Visions of Freedom: Democracy
During Reconstruction, African Americans gained citizenship rights. The United States government recognized these rights by creating three amendments to the Constitution and passing the first federal civil rights acts. These laws promised equal protection, equal access to public accommodations, and the right to vote regardless of race.
But after 1873, the federal government retreated from enforcing civil rights laws. White supremacists used voter suppression, violence, and terror to regain political power in southern states and to strip away the rights gained by African Americans. By the end of the century, in place of democracy, African Americans faced a system of racial discrimination that confined them to second-class citizenship.
During Reconstruction, African Americans exercised their newly recognized rights of citizenship by voting and having representation in government at the local, state, and national levels. As federal laws removed racial barriers to the ballot box and political office, Black men sought to define new ideas of American democracy based on racial equality and justice.
Though denied the right to vote, Black women also helped lead the struggle to create a new nation from the ashes of slavery—a more just, free, and equal society. They joined with Black men and white women in demanding the full rights of citizenship that had long been denied to them, including the right to vote, expressing a vision of democracy not restricted by race or gender.
In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, which placed former Confederate states under military rule until they ratified the 14th Amendment and established new constitutions guaranteeing equal rights and protections to African Americans. Under the Reconstruction Acts, Black men in southern states could vote and hold office for the first time. Black men could still not vote in most northern states until 1870, when the 15th Amendment outlawed voting restrictions based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Give us the suffrage and you may rely upon us to secure justice for ourselves.
Convention of Freedmen in Virginia, 1865
While not allowed to vote, Black women attended political meetings alongside men and voiced their opinions on issues. Many also accompanied their husbands and other male relatives to the polls. Black women were also among the earliest and strongest advocates for women’s right to vote. Though many white female suffragists objected to the 15th Amendment for not extending the vote to women, most Black female suffragists supported voting rights for Black men as an important first step toward universal suffrage for all Americans.
Among the Black women who articulated this vision of universal rights and representation was poet and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. In a speech to the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention in 1866, she stated: “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
During Reconstruction, most African Americans voted Republican, the political party that supported Black civil rights. Many became active in the Union League, a Republican organization that registered freedmen to vote and educated them about their rights. William Kennedy and Lewis Lindsey of Richmond, Virginia, received this commission as deputy members of the Grand State Council in 1869.
Between 1865 and 1876, over 1,500 African American men held public office in southern state and local governments. They served as state senators and representatives, lieutenant governors, city council members, sheriffs, justices of the peace, superintendents of education, and more. Most were elected in districts with majority-Black populations. The election of Black officeholders was bolstered by the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, which barred prominent ex-Confederates from holding state or federal office. For most, this restriction was lifted in 1872.
African Americans elected officials to represent their interests in state legislatures across the South.
I hold that I am a member of this body. Therefore, sir, I shall neither fawn nor cringe before any party, nor stoop to beg them for my rights.
Henry McNeal Turner, Speech on the Eligibility of Colored Members to Seats in the Georgia Legislature, 1868
Perhaps the most visible example of African American political gains during Reconstruction was the election of Black senators and representatives to the U.S. Congress. For the first time in history, Black men served as the nation’s lawmakers. While these officials represented the newly freed constituents of their southern states, they also advocated for the rights of African Americans nationwide.
George Henry White (1852–1918) was elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1896. He used his platform to speak out for racial justice and introduced the first anti-lynching bill. After leaving office in 1901, White was the last African American to serve in Congress until 1929.
The presence of over 1,500 African American officeholders in local and national politics during Reconstruction was a watershed moment in U.S. history. But starting in the 1870s, white southerners began systematically suppressing Black political activity and denying Black men the vote. As a result, most African Americans lost their political offices.
In the years after Reconstruction, when the number of African American elected officials was low, federal patronage positions—in mailrooms, customs houses, and other federal agencies—sustained a small but politically active Black middle class.
It would not be until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Black officeholding began to rise again, and Black political representation did not reach or surpass Reconstruction-era levels until the 1990s. Today, despite gains driven by the Black Lives Matter Movement, African Americans continue to be underrepresented in elected offices at the local, state, and federal level.