The 16th century marks the beginning of the African-American history, when large groups of people from West Africa were forced to move to Spanish America as slaves. This act continued in the 17th century with enslaved West Africans forcibly taken to English Colonies of North America. By 1800 African-American slavery was still a thriving institution. Even the founding of the United States did not change the circumstances. It was not until after the Civil War that the situation changed slightly with the liberation of black slaves. This paper is to examine the effects the Reconstruction policies had on African-Americans after the Civil War.
To begin with, the Civil War (1861-1865) is considered to be America’s central event of historical consciousness, due to the long-standing political tension between the southern and the northern states of the United States over slavery. The South, a predominantly agrarian economy heavily relying upon the labour of African-American slaves, wanted to secede, while the more and more industrialised North wished the country’s unity. Due to different political beliefs, issues regarding the economy as well as disagreements on states’ and federal rights, surfaced. The victory of Abraham Lincoln, who pledged to outlaw slavery, in the presidential elections was the final straw for the South. Eleven states seceded and formed a new nation, The Confederate States of America. Neither Lincoln nor the North recongnised the legitimacy of secession. The war ended with the Confederacy’s defeat.
In U.S. history, the Civil War’s ending signals a critical and complex period, the Reconstruction(1865-1877). During this period, many “attempts were made to redress the inequities of slavery and its political, social, and economic legacy and to solve the problems arising from the readmission to the Union of the eleven, at the outbreak of war, seceded states”(Encyclopædia Britannica). Reconstruction witnessed America’s first laudable experiment in interracial democracy. New laws and constitutional amendments altered the federal system and the freedmen citizens’ civil rights.
Concerning African-Americans, the effects Reconstruction policies had on them were mixed and can be viewed not only in the short run, but also in the long run.
First of all, three important amendments were ratified to the United States Constitution. The 13th Amendment(1865) formally abolished slavery. It was the most triumphant righting of the wrongs of a southern plantation system that emancipated four million enslaved African-Americans. Following these events, the 14th Amendment(1868) granted citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to “all persons born or naturalised in the United States,” including recently freed slaves. Furthermore, the 15th Amendment(1870) gave African-American men the ability to vote and hold political offices. Moreover, the Congress established in 1865 the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, which provided practical aid to millions of former slaves and impoverished whites in the South. Apart from providing food, clothing, housing and medical aid, the bureau established public schools for African-Americans to receive education and offered legal assistance. From an economic and agricultural perspective, African-Americans were able to seek employment in the cities, found their own churches and acquire the land of former owners. Under the sharecropping system, which emerged as the dominant labour system in the rural South, black families rented individual plots of land.
However, the Reconstruction period is seen by many historians as a disappointment for African-Americans. The Union’s victory may have granted about 4 million slaves their freedom, but the question of freedmen’s status in the postwar South was still unresolved. Many southerners identified a number of ways the intent of the 15th Amendment could be legally circumvented. For this reason, they enacted new southern state legislatures that passed restrictive so-called “black codes” to control the labour and behaviour of African-Americans. These Black Codes disenfranchised African-Americans and kept them and whites segregated. Southerners accomplished it with the establishment of poll taxes, literacy tests and the Grandfather Clause. Poll taxes were “a per-person fixed-rate annual tax”(bizfluent) levied on all male citizens in order to gain the ability to vote. They were often too high and, thus, difficult for recently freed slaves to afford. Another way to prevent African-Americans from enfranchisement was literacy tests, before voting, that showed whether a person could read and write. Given the fact that only 2% of African-Americans were literate at that time, it is obvious that these tests very much succeeded in prohibiting the right to vote. Last but not least, regardless of poll tax or literacy test results, the Grandfather Clause allowed any male citizen to vote if his grandfather had also voted. Most African-American males were grandchildren of slaves, which resulted in disenfranchising them. Moreover, they were not allowed to carry weapons or testify in court unless the case concerned other blacks. Interracial marriage was also prohibited, but legal marriage between African-Americans was provided for. Around that period, groups like Ku Klux Klan formed to terrorise African-Americans and deny them their freedoms.
To conclude, the Reconstruction Era was in many ways a time for improvements for African-Americans. In the long run, many of these improvements, such as the voting right, were removed. It was not until much later, after another federal legislative movement, that the black disenfranchisement ended and the techniques used in the South to prevent black citizens from voting were considered illegal. Thus, Reconstruction had both positive and negative impacts on the lives of typical African-Americans.