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Black Reconstruction Essay, Research Paper



An analysis of Black Identity, Politics, and Religion

Donn Settles

Black Identity

April 30, 1999

Prior to the Civil War and Reconstruction, the main goal of the African American population was to be granted freedom. African Americans had been enslaved since 1619 in America, when the first slaves were sold on the auction block. However, their concepts of freedom were extremely romanticized and highly unrealistic as a direct result of the atrocities they witnessed and endured in the institution of slavery. They visualized the abolition of slavery to be comparable with the coming of Jesus Christ. Yet when politics made that day become reality on January 1, 1863, the newly freed men and women were utterly disappointed and in disarray. After living their lives under the institution of slavery, the former slaves were literally left to survive on their own without the proper tools such as opportunities, provisions, or education. This race of people, for whom it was illegal to learn to read or write and even to congregate in groups of three or more, was now released into the same society that had enslaved them, and which was now supposed to open its arms and accept them as equals. Along with this freedom came a sudden change in identity, a clinging to faith, and a supposed new placement within society.

?The Negro became in the first year contraband of war; that is, property belonging to the enemy and valuable to the invader. And in addition to that, he became, as the South quickly saw, the key to Southern resistance. Either these four million laborers remained quietly at work to raise food for their fighters, or the fighter starved. Simultaneously, when the dream of the North for man-power produced riots, the only additional troops that the North could depend on were 200,000 Negroes, for without them, as Lincoln said, the North could not have won the war.? (DuBois, 80)

In spite of this, the treatment of African Americans from slavery to freedom could only be thought of as different according to the law because conceptually the two identities, slave and free, closely parallel each other even today.

Survival was a key element for the lives of African Americans during slavery. Its guiding principle was the ability to endure the oppression to secure the continuation of the race. Slaves recognized that adaptation to the new environment and culture in the New World would be the main factor for their ability to stay alive. They began this adaptation process, called survival faith, by creating a sub-culture which merged traditional African practices with those the slaves were forced to adopt from their masters. The African slaves brought with them all of their African traditions but were suppressed from utilizing them in their original fashion. Therefore, they merged remnants of African cultures including ?the great Bantu tribes from Sierra Leone to South Africa; the Sudanese, straight across the center of the continent, from the Atlantic to the Valley of the Nile; the Nilotic Negroes and the black and brown Hamites, allied with Egypt; the tribes of the great lakes; the Pygmies and the Hottentots; and in addition to these, distinct traces of both Berber and Arab? (DuBois, 3) with those remnants of European and Native American cultures. This new culture was comprised of dance, rhythmic music, folk traditions and values, religious beliefs, food and its preparation, cultivation of crops, herbal medicines, socialization of children, philosophy of respect for elders, oral traditions, etc. Within each aspect of the new African American culture, survival was somehow intertwined either directly or indirectly.

Along with the notion of survival faith came the belief that if the slaves were not to be free from oppression in this life, they would certainly be free from oppression in the next life. This religious rationale held a functional value and assisted the slaves in concentrating on the freedom in the next life, but with this belief the slaves were reneging any hope of equality in their lives on this earth. This is the mentality behind the slave who compared the abolition of slavery to the coming of Jesus Christ. He created in his mind the idea that the only time he would see freedom was when the heavens opened and the Son of God himself came down to deliver all of the slaves from their oppressors. Although this idea was effective in allowing the slaves to tolerate oppression, it did not promote an end to the problem but rather the endurance of it. Hence, on the day that Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, although this day was much anticipated, the slaves were severely unprepared. They identified with freedom only in theory so their concepts of freedom tended to be exaggerated and extravagant. Instead they needed to be preparing for freedom in an existential sense such as being able to read, learning how the system operates outside of slavery, how to obtain land, etc. Some slaves had knowledge of these real post-slavery necessities but the average slave believed that the Lord would provide and indeed He did provide but not without giving them reality check.

The needs of the former slaves were an open invitation for the American Missionary Association, Freedmen?s Aid Societies, schoolteachers, and other benevolent societies from the North to assist in developing, exposing, and educating them in their new identity and way of life.

?To the aid of the government, and even before the government took definite organized hold, came religious and benevolent organizations. The first was the American Missionary Association, which grew out of the organization for the defense of the Negroes who rebelled and captured the slave ship Amistad and brought it into Connecticut in 1837?.They extended their work in 1862-1863, establishing missions down the Atlantic Coast, and in Missouri, and along the Mississippi. By 1864, they had reached the Negroes in nearly all the Southern States.? (DuBois, 77)

These organizations brought with them finances to open schools, provide shelter and other services, distribute food, etc. The missionaries attempted to educate the adults with knowledge on how to obtain land by teaching them to interpret deeds, the importance of sending their children to school instead of working the fields, etc. The government also intervened during Reconstruction by providing the resources of the Freedmen?s Bureau.

The Freedmen?s Bureau was designed by Congress to facilitate the transition of the former slaves to freedom. The Bureau took on many aspects as a relief association ?to aid refugees and freedman by furnishing supplies and medical services, establishing schools, supervising contracts between freedmen and their employers, and managing confiscated or abandoned lands.? (Franklin, 37) The Bureau acted as a liaison between the former slaves and their employers in regards to them seeking labor. Any labor disputes between the former slaves and planters was brought to the Bureau for investigation and arbitration. The main successes of the Bureau lied in its strides in assisting the freedmen and their children receive education. Through this effort, along with the assistance of African American labor and finances from religious and philanthropic agencies, they founded many famous African American colleges such as Howard, Clark-Atlanta, and Hampton Institute.

The main principle that the missionaries and organizations were attempting to instill in the former slaves was that without land and education they would not be able to protect their freedom in this hostile society. However, their were many contradictions within the Reconstruction Era that exploited the former slaves instead of uplifting them. For example, the Federal Government conceived ?The Grand Experiment? which was done under the Treasury Department headed by Salmon P. Chase. In order to prove that African Americans were worthy of freedom they were to pick cotton and these profits would go to the government while the laborers were paid, at most, a minimum wage, if any wage at all. Another instance involved a supposed abolitionist and economist who was also a major profiteer in an area of South Carolina called Port Royal. Port Royal was one of a major sea port and had a population of about 8,000 newly freed men and women whose main concern was to obtain land and feed their families. The economist, Philbert, decided he would use these factors to his advantage. He devised a ?deal? with the freedmen that would have them sign a contract which they interpreted to mean that would be own a piece of land. Instead, the contracts they signed meant that now they worked for Philbert and were increasing his wealth instead of their own. Many whites schemed and counted on the African Americans being na?ve in order to boost their lost profits. This is the beginning of neo-slavery with regards to sharecropping in the South. While the Reconstruction Era was intending to make the situation for African Americans easier, it never dealt with the notion that the only view Whites held for African Americans was that of servitude. Southerners wanted African Americans to remain in and return to their condition of servitude so they contrived ways to ensure they would always remain in this position.

Contrary to popular belief, the reason that Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves was solely for political purposes. ?(Lincoln) simply could not envisage free Negroes in the United States? (DuBois, 82) but he needed to breakdown the Southern economy so that the North would win the Civil War and the southern states would be forced to surrender and return to the Union. Thus the reasoning that the Emancipation Proclamation was an edict that freed the slaves that were in states rebelling against the Union and not the slaves in the loyal border states, in these cases the slaves simply walked off the plantations. Yet after his plan unfolded Lincoln made certain that he offered support for the southern states, in order that their transition back to the Union be smooth.

?On December 8 he issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. In it he offered pardon to any former Confederates who would take the oath to support ? the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the states thereunder.??He further stipulated that when persons equal in number to tenth of the votes cast in the presidential election of 1860 had taken oath and established a government. Lincoln?s plan excluded all Negroes from participation either in oath-taking, voting, or holding office. Governments under presidential reconstruction were to be governments by white men.? (Franklin, 17)

Therefore, Lincoln was certainly acting in his own presidential interests and in the best interests of a White male dominated society not in the interests of a better, more equal, society. Even when the former slaves thought they had allies, the motives behind their allies? actions did not concern their best interests at all.

On April 15, 1865 President Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson was sworn in hours after his death. This change in leadership could be seen as a turn for the worst as far as support for the freedmen was concerned. Although Johnson fully supported the Union and its principles he was in no way against Southerners. In fact, it was under his administration that the rebel states were readmitted ?into constitutional relations with the federal government when ?that portion of the people?who are loyal? had written a constitution and established a government under it.? (Franklin, 31) For this reason alone, Johnson was considered very lenient toward those states in the Union which had rebelled. These states did not receive the punishment that should have been handed down to them for committing the high treason that the Republicans accused them of. However, the larger picture was strictly political. The North just wanted to restore the Union to its original status. This became a great opportunity for the Southern states to exercise the most control over their own governments and Constitutions without interference on a federal level. This would be the key factor in how the stage was set to return African Americans to their proper place, at the bottom.

Although history tells us that Reconstruction was a joyous era where tremendous change occurred, the reality was that a change occurred and it was not for the better but rather it was from blatant racism to covert racism. In other words, the racism that we experience today held its roots during the Reconstruction Era. While W.E.B. DuBois was correct when he stated that Reconstruction was the only time in history that America practiced a true democracy, this era is and has been somewhat exaggerated as a period when African Americans were considered equals. It is in my opinion that the only reason that the likes of Blanche Bruce, P.B.S. Pinchback, Reverend James Lynch, Oscar J. Dunn, Hiram Revels, and C.C. Antoine were allowed to participate in this ?true democracy? was because the White government had not been sophisticated enough to deter this type of activity from occurring. It didn?t take them long to figure out how to put an end to this ?Ethiopian minstrelsy (and) Ham radicalism in its glory? (Franklin, 105). Reconstruction should be regarded as a time of confusion for the White government because they had not planned for the freedom of African Americans in an existential fashion but rather only under the Thirteenth Amendment. Thus, when the Black Codes were established during the period of 1865-1867, although they were frowned upon by the North, ?legislatures repealed the more objectionable features of (them)?. (Franklin, 141)

?While historians have given scant attention to the work of the Southern legislatures in 1865-1867 in the general area of attention to the enactment of laws affecting Negroes. This is understandable, for the ?black codes? enacted within a year following the Civil War were the greatest concern of the Southern legislatures. They forecast, to a remarkable degree, the future attitude of former Confederates toward the place of the Negro in the South and in American life. While there were variations from state to state, they embodied some common features. They recognized the right of Negroes to hold property, to sue and be sued, and to have legal marriages and offspring. There were important qualifications, however: Negroes were competent witnesses only in cases where one or both parties were Negroes; Negroes who intermarried with whites were guilty of a felony, punishable by a long prison term?. (Franklin, 48)

?Other state laws and town ordinances were designed to maintain what the legislators considered due subordination of the freedmen. They were to handle no firearms or other weapons, and they were to possess no alcoholic beverages. In Opelousas, Louisiana, no Negro was allowed to come within the limits of the town wthout special permssion of his employer. Many communities required Negroes to be off the streets by a specified hour, while others had laws against Negroes using ?insulting gestures? or ?exercising the function of a minister of the Gospel? without a license. Most of the laws employed such terms as ?master? and ?servant? and clearly implied a distinction that consigned the Negro to a hopelessly inferior status?? (Franklin, 49)

The Northern states basically supported the actions of the South allowing this occur and thus became a key element in establishing this newer form of racism. These Black codes were among one of their worst fears when readmitting the Southern states into the Union. Their concern with the Black codes dealt was politically motivated. They were threatened by this imitation of slavery because they viewed it as the Southern states trying to reestablish the Democratic Party of the South and not as a reinstitution of a system of inferiority. They felt that too much power too soon after the War may rekindle the feelings of rebellion amongst the Southern Democrats which was something they did not want to repeat. However, they did not realize that the repercussions of allowing these codes to exist would be the literal massacre of thousands of innocent African Americans all in the name of White Supremacy.

The organization of the Ku Klux Klan began in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865 and their reign of terror exists even today. They used the notion of White Supremacy to attack the African American community and to place themselves on an even higher scale than they already thought themselves to be. Former slaveholders fell into a deep trauma and financial depression after the Civil War. Many of these slaveholders were unable to accept the reality that their primary source of income was now to be regarded as a part of the free labor force to be paid for their labor and that they would also need to find employment themselves. This group began experiencing increases in alcoholism and drug use. The former slaveholders became bitter, frustrated, and angry that they had lost their control over others. Many of them did not fully survive the transition from slavery to freedom, just as many African Americans did not recover from this period. Reconstruction was a terrible era for the entire American population.

This segment of the population was quite receptive to the Ku Klux Klan and its principles of White Supremacy. There were also other types of Klan members instinctively interested in the ideals of White Supremacy. The first type were the former slaveholders, and Confederate officials that had fought hard in the Civil War to maintain the Southern way of life. The second type were the common criminals. They were the members that could use the Klan attire, hood and gown, to hide behind while they committed acts of rape, murder, arson, and lynching. The final group were the poor white population of the South who feared the economic competition of African American workers. They needed to protect their jobs from the highly skilled artisans and former slaves who would be willing to accept less pay to begin their new lives. With these groups at the helm of the organization membership grew at an astronomical rate and the organization was extremely successful during its inception. W.W. Holden, Governor of North Carolina during this period describes the Ku Klux Klan in his state:

?These combinations were at first purely political in their character, and many good citizens were induced to join them. But gradually under the leadership of ambitious and discontented politicians and under the pretext that society needed to be regulated by some authority outside or above the law, their character was changed, and those secret Klans began to commit murder, to rob, whip, scourge, and mutilate unoffending citizens? They met in secret, in disguise, and arms, in a dress of a certain kind intended to conceal their persons and their horses, and to terrify those whom they menaced or assaulted. They held their camps, and under leaders they decreed judgment against their peaceable fellow-citizens from mere intimidations to scourgings, mutilations, the burning of churches, schoolhouses, mills, and in many cases to murder. This organization, under different names but cemented by a common purpose, is believed to have embraced not less than 40,000 voters in North Carolina.? (DuBois, 533-534)

By 1871, their membership grew to 550,000 and their heinous and corrupt activities began. It has been documented that they lynched 34 African American women for being ?sassy? during this period but this is just the written evidence. The real evidence of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan is in the decline in the strides for equality that African Americans made during this era. The KKK, as they are called, is considered the invisible government of the South which coexisted with the developments of legal methods of segregation and disenfranchisement to keep African Americans in a racially subordinate status. This was the primary goal for the KKK and this purpose would have been defeated had it not have been for support from the Federal government. After legal segregation was placed into law in the South, the KKK experienced a high decline in membership primarily because many of its members felt that the goal of the organization had been fulfilled. The remaining members made certain that the goals of the KKK stayed in place for as long as possible.

The stage was set during Reconstruction to keep African Americans in a subordinate position in American society. No matter how many accomplishments we seem to produce, there is always something established by the White power structure to offset or counter our achievements. I believe that no matter what we say or do to contribute to this society, they will not be satisfied until we return to our original positions as slaves because that is the primary reason we were brought to this unyielding land. Yet, as Maya Angelou so eloquently stated, ?still we rise?. There must be something distinguished about a race to have endured what we have and still have survived when the odds were against us. We have already won the war here in America but it is up to them to abandon denial of this fact so we can all uplift society under a new reconstruction called true equality.


DuBois, William Edward Burghardt. Black Reconstruction

in America. Russell and Russell: New York, 1963.

Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction after the Civil War. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1961.

Franklin, V.P. Black Self-Determination. Lawrence Hill and

Company: Connecticut, 1984.

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