When asked the question “Did Reconstruction change the South for African Americans?” I thought long and hard. I realized what a great revolution had taken place for the entire black race, to be coming out of slavery and slowly but surely things were happening. Jobs and juries were full of blacks. But come 1877 the dream was ripped out of many beholders and turned into a nightmare, it seems, for the next century, as racism rampaged once again through the country. Therefore I believe that good changes were made but not enough.
Socially, blacks built lives for themselves. “In 1865-1866, free men and women all over the South grabbed Liberty by the horns.”(Freidheim, P.195) Using their newfound freedom, African-Americans created homes for themselves, building communities and coming together. They also built churches and schools. African American Universities were built and more and more blacks were literate and educated. “And by the tens of thousands, men, women and children of all ages learned reading writing and arithmetic.” (Friedheim, P.195) They got rid of old slave names, changing their names at state borders as they registered with the Freedmen’s Bureau. Many made their wedding vows legal or married for the first time. But as time neared to 1877, negativity towards blacks began to grow. Many believed blacks were to be kept as slaves in the first place and could not possibly be equal to whites. Therefore, the Ku Klux Klan was founded to promote white male supremacy. “The KKK used scare tactics like intimidation to force blacks into voting for their democratic ticket” (Friedheim, P. 263). They would threaten to kill entire families and children of black republicans.
Economically, African Americans did not gain much from Reconstruction. “Like so many other nineteenth-century Americans, white and black, freedpeople wanted to work the land as self sufficient farmers. Their ‘American Dream’ was built around forty acres and a mule many expected from the Freedmen’s Bureau, a few barnyard animals, and enough seed to plant greens, potatoes and garden vegetables.” (Freidhiem, P.247) This dream was denied. Northern Industrialists and Southern planters did not agree with this idea. It would have meant that Southern planters would lose most of their land. In addition, the new freedpeople did not want to cultivate products like cotton and tobacco that they had produced day after day as slaves. Therefore, the Northern Industrialists were also against land redistribution because the products they needed to use and to export would not be produced at the same rate and be much more expensive. The compromise was sharecropping. This meant that freedpeople would get a chance to work the fields and produce what they needed, but would give a share of what they made (what they grew or money they made from it) in return for land and tools to work it. This seemed as if it would work but for the most part it put a lot of ex-slaves into huge debt. “Reconstruction witnessed he origin of a new landlord-merchant class that by the end of the century would dominate Southern rural life.” (Foner, P.174) As time went on the Pig Laws were created. This meant if anyone was caught stealing farm animals or supplies they would be put in jail for amounts of time as in five years for stealing a horse. Which of sounds as though its way to long. This jail time of course led to the convict labor system, where prison officers would be paid to hire out workers to do labor in fields. This put many blacks into the convict labor system. Once again, slavery was put into a legal form.
During Reconstruction, African-Americans gained more political freedom than ever before. First, in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, outlawing slavery. The next year the Civil Rights Act was passed, allowing freedpeople to “enjoy the ‘full and equal benefit of all laws.’ ” ( Freidheim, P. 203) But that same year, 1866, the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee, the seed of racism during Reconstruction was planted. As time went on bills were passed in favor of blacks such as the Reconstruction Act of 1867 that allowed black men to vote, divided the South into five military districts and called for new constitutional conventions, called for new elections for state government officials and required all states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment was passed granting ex-slaves citizenship and protected their civil rights. Two years later, in 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment was passed protecting the African American male’s vote. During the Reconstruction there were two thousand elected black officials holding government office, which was not apparent again until the present, 1990’s.
Towards the end of reconstruction, we see a change in Southern politics. As the KKK came into play, the Republican South turned into Democratic Racism. White intimidation scared blacks away from voting. Poll taxes and literacy tests did as well, and the South once again fell into a pool of racism. In 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes became president as a result of the Compromise of 1877, and ended Reconstruction. He took military troops out of the South and used them against the railroad labor strikes.
In conclusion, I feel as though the Reconstruction did a lot for African Americans while it lasted. It was a great revolution until the Ku Klux Klan took over southern politics, laws were once again made against blacks, and Reconstruction ended. It seems as though it was such a hopeful era, and I think that my generation is continuing on, which I strongly believe in.