What did freedom mean to former slaves after the Civil War? Victory for the North in the Civil War meant the end for one of America’s darkest institutions – slavery. With slaves now declared free men after Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 emancipation proclamation, it appeared that people who had lived a life in bondage to their White superiors would finally have the chance to live as human beings – the constitution even having a new amendment to solidify their freedom. Yet, as we shall see, life for former slaves in post-War America (particularly in the South) would quickly return to a struggle against blatant discrimination. During and after a period of reconstruction from 1865 to 1877, America entered its Jim Crow period – the South had begun to redeem herself. Blacks now had problems ranging from legal attacks on their rights to the cross-burning, terrorist bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan. This essay will demonstrate that to a freed slave, freedom was for a brief period a possibility; for a limited time, Blacks were generally aided by Congress and laws aimed at weakening White supremacists. Yet, we shall see that when the last of the Northern forces left the South, despite the flowery rhetoric of “separate but equal” from White Southern policymakers, Blacks were not remotely as free as their White counterparts – it could even be argued that they never truly tasted freedom at all during this period. By the end of the war an estimated 4 million Blacks were freed from slavery. 1 Yet even during the Northern occupation of Southern states right after the war, when the government tried to “reconstruct” the South into modern, Northern-style states, Blacks faced early attempts by their former masters at trying to return them back to their shackles. Benjamin Humphreys, governor of Mississippi, lamented in November 1865 to Congress: “the negro is free, whether we like it or not...To be free, however, does not make him a citizen, or entitle him to political or social equality with the white man”. 2 Such sentiments ran rife in the South, which in turn led to infamous Black Code laws being issued throughout their states. These laws were meticulously designed to replace the old slave master, the plantation owner, with the state itself by gradually reducing the rights of Blacks back to the way they were prior to the war.3 For instance, it was common throughout Southern jurisdictions to fine Black offenders for minor crimes, knowing full well that their probable failure to do so led to them working hard labour as “vagrants” for extended periods of time.4 Other restrictions were placed on the Blacks ranging from bans on voting to serving jury duty to segregation on public transport.5 What was arguably the greatest insult to Blacks, however, were attempts by policymakers to remove their right to an education, especially in states like Georgia, Arkansas and Texas.6 As Booker T Washington remarked, “to get inside a schoolhouse would be about the same as getting into heaven.”7 Blacks were extremely keen on obtaining an education not only for their children but for themselves, knowing full well that it could lead to a greater quality of life and dispel White myths about their intellectual capabilities. Thus, in the immediate reconstruction era, a free man’s “freedom” changed only in who was holding the whip – the states. To further add to their problems was the appearance of the Ku Klux Klan, a violent cult formed in Tennessee in December 18658. As David Chambers states, the objective of the Klan was to “restore order”, which meant “returning the Negro to the field...and the prewar leaders to their former seats of power.”9 Thus, with the Black Codes in full swing during the mid 1860s, the Klan set out to “restore order” through disorder.
1Richard Wormser, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (St Martin’s Press Ltd, 2003), p. 2 2 Robert W. Johannsen (ed.), Reconstruction 1865-1877: Sources in American History (The Free Press, 1970), p. 40 3 Wormser, Jim Crow, p. 8 4 Jerrold M. Packard, American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow (St Martin’s Press Ltd, 2002) , p.42 5 Ibid p. 42 6 Ibid p. 43 7 Wormser, Jim Crow, p. 4 8 David M. Chambers, Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan (Quadrangle Books, 1968), p. 8 9 Ibid p. 2


Blacks were often whipped, militiamen were murdered, and they were scared away from voting in elections unless they promised to vote conservative.10 Lynching too was used to scare Blacks into submission; it was used as a “weapon for sustaining their [White] authority.”11 Thus, there was essentially a two-pronged attack on Black freedom during reconstruction: through the law and through intimidation. Despite all of these hurdles to their freedom, Blacks did have allies to help them combat their oppressors – the radical Republicans. Throughout the reconstruction period, numerous laws and agencies were set up to help combat White supremacy. For instance, the Freedmen’s Bureau was set up in March 1865. The purpose of this Bureau was to help not only Blacks but struggling Whites find employment.12 It also aided Blacks by ensuring they had rights to organise schools (such was their eagerness to learn that by 1866 alone over 500 independent schools were built outside the towns and cities 13) and, perhaps most crucially, the right to receive justice in the courts.14 To combat the Black Codes, Congress passed the Civil Rights act of 1866 (Blacks had the Republicans to thank for this – President Johnson had vetoed it, but it was overridden15). The act complemented the 13th constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery by giving Blacks access to the civil rights enjoyed by their White counterparts. The act also empowered the federal courts jurisdiction over cases that violated this piece of legislation.16Three more acts, known as the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, were passed in order to protect the voting rights of Blacks in particular to act as deterrents to the violent actions of the Klan.17Freedom for Blacks was further aided by two crucial constitutional amendments: the 14th in 1868, which declared all people of the United States as citizens and the right to equal protection of the laws, and the 15th in 1870, which declared that voting rights for American citizens would not be “denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” 18 With such amendments creating safeguards against White supremacy, Blacks could feel that freedom was truly theirs. Not only were Blacks protected by the constitution and White radical Republicans, but they had people of their “own” in positions of power, fighting back against White attempts to reassert their supremacy. Blanche K Bruce, a Black senator for Mississippi, spoke to Congress in 1876, bringing to light the “corrupt and violent influences [that] were brought to bear upon the registrars of voters.”19 Again, Blacks were facing intimidation at the polls. He also stressed that despite the hardships faced by his fellows, his people had “been neither ungrateful for the civil and political privileges received nor wanting in appreciation of the correspondingly weighty obligations imposed upon us”.20 With people like him in positions of power, Blacks felt that they had a real voice in government; a voice belonging to men like Bruce whose family had most likely experienced the same hardships they themselves had gone through. However, what needs to be stressed here is that although such facts appear to make reconstruction look idyllic for Blacks, problems still persisted during this period. For instance, the Freedman’s Bureau was poorly funded and “made little more
10 Ibid p. 13 11Michael J. Pfeifer, Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947(University of Illinois Press, 2004) , p. 14 12 S. Dale McLemore, Harriett D. Romo, Racial and Ethnic Relations in America 7th Ed (Pearson, 2005), p. 154 13 Wormser, Jim Crow, p. 4 14 Ibid p. 3 15 McLemore/Romo, Ethnic Relations, p. 155 16 Ibid 17 Packard, American Nightmare, p. 58 18 “The United States Constitution”, http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html#Am15 (1870) 19 Thomas R. Frazier (ed.), Afro-American History: Primary Sources Shorter Edition (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1971), p. 88 20 Ibid p. 90


than a dent in meeting the needs of the former slaves.”21 Slaves also struggled to attain the vote, even in Northern states where only six states in 1865 gave them the right to vote.22 By 1877, the political scene had radically changed. Although the Republicans were victorious in the 1876 presidential election, it was a hotly disputed one – Rutherford Hayes, the Republican candidate, was given the victory as part of the Compromise of 1877 where in return the North would give concessions to the South. This included full removal of Northern forces from the Southern states which enabled the South to ignore legislation protecting Black rights – in particular the 15th amendment – and begin introducing their own.23 Simon Schama emphasises the damage done to Black rights by Hayes’ concessions when he says “it would take almost a century for that betrayal to be reversed”.24 From 1877 onwards, America had entered its Jim Crow period: laws, particularly aimed to segregate and reduce Blacks back to denizen status, were introduced and through clever manipulating of constitutional amendments and state legislation, most dissent was quashed in the courts. Although the 13th amendment was beyond circumventing, politicians had greater success in passing legislation that dodged the 14th and 15th amendment requirements. Such legislation enabled Southern states to initially focus more on segregating the races rather than outright infringe Black rights, as this killed two birds with one stone: first, by keeping races separate, but still able to enjoy the same rights, the federal court’s demand for “equal” status was satisfied. 25 Second, a number of Blacks themselves initially believed that segregation was an improvement compared to life in the antebellum period, thus dissent was unlikely to damage Southern legislation.26 This line of thinking, used to pass legislation under the nose of the 14 th amendment (which enabled all American citizens equal legal protection), came to be known as “separate but equal”, the argument being that although all American citizens were entitled to the same rights, they were all, regardless of race, subjected to the same regulations and penalties that segregation laws provided – thus making such laws constitutional.27 Thus, segregation laws were introduced all around America, beginning by segregating the races in public transport in the early 1880s – an easier target as, unlike places like the courtroom, “they were places where people purchased an item, transportation, rather than asserted a right, citizenship”.28 For instance, in Alabama a law was passed stating that “the conductor of each passenger train is authorized and required to assign each passenger to the car or the division of the car...designated for the race to which such passenger belongs.”29 As one would suspect, it was certainly not “equal”: Blacks were often refused access to first class travel, and those who had the audacity to protest were beaten. 30 As history would have it, it would be as a result of such legislation in Louisiana where, in 1896, a man named Homere Plessy representing the Creoles of Color (a civil rights group) deliberately broke the state law and took the case to court, leading to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case.31 The court unanimously ruled that the law was not unconstitutional, as Plessy’s lawyers had argued, because all races were subjected to the same rights despite being separate – thus rubber21 Packard, American Nightmare, p. 41 22 Ibid 23 Simon Schama, The American Future: A History of the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama (Vintage Books, 2009) p. 133 24 Ibid 25 Packard, American Nightmare, p. 63 26 Ibid 27 Ibid 28 Grace E. Hale, “For Colored” and “For White”: Segregating Consumption in the South”, Jane Dailey, Glenda E. Gilmore, Bryant Simon (eds.), Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (Princeton University Press, 2000) p. 163 29 “Examples of Jim Crow Laws”, http://academic.udayton.edu/race/02rights/jcrow02.htm (n.d) 30 Hale, “For Colored”, p. 164 31 Wormser, Jim Crow, p. 99


stamping “separate but equal” as a valid defence for Jim Crow laws.32 To further add salt to Black wounds, Justice Henry Brown stated in the court’s majority opinion that “if one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same place”.33 Blacks had effectively been relegated back to a class considered not only separate from, but lower than Whites. Similar tactics would be used by courts to uphold anti-miscegenation laws across the country, in particular against interracial marriage. As states begun to pass laws making miscegenation a crime (Indiana’s 1840 law, still active, considered interracial marriage a felony 34), Blacks inevitably protested that their freedom was being infringed. This in turn led to two important cases that, again, appeased to White supremacy. The first case, Gibson v. Indiana in 1870, concerned a Black man named Thomas Gibson who was charged for violating state law by marrying a White woman. The court ruled that his 14th amendment rights had not been violated – in fact – the constitution had no say on the matter whatsoever. The court ruled that as marriage was a contract, it was within the state’s power to decide how they were enforced – not Congress’.35 The second case further depriving Blacks of their freedom came in the Pace v. Alabama case of 1883, when another Black man by the name of Tony Pace challenged a ruling that declared his marriage to a White woman illegal on the grounds that they were “living in fornication and adultery”. 36 Yet upon explaining why the court threw out his appeal based on the violation of his 14th amendment right, Justice Stephen Field spoke the usual “separate but equal” rhetoric, stating that the ruling was “directed against the offence designated and not against the person of any particular color or race. The punishment of each offending person, whether black or white, is the same.”37 Thanks to such rulings, 26 states (including all Southern states) had anti-miscegenation laws in place by 1900.38 Southern states also introduced laws to prevent Blacks from voting without violating the 15 th amendment. Because of the vague wording of the amendment, states were able to rewrite their constitutions which in turn made voter requirements more difficult for Blacks and even poor Whites – the amendment failed to stipulate universal voting requirements nor did it prohibit the use of literacy tests or taxation.39 Thus the states took full advantage. For instance, a typical example can be seen in the 1890 Mississippi state constitution, where sections 243 and 244 stated that to qualify to vote, a man must be able to pay a poll tax of $2 and be literate, complete with an understanding of the US constitution.40 This of course made it extremely difficult for Blacks to vote. A more infamous example of voting restrictions came in the form of the Grandfather clause. If intimidation from the Klan did not keep Blacks from the polls, then this piece of legislation most likely did. To qualify for voting rights, some states, such as Louisiana, declared that Blacks could vote only if their ancestors were able to vote in 1860. Due to most Blacks being enslaved during that year, the odds of a Black person being able to vote was ridiculously low – indeed – because of such a clause, the number of Black voters in Louisiana alone plummeted from over 130,000 in 1896 to less than 1400 in 1904 – a mere eight years later.41 With such laws in place at the beginning of the 20th century, some historians such as McLemore and Romo have argued that “in some ways, the
32 Ibid 33 “Our Documents – Plessy v. Ferguson”, http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=old&doc=52 (1896) 34Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2009) p. 53 35 Ibid p. 55 36 Ibid p. 65 37 Ibid 38Ibid, p. 63 39 Wormser, Jim Crow, p. 23 40 “Mississippi History Now: The Mississippi Constitution of 1890 as originally adopted”, http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/index.php?s=extra&id=270 (1890) 41 McLemore/Romo, Ethnic Relations, p. 159


Jim Crow system that emerged after 1890 was an even more efficient instrument of subordination than slavery had been.”42 On reflection of the facts, one would be hard-pressed to present an argument that former slaves ever did enjoy freedom after the Civil War. We have seen that Southern lawmakers were anxious to reduce Blacks back to slave status by any way they could – even the North was largely inefficient in aiding Black freedom despite legal amendments and the setting up of agencies. Whereas, perhaps, the concept of attaining “freedom” after the Civil War may have meant something to Blacks on a sentimental level, on a practical level, they simply were not free. To make an argument that they were free after the Civil War would require ignoring the simple fact that Civil Rights groups like the NAACP and figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were needed to make freedom an actual reality in the mid to late 20 th century. Thus, in conclusion, to answer a question that asks what freedom meant to former slaves is somewhat complex, as facts and figures cannot answer such a personal question. Going by the Black Codes and subsequent Jim Crow laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, it is very likely that freedom was merely a white elephant to most Blacks who still could not do simple things such as sit in first class travel, vote or walk down a street without the fear of being lynched.
Words: 2659

42 Ibid p. 160


Bibliography Primary Sources “Examples of Jim Crow Laws” (n.d) [Internet]. Available from: <http://academic.udayton.edu/race/02rights/jcrow02.htm> [Accessed 17th March 2010, 19.04 or 7.04pm] Frazier, Thomas R. (ed.), Afro-American History: Primary Sources Shorter Edition (New York, 1971) Johannsen, Robert W. (ed.), Reconstruction 1865-1877: Sources in American History (New York, 1970) “Mississippi History Now: The Mississippi Constitution of 1890 as originally adopted” (1890) [Internet]. Available from: < http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/index.php?s=extra&id=270> [Accessed 16th March 2010, 16.57 or 4.57pm] “Our Documents – Plessy v. Ferguson” (1896) [Internet]. Available from: < http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=old&doc=52> [Accessed 16th March 2010, 21.11 or 9.11pm] “The United States Constitution – The U.S. Constitution Online” (1870) [Internet]. Available from: < http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html#Am15> [Accessed 15th March 2010, 18.39 or 6.39pm] Secondary Sources Chambers, David M., Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan (Chicago, 1968) McLemore, S.D. and Romo, Harriett D., Racial and Ethnic Relations in America 7th Edition (New York, 2005) Packard, Jerrold M., American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow (New York, 2002) Pascoe, Peggy, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York, 2009) Pfeifer, Michael J., Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947 (Chicago, 2004) Schama, Simon, The American Future: A History of the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama (London, 2009) Wormser, Richard, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (New York, 2003) Essays Hale, Grace E., “For Colored” and “For White”: Segregating Consumption in the South”, (Jane Dailey, Glenda E. Gilmore, Bryant Simon (eds.), Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (Princeton, 2000) pp. 162-182 Works Consulted Kennedy, Stetson, Jim Crow Guide to the USA: The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities as Second-Class Citizens (London, 1959) Perman, Michael, The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879 (North Carolina, 1984)


Romano, Renee C., Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (Massachusetts, 2003)

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