Did the lives of Black Americans improve during the Reconstruction period of 1865-1877?

After the American Civil War, and the abolition of slavery, America entered into a Reconstruction period, which was originally designed by Lincoln to improve the lives of former black American slaves. Andrew Johnson took over reforms upon Lincoln’s assassination on April 14th 1865, and following this Johnson and Ulysses Grant oversaw the remaining years of the Reconstruction period. Johnson’s ideas were different to that of Lincoln’s, and he granted the Confederate states a pardon, allowing them back into the Union. This led to conflict with the Radical Republicans in Congress, who had opposed slavery and believed that the South should be punished for their treatment of former black slaves. Johnson claimed that these Republicans were traitors, and the tension increased when Johnson vetoed two congressional proposals intended to help black people, the Freedman’s Bureau and Civil Rights Bill of 1866… but more on those later. It is difficult to definitively say that lives fully improved, or that lives did not improve at all in this specific period. Let us see what went on during this time.

In the early years of the Reconstruction period, black people suffered at the hands of the emergence of White Supremacy, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan. Established in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennesee, the clan sought to protect white people in the south, and claimed to uphold patriotism, chivalry, mercy and humanity. Ironic I know. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former Confederate cavalry general, was elected Grand Wizard in 1867 in Nashville. The KKK justified the former arguments that allowed black people to be treated as inferior to whites, and claimed that black people were arsonists and murderers. They used violence against black people to stop them from voting, and had contact with Southern Democrat Politicians. The violence also extended to schools and churches, which were burned down in Alabama after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. During the 1868 elections, 1300 voters were attacked and killed by the terror organisation. In the early 70’s three acts were passed in order to restrict the KKK and other white supremacist groups. The 1870 Enforcement Act placed penalties against anyone who interfered with a citizen, no matter what race. A Second Enforcement Act placed the election of congressman under the surveillance of elected officials. Most notably, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 gave troops the power to arrest and habeus corpus suspected KKK members. This specifically can be seen to improve the lives of black Americans, as it restricted the activity of white supremacist groups, and allowed them to be brought before a judge or court. This development led to a decrease in white supremacist activity. From this perspective it would appear on paper that, Congress were attempting to improve the lives of black Americans. However, these facts probably do not speak to the individual experiences of black people.

There were several initiatives within the Reconstruction period that only temporarily improved the lives of black people. The Freedman’s Bureau, which, although initially vetoed by Johnson, was passed by Congress and established in 1865. The Bureau aimed to help free black people and poor white people, providing food, housing and medical aid, schooling and legal assistance. They also attempted to settle former slaves on confederate lands confiscated or abandoned during the war. The positive effects of the Bureau were short lived, due to the lack of funding and personnel. The Bureau even gave more money to white people than black people, and in 1872, Congress shut down the Bureau after white southerners refused to help former slaves. During the seven years that the Bureau was running, it did seek to improve the lives of black people for the better, giving them a basis on which they could build a new life, albeit for a short time.

Sharecropping has a similar story. Landowners divided large plantations of small farms of 30-50 acres under a rental agreement, which usually involved payment in half the crop produced on the land. Former black slaves received a farm and half a crop, which was better than the arrangement under slavery. This provided black people with a land of their own, and crop, which could provide them with a steady income, which provided them with a better arrangement than previously. During the economic depression of 1873, sharecropping was a more economic use of land, and by 1880, 80 percent of land in the cotton producing area of the USA was farmed by sharecroppers. However, this was short lived, as sharecropping did have negative aspects. As former slaves were poor, they often borrowed money at high interest to buy equipment and seed, which led to them giving some of their crop away to pay back their loans. This system forced those who could not pay into debt, and as many were illiterate, they had no other job prospects. There’s a conflict here, as there were positive effects for the short term, but in the long term, black people were tied to the land, and were in debt to landowners.

The Federal Government also tried to improve the lives of black people. The acts passed by Congress, known as the ‘Civil War Amendments’ were brought about in response to the use of Black Codes, which were laws passed by Democrat controlled Southern states in 1865 and 1866. These codes allowed black people to be treated as they had before the issuing of the 13th Amendment in 1865. The codes were introduced in the former confederate states, and discriminated against former slaves. In Mississippi, black people could not carry arms, liqueur and did not have the right to own property. These discriminatory views were restricted initially by the issuing of the 13th Amendment in January 1865. In January 1865 slavery became constitutionally abolished, which resulted in the liberation of 4 million slaves. Although this left black people, who had no money and education, in a precarious position, the amendment improved the lives of black people, by stating that not slavery ‘shall exist within the United States.’ As well as being freed, land was given to black people by ex-confederate states, providing them with their own property. Despite the initial situation that black people found themselves in after the passing of the amendment, their lives were greatly improved by the positive step of the abolition of slavery. As well as abolishing slavery, the amendment protected former slaves from it, claiming that Congress has ‘power to enforce’ the article by ‘appropriate legislation’ if broken.

In 1866 the Federal Government passed a Civil Rights Act. This act made all American citizens equal under the law, stating that they all should have the ‘same right(s).’ the Act also allowed black people the right to access to property, and allowed the Federal Government to override state legislature, if they attempted to block the Act.

The passing of the 14th Amendment further intended to improve the lives of black Americans during the years of Reconstruction. The 14th Amendment was a feature of Radical Reconstruction, and was passed in 1868. All former slaves were made citizens, and were made equal under the law. The Amendment also aimed to protect black people from former confederate states, stating that those which had participated in ‘rebellion’ against the Union, may not be allowed to vote. The 15th Amendment also, passed in 1869, granted black people the right to vote, and was seen as a triumph for Radical Republicans. On paper this improved the lives of black Americans, as they were given the legal right to vote. However, the struggle for the vote was far from over, as hindsight now tells us.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 too sought to improve lives of former black slaves during the years of the Reconstruction. This particular act discussed and dealt with public accommodations, and noted that all citizens of the USA should be entitled to the full use of facilities such as inns, land, water or theatres. Section four of the Act also allows black people to become juries. As set forth in previous acts, states cannot prevent equality under the law, and the continuing authority of the Federal Government ensured discrimination was restricted against black people.

Black people also sought to better themselves during the period of Reconstruction. Most notably, many black churches and schools were set up, to ensure that black people had a proper education and had a chance to enter into a trade to earn income. This tackled the problem of illiteracy, which stopped black people from earning income, unless they were sharecroppers. This led to developments in black culture and identity, and provided black people with leaders and role models, such as Booker T. Washington, who was a priest in a black church. As a result of this, the KKK did target 50 black teachers, and destroyed 25 schools in response to the public schools act of 1870 in Mississippi, emphasising the importance of ways in which black people sought to better their own lives. From 1860 to 1880, black literacy increased from 70 to 90 percent, showing the improvement in the lives of black people, and the future opportunities that this will bring, allowing them to better themselves in the years after the Reconstruction.

It is difficult to staunchly come down on one side, and say that black American lives improved or did not improve during the Reconstruction period. On paper, from 1865-1877, one could argue that they did for a short time, and that steps were taken in order to facilitate this. However, white supremacy, the closure of the Freedman’s Bureau and the negative effects of sharecropping lead one to argue that their lives did not improve. And of course, after the Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws came into effect to dispel the legal rights that black people had been given during the Reconstruction, and for example, tried to prevent black people from voting. Maybe it is best to settle that the intent from Congress was there, and in the short term black people did benefit from the Freedman’s Bureau, sharecropping and education… but that maybe in the long term, it was not enough.[1]

Thanks for reading!

[1] All information taken from:

D. Murphy, Civil Rights and Race Relations in the USA, 1850-2009 (London, Pearson Education, 2016).

And my own knowledge.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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