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 all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves. We was free. Just like that, we was free . . . but we didn’t know what was to come with it.
Felix Haywood, Texas, ca. 1937
December 1865: The 13th Amendment and Black Freedom
Congress passed the 13th Amendment to end slavery throughout the nation in January 1865. On April 9, the Union secured a complete Confederate surrender, ending the Civil War. One week later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. He was succeeded by Vice President Andrew Johnson, a former enslaver and likely Confederate sympathizer. Throughout the summer and fall, southern states held constitutional conventions and created Black Codes limiting the rights of formerly enslaved people. The codes mandated that Black people mostly remain where they had been—in the fields under the supervision of former enslavers. Non-complying Black people risked being arrested and leased out for labor.
Almost a year after the 13th Amendment passed in the House, President Johnson required Confederate states to ratify the legislation in order to rejoin the Union. The 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865, completing what free and enslaved African Americans, abolitionists, and the Emancipation Proclamation had set in motion.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
13th Amendment, Section 1
Black people understood the meaning and importance of freedom from as early as before the development of the Transatlantic slave trade. They fought for it and found ways to secure it at any cost. Black people escaped enslavement and purchased their freedom. Enslaved and free African Americans’ definition of freedom included coming out of bondage, self-determination, economic empowerment, owning their labor and land, political power secured through voting rights, and education. Their efforts within an enslaved and eventually free country pushed the definition and manifestation of freedom in the nation.
The Freedmen’s Bureau
In 1862 the Union Army conducted the Port Royal Experiment, which provided support and resources for formerly enslaved Black people in the Union-occupied Sea Islands of South Carolina. The experiment led to the founding of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, otherwise known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress established the Bureau in March 1865.
The Bureau assisted newly freed Black people in their transition from slavery to freedom to citizenship by negotiating labor contracts, securing educational opportunities, and providing legal assistance for freedmen facing discrimination and violence. It also managed abandoned lands and assisted white people left destitute as a result of the Civil War. From the beginning, the Bureau faced challenges. It was underfunded, some agents held racist views, and many agents faced violence by white southerners. Ultimately dismantled in 1872 due to political pressure, the Bureau’s legacy can be seen today in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which the Bureau helped establish.
The Klan: Violent Reprisal to Black Freedom
The secret society known as the Ku Klux Klan was founded by a group of Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, on December 24th, 1865, less than a month after the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The white supremacist organization was one of many that engaged in domestic terrorism in an effort to intimidate formerly enslaved African Americans and white Republicans seeking to reconstruct the nation and promote democracy.
Masked Klan members marauded across the landscape in the South and the North, engaging in a campaign of terror. The Klan’s objectives included overturning Reconstruction legislation, returning white majority rule to the former Confederate states, and denying Black freedom and rights. The first Grand Wizard - the leader of the Klu Klux Klan - was Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The First Civil Rights Act
In April 1866, Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act, overriding President Johnson’s veto. The Act extended federal support and protection to formerly enslaved Black people. The law provided citizenship for African Americans and granted them several key rights, including the right to sue in court, own property, and create contracts. It also allowed for equal protection, but it did not provide voting rights. The new legislation countered the 1857 Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford that stated African Americans were not citizens. African Americans claimed their citizenship and exercised their rights. They demonstrated that they were anything but the property they were once considered.
Slavery was a bad thing, and freedom of the kind we got with nothing to live on was bad. Two snakes full of poison. One lying with his head to the north, the other with his head pointing south . . .
Patsy Mitchner, 84, Raleigh, North Carolina
Race Massacres: Mass Destruction
On July 30, 1866, the Louisiana Constitutional Convention convened at the Mechanics' Institute in New Orleans to pass the Black Codes. The codes limited the freedom of recently emancipated African Americans, including denying Black men voting rights. A delegation of over 100 Black men marched to the Mechanics' Institute in protest. Before their arrival they were met by an angry white mob composed of former Confederates, local police, and white supremacists. The mob overtook the Black protestors, who fled to the Mechanics' Institute. Black men and women were randomly shot in the streets; the violence ultimately ended with the death of 249 people and more than 40 injured.
Galvanized by the massacre, Republicans won control of Congress in the 1866 election. Soon after, they ratified the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, providing a federal military presence in the South and giving Black men the right to vote. This marked the beginning of Radical Reconstruction.