African Americans after the Civil War: John Spiller Surveys Race Relations in the United States during Reconstruction and Constructs a Balance Sheet

By Spiller, John | History Review, December 2009 | Go to article overview

African Americans after the Civil War: John Spiller Surveys Race Relations in the United States during Reconstruction and Constructs a Balance Sheet


Spiller, John, History Review


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Introduction

Before 1861 the vast majority of African Americans bad been slaves and had no legal rights of which to speak. The formal abolition of slavery in 1865 was clearly a landmark in the progress of black Americans, but once freed they wanted land, education, and the vote, essentially in that order. Reconstruction and the aftermath undoubtedly brought gains for them (although some were short-lived), which can be broken down into economic, social/legal and political areas.

Economic Progress

In January 1865 an early attempt by General Sherman to redistribute 400,000 acres of abandoned rice plantations to African Americans was abruptly curtailed by President Johnson, and the self-sufficient African American community established under Tunis Campbell's leadership on St Catherine's Island, Georgia, also had to give up their land to its former owner in January 1866. Economic progress for African Americans would be slow, especially given that cotton remained the biggest export of the USA after the war, which meant that blacks needed to be kept in the field somehow. Most former slaves became wage-earning labourers and tenants. Various forms of sharecropping, share-renting, and crop-lien systems ensured that black tenants and croppers remained permanently in debt, and rarely got the chance to actually own their own land. When the price of cotton fell by nearly 50 per cent, between 1872 and 1877, the southern economy remained impoverished, and African Americans remained a deprived group within that context.

Some freedmen did obtain land in the west offered by the Homestead Act of 1862 which provided 160-acre plots to settlers if they stayed on it for five years, while the Southern Homestead Act (1866) set aside 44 million acres in five Southern states, handed out to about 4,000 former slaves. The land itself was often of poor quality, with former slaves lacking the capital to invest in equipment and seed. There were, however, some success stories. A community was established at Davis Bend in Mississippi where Benjamin Montgomery, a former slave and plantation manager of Jeff Davis's brother Joseph, had bought two plantations from his former master. In the 1870s the 'Exoduster' movement helped former slaves in search of new land. By 1874 former slave Benjamin Singleton had formed the Edgefield Real Estate and Homestead Association in Tennessee which encouraged and helped thousands of blacks (frustrated at being unable to obtain land in the South) to migrate to the best locations for settlement in Kansas in the late 1870s, albeit with some mixed results.

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A kind of equality in the workplace was achieved in the military arena. By the end of the war 186,000 black soldiers and sailors (134,000 of whom had been recruited in slave states) had served in Union forces. In 1877 Henry Flipper became the first black man to graduate from West Point, and following the war black regiments ('Buffalo Soldiers') in the 9th and the 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry had been set up. Black historian Rayford Logan wrote of the pride that black families took in their exploits, such as their contribution to the victory at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, although ironically the black cavalry regiments in particular were also used out West in the continued subjugation of Native Americans, another oppressed minority.

In 1881 Booker T. Washington took charge of the Tuskegee Negro Normal Institute where he concentrated on providing black boys with practical skills in farming. By appearing to accept the inferior lot of the black person and segregation, rather than campaigning for political rights, Washington attracted much investment from white benefactors, including the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Washington argued that Reconstruction had failed in terms of creating a racial democracy because it had emphasised political and civil rights rather than concentrating on economic issues and self-determination. …

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