African Americans After the War

Southern blacks faced daunting challenges in the aftermath of the Civil War. Mainly illiterate and knowing little of the world beyond the location of their birth, they also faced a largely hostile white population who tended to blame many of their tribulations on black people. The federal government attempted to step in to ease the transition into citizenship for former slaves, but life in general remained harsh and threatening for African Americans.

The Freedman's Bureau

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was established by Congress on March 4, 1865, in an attempt to aid the more than 4 million former slaves who lived in the South at the end of the Civil War. The Freedman's Bureau was initially intended to last for only one year, and it was hobbled by allegations of corruption as well as a lack of funds and manpower.

However, it was still effective in helping the uneducated and poverty-stricken African Americans who suddenly found themselves without homes, jobs, or money. It ceased operation at the end of 1868.

The bureau's primary goal was to distribute food, clothing, fuel, and medical care to former slaves, as well as oversee their well-being and treatment. General Oliver O. Howard, a well-respected Civil War veteran, was chosen to head the bureau's 900 agents.

One of the agency's most difficult tasks was creating a judicial system that was fair to both blacks and whites. Not surprisingly, most Southerners weren't particularly eager to treat freed slaves fairly, so the bureau first established its own judicial authority with local agents, setting up temporary three-man courts to hear disputes.

Why is Reconstruction said to have ended in 1877?

By 1877, most Southern states were pushing or had pushed Northern-supported governments out of power. The final straw came in the 1876 presidential election when the Republicans agreed to withdraw federal soldiers from the South in exchange for Southern support for contested electoral votes. The Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, became the nineteenth president, and Reconstruction efforts effectively ended.

The Freedman's Bureau also worked diligently to bring former slaves into a free labor economy. Plantations were still integral to the Southern economy, and the agency strove to bring African Americans into that work force with fair wages and the opportunity for advancement.

One way in which that was accomplished was through the distribution of land that had been confiscated or abandoned during the war. The initial pledge was “40 acres and a mule” to every freed slave, but only about 2,000 freedmen in South Carolina and 1,500 freedmen in Georgia actually received the land as promised.

Another important concern was health care. The bureau tried to strengthen existing health care facilities and establish a series of health clinics. During its operation, the bureau helped nearly 500,000 freed slaves receive medical attention.

However, things were far from perfect in the New South. The region's economy continued to be dominated by agriculture, despite attempts to industrialize — a situation that would continue into the twentieth century — and many Southerners did all they could to keep African Americans from assuming their constitutionally guaranteed place in society. For example, many Southern states made it extremely difficult for blacks to vote by enacting deliberately prohibitive laws such as the poll tax. Most blacks also received far lower wages than white workers, which prevented them from buying land and otherwise becoming financially independent.

Southern African Americans may not have been slaves any longer, but they were far from free. It wasn't until the civil rights movement of the 1960s that many of their invisible shackles were finally removed.

Black Codes

Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937 and has sold tens of millions of copies. It tells the story of a headstrong woman determined to survive the Civil War and Reconstruction, but it is criticized for its romantic view of Southern life and demeaning depiction of blacks both as slaves and freed persons.

Black Codes were special laws passed by many Southern state governments early in Reconstruction to prevent former slaves from enjoying the benefits of their freedom. They restricted blacks' rights to buy, own, and sell property; make legally binding contracts; serve on juries; own weapons; and vote or run for political office. Black Codes also restricted African Americans from working in various professions, enforced apprenticeship prerequisites, required blacks to carry travel passes and proof of residence, and denied them their constitutional right to free assembly.

Between 1866 and 1877, Congress tried to eliminate Black Codes by appointing Northern governors to head Southern states. However, after Reconstruction ended and politicians were replaced by Southerners, versions of Black Codes — known as Jim Crow laws after a popular minstrel song of the era — once again became commonplace.

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