Reconstruction, Rights, & Retaliation
For generations, enslaved and free African Americans fought for freedom for all. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to enslaved Black people in rebelling states. On June 19, two months after the Confederate surrender, Union Army General Gordon Granger read General Order #3 in Galveston, Texas, announcing that all enslaved people were free in the western-most rebelling state. This order stated that formerly enslaved African Americans were expected to stay in their “present homes”— slave cabins. Further, the relationship between former enslavers and formerly enslaved people would become that of employer and hired laborer, and idleness would not be tolerated. The order demonstrated what the broader society expected of African Americans: that they know their place.
In December 1865, the first of three important constitutional amendments went into effect when the 13th Amendment was ratified, ending slavery in the nation. But what would freedom mean? Economic independence? Full citizenship? Freedom from fear? The right to vote? Propelled forward, the nation and the people responded—in courthouses, in legislatures, on farms, and in homes and factories. Reconnecting with family, building new lives, and restoring communities, African Americans fully embraced their freedom. They also debated among themselves where to best manifest their freedom. Black freedom was met with anti-Black violence and domestic terrorism. State governments and private citizens sought to create new forms of bondage. From 1865 to 1890, tension grew between the federal government, state legislatures, and the people as all fought for the soul of the nation. During this period of Reconstruction, the aspirational nation attempted to become a true democracy.
"We want education; we want protection; we want plenty of work; we want good pay for it, but not any more or less than any one else . . . and then you will see the down-trodden race rise up."
John Adams, formerly enslaved
After emancipation in 1865, Black people continued their push for equal and civil rights as citizens. Shortly after the 13th Amendment was ratified, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which granted citizenship to those born in the United States. The Act proved difficult to enforce, but in 1868 the 14th Amendment was ratified, granting African Americans citizenship, due process, and equal protection under the law. The 14th Amendment redefined U.S. citizenship and required the federal government to uphold individual rights and protect all its citizens. This overruled the 1857 Dred Scott decision that Black people were not and could not be citizens, nor enjoy the benefits of citizenship. Congress went around President Johnson as they overruled his veto of the extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act. The Amendment and these Acts enabled African Americans to pursue the benefits of citizenship and justice.
"All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States . . . No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
14th Amendment, Section 1
After the passage of the 14th Amendment, African Americans enacted their visions of citizenship in their daily lives. Citizenship meant different things to different people, but one thread ran throughout—autonomy. This could be gained through religious practice, education, and work, or through family and community networks.
Before freedom came, African Americans considered gaining citizenship through military service. They also looked at the importance of claiming their place in the nation that they helped build, as well as their right to choose to move to new places. As early as the colonial period, free Black people debated where best to manifest their freedom, whether within the nation or beyond its shores. After emancipation came, the debate continued as some self-determined Black people contemplated and acted upon emigration. Others pursued their right to claim their place as citizens and stay on the land that they cultivated and improved.
African Americans long claimed that "we have a divine right to the land." Over generations, they had built houses or plantations and raised crops and livestock. Few white Americans agreed. A Georgia newspaper declared, "The great question now before our people is how to appropriate all the African labor of the country." Without land, African Americans would have to work as sharecroppers for white landowners, often the same people who had enslaved them. And they would continue to live in the cabins they had occupied during slavery. But some banded together to purchase land, build homes, and cultivate crops, owning their labor. People claimed the land they had brought into production.
In January 1865, Gen. William Sherman confiscated 400,000 acres of land and distributed it among Black men in parcels no larger than 40 acres. On Point of Pines plantation, at least nine families were given land titles. President Andrew Johnson overturned the order, ensuring that African Americans received no land or compensation for their enslavement.
Thirteen men pooled their money to purchase 900 acres of land on Edisto Island. Mathias Johnson was from Point of Pines; James Hutchison lived on the next plantation. Both had been granted promissory notes under Sherman’s order, and both had lost that land. Together, they successfully worked to gain back what they believed to be rightfully theirs.
Before emancipation, the actions of enslaved and free African Americans were heavily regulated and their access to public spaces was tightly restricted. The Fugitive Slave Law in the North and the slave patrols in the South essentially gave any white person the right to detain and abuse a person of color and required freedom seekers be returned to enslavers exercising their property rights. After emancipation, free African Americans boldly challenged boundaries and all sense of conditional freedom as they claimed their right to move about freely.
Many African Americans defined freedom as the ability to choose their religious faith and practices. Established Christian denominations survived and grew, especially the Baptist, Methodist, and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches, and many new denominations were created, such as the Church of God in Christ. After freedom came African Americans followed the model established by the free Black community before emancipation. They established churches across the country which served as public sanctuaries—centers for African American community life, as well as religious institutions. Not all Americans welcomed Black freedom, and many excluded African Americans from public places. Black churches responded. Opening their doors, many provided a gathering place for education, political rallies, communication, organizing, and worship. As Black-owned buildings on Black-owned land, churches remained mostly independent from white control. Within the church, African Americans could explore and express the many meanings of democracy.
Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1838, stood for freedom in the heart of Washington, D.C., a slaveholding city. The church was an active site on the Underground Railroad, a center for wartime relief for those fleeing slavery, and a political meeting hall for D.C.’s African American community. Like many Black churches during the period, Union Bethel AME cast its net wide and changed countless lives.
Union Bethel and Israel Bethel merged to form Metropolitan AME after emancipation, counting Frederick Douglass among its many members. The congregation constructed an impressive new church with donations from around the country. They honored African Methodist Episcopal history with this stained-glass window.
Churches served as school buildings for many African American communities. Few public school systems admitted Black students. Most white Americans refused to send their children to school with Black students because they feared bonds of friendship might develop. Between 1865 and 1867 the U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau provided resources and protection for these Black schools and their teachers. African American adults and children commonly used books known as spellers to teach themselves how to read. Additionally, many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were started within the Black church. They laid a foundation for generations that followed.
"I ain’t never been to school but I jes’ picked up readin’. With some of my first money I ever earn I buy me a old blue-back Webster. I carry dat book wherever I goes."
Lorenzo Ezel, 1937
Freedom meant family, and family meant many things, especially to the hundreds of thousands of people who had experienced the horror of slave sales and forced migration. Thousands of formerly enslaved people were remarried or married in the years following the Civil War. Holding on to loved ones, African Americans celebrated families of all types. Mother, uncle, cousin, best friend—all were brought in as kin and held close. Communities recognized and valued the women raising orphans, brothers raising one another, and couples lucky enough to have each other. Freedom promised a future together.
African Americans never forgot the family members they lost to the slave trade. People wrote for word of their relatives or found someone to write for them. They looked for daughters, sons, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, and long-lost kin. Even as they formed new families, they longed for lost loved ones. By placing ads, writing letters, and asking travelers, people continued to search for their families into the 20th century.
African Americans pushed for citizenship well before the end of slavery in the nation. The following declaration from 1853 was a constant refrain raised within the Black community, even as African Americans fought to exercise citizenship granted by the 14th Amendment.
"By birth, we are American citizens; by the meaning of the United States Constitution, we are American citizens; by the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are American citizens..."
Proceedings of the Colored National Convention Held in Rochester, 1853