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The Conditions of Freedmen and Freed Women During and After Reconstruction

The period of rebuilding that followed the Civil War became known as Reconstruction. A major concern during Reconstruction was the condition of the approximately 4 million freedmen (freed slaves). Most of them had no homes, were desperately poor, and could not read and write. The word also refers to the process by which the Union restored relations with the Confederate states after their defeat. Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877 and was one of the most controversial periods in the nation’s history . Scholars still debate its successes and failures #.

To help the freed slaves and homeless whites, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. The agency, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, operated from 1865 until 1872. It issued food and supplies to blacks; set up more than 100 hospitals; resettled more than 30,000 people; and founded over 4,300 schools. Some of the schools developed into outstanding black institutions, such as Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), Fisk University, Hampton Institute, and Howard University#.

In spite of its achievements, the Freedmen’s Bureau did not solve the serious economic problems of African Americans. Most of them continued to live in poverty. They also suffered from racist threats and violence and from laws restricting their civil rights. All these problems cast a deep shadow over their new freedom#.

The legal restrictions on black civil rights arose in 1865 and 1866, when many Southern state governments passed laws that became known as the black codes . Black codes were state laws regulating the activities of blacks in the Southern United States after the American Civil War. When slavery was abolished in 1865, Southerners used black codes to retain control over blacks. The laws varied in strictness and detail from state to state. They restricted the civil rights of blacks, and generally treated them as social and civil inferiors. Some forbade blacks to own land or carry arms. During the Reconstruction period between 1865 and 1877, the military governors who controlled the South suspended the black codes. In 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects the rights of blacks, was ratified in 1868#.

These laws were like the earlier slave codes. Some black codes prohibited blacks from owning land. Others established a nightly curfew for blacks. Some permitted states to jail blacks for being jobless#.

The black codes shocked a powerful group of Northern congressmen called Radical Republicans. These senators and representatives won congressional approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The act gave African Americans the rights and privileges of full citizenship#.

In June 1866, Congress proposed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave citizenship to blacks. It also guaranteed that all federal and state laws would apply equally to blacks and whites. In addition, the amendment barred former federal and state officeholders who had supported the Confederacy from holding high political office again#.

None of the defeated Southern states had yet been readmitted into the Union, and Congress declared that none could rejoin until it ratified the 14th Amendment. Johnson urged the states to reject the amendment, and all the former Confederate states except Tennessee did so. Tennessee then became the first of the 11 defeated Southern states to be readmitted into the Union. The 14th Amendment was finally ratified by the required number of states in 1868#.

These were just temporary gains. The policies of the Radical Republicans enabled African Americans to participate widely in the nation’s political system for the first time. Congress provided for black men to become voters in the South and called for constitutional conventions to be held in the defeated states. Many blacks attended the conventions held in 1867 and 1868. They helped rewrite Southern state constitutions and other basic laws to replace the black codes drawn up by whites in 1865 and 1866. In the legislatures elected under the new constitutions, however, blacks had a majority of seats only in the lower house in South Carolina. Most of the chief legislative and executive positions were held by Northern white Republicans who had moved to the South and by their white Southern allies. Angry white Southerners called the Northerners carpetbaggers to suggest that they could carry everything they owned when they came South in a carpetbag, or suitcase#.

African Americans elected to important posts during Reconstruction included U.S. Senators Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi and U.S. Representatives Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina and Jefferson Long of Georgia. Others were Oscar J. Dunn, lieutenant governor of Louisiana; Richard Gleaves and Alonzo J. Ransier, lieutenant governors of South Carolina; P. B. S. Pinchback, acting governor of Louisiana; Francis L. Cardozo, secretary of state and state treasurer of South Carolina; and Jonathan Jasper Wright, an associate justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. Most of them had college educations.#

The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that an American citizen shall not be discriminated against in exercising the right to vote. It states that the federal and state governments cannot bar a citizen from voting because the person had been a slave or because of race#.

Amendment 15 was ratified on Feb. 3, 1870. Seven Southern states tried to bypass it by adding grandfather clauses to their constitutions. One such clause gave the right to vote to people who could vote on Jan. 1, 1867, and to their family descendants. In 1915 and 1939, the Supreme Court of the United States declared grandfather clauses unconstitutional#. By the early 1870’s, Northern whites had lost interest in the Reconstruction policies of the Radical Republicans. They grew tired of hearing about the continual conflict between Southern blacks and whites. Most Northern whites wanted to put Reconstruction behind them and turn to other things#. Federal troops sent to the South to protect blacks were gradually withdrawn. Southern whites who had stayed away from elections to protest black participation started voting again. White Democrats then began to regain control of the state governments from the blacks and their white Republican associates. In 1877, the last federal troops were withdrawn. By the end of that year, the Democrats held power in all the Southern state governments#.

In conclusion, freedmen and women faced many forms of opposition during and after the period of Reconstruction. Many influential Black-Americans who in many cases were also former slaves such as Booker T. Washington, spoke about these unfair conditions and tried to change them. As is evident, change to these oppositions took place with time and effort among Black-Americans with the help of others along the way.


1) Black Americans by Alphonso Pinkney. 1969 Prentice Hall

2) American Studies in Black and White: Selected Essays, 1949-1989 by Sidney Kaplan. Edited by Allan D. Austin 1991 University of Massachusetts Press.

3)Freedom Ways Reader: Prophets in Their Own Country edited by Esther Cooper Jackson, Constance Pohl. 2000 Westview Press

4) History and Memory in African American Culture edited by GeneviEve Fabre, Robert O. Meally. 1994 Oxford University Press.

5) Black Mosaic: Essays in Afro-American History and Historiography by August Meier and Benjamin Quarles. 1988 U.Mass Press

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