also based on vindictiveness, and it severely strained the relationship between the races. This was certainly a contributing factor for the enactment of Southern “black codes,” which were patterned on black codes in Northern states.
Suggestions for Class Discussion
In what ways did Republican Reconstruction policies fail to benefit African Americans in the South?