Equality and Civil Rights: a Chronology of Black History di Giulia Tomasi Cont, Davide Pignata



Looking ahead

At the end of this section, you will be able to:

- know what black codes are

- know what the Freedmen's Bureau is

- identify the effects of the Civil Rights Act

- understand the dynamics of Reconstruction

Most Northerners right after the Civil War had been willing to allow the President to guide Reconstruction. However, a series of laws passed by the new southern governments in 1865 and 1866 changed the minds of many Northerners. Called the black codes, they varied from state to state. Most states, however, allowed former slaves to choose their employers, use the courts, and marry legally. But other parts of the black codes greatly limited the rights of newly freed blacks.
For example, most states passed laws that provided for the arrest and fining of unemployed blacks. Those who could not afford the fine could be hired out to an employer who would pay it. Other laws kept former slaves from serving on juries, voting, carrying weapons, holding public office, and owning land. A former slave had to buy a license to work in a craft.
Southerners claimed that black codes were needed to keep law and order. Many southern whites feared that former slaves would turn to violence in revenge for past mistreatment. Northerners, however, view the black codes as an attempt to keep blacks in slavery. Since colonial days, Southerners had depended on slave labour to run their plantations. When slavery ended, plantation owners still needed large amounts of labour. The black codes enabled them to keep their supply of cheap, unskilled workers.


When the war ended, thousands of former slaves, called freedmen at the time, began leaving southern farms and plantations. Many travelled across the South searching for family members separated by the slave trade. Others went to Union Army camps, towns, and cities. For many former slaves, migration was their way of proving their newly gained freedom. At first, many former slaves refused to work for their former owners. They hoped to become independent farmers themselves. They believed the federal government would take the land away from former slave owners and give it to them.
In March 1865, while the war was still going on, Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau [E1] to help both blacks and whites left homeless and jobless by the war. The Freedmen’s Bureau was under the control of the War Department. However, it was staffed by both military and civilian workers. The bureau helped people to find homes and jobs, settled disagreements between blacks and their employers, provided medical care, set up schools, and gave legal help. Among the schools aided by the bureau were Fisk University in Tennessee and Hampton Institute in Virginia.

The act setting up the Freedmen’s Bureau raised hopes among blacks that they would receive 40 acres and a mule. A section of the act gave the bureau the power to give away abandoned or confiscated land to former slaves. According to the act, former slaves would be allowed to rent the land for three years and then buy it at its 1860 value. But even the Freedmen’s Bureau became a battleground between the President and Congress. Johnson ended the black dream of “40 acres and a mule” by ordering all land returned to its original owners.
In December 1865, Congress passed a second Freedmen’s Bureau Act. The bureau was given additional power to protect former slaves from the black codes. President Johnson vetoed the bill in February 1866. He said it was unconstitutional because it continued wartime laws into peace time. The Radicals were angered but did not have enough votes to pass the act over Johnson’s veto. By July, the Radicals had pulled together enough votes, and the Freedmen’s Bureau Act was passed.
The activities of the bureau ended in 1869. By then, most of the southern states had been readmitted to the Union under Congress’ plan for Reconstruction. Although a small number of the bureau’s officials were dishonest or inefficient, the bureau was an important part of Reconstruction. It helped thousands of poor Southerners, black and white, to find homes and jobs. It did not help many blacks to own land, but it did protect thousands of blacks in their dealings with employers.
Across the South, many white Southerners were hostile to the bureau. Some felt that, as part of the federal government, the bureau was interfering in matters better left to the states. Other Southerners accused the bureau of stirring up hatred between blacks and whites. Southern Democrats were especially angered by politicians’ use of the bureau to register black voters as Republicans.


In March 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill [E1] to nullify the black codes. Civil Rights are rights guaranteed to citizens by law. The bill stated that all people born in the U.S. were citizens of the U.S. In addition to granting citizenship rights to former slaves, the bill gave them the right to testify in court, buy land, make contracts, and exercise the same civil rights as whites. The President said the bill interfered with the rights of states and vetoed it. However, the Radicals were joined by other Republicans, and the Civil Rights Act was passed over Johnson’s veto.


Many besides the President thought the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. In order to settle the issue, Congress approved the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in June and sent it to the states for ratification. According to the amendment, people born or naturalized in the U.S. were citizens both of the U.S. and of the state in which they lived. If a state denied any adult male the right to vote, that state was to be denied representation in Congress in proportion to the number of citizens who had been denied the vote. Ex-Confederate leaders could not hold federal or state office unless pardoned by a two-thirds vote of Congress. No Confederate debts could be collected. Former slave owners could not sue for payment for the loss of their slaves.
The 14th Amendment was really a plan for Reconstruction. But Johnson insisted that the southern states had already been reconstructed under his plan. He advised the South to reject the amendment. He wanted to make ratification and Reconstruction the chief issues of the 1866 congressional elections. Except for Tennessee, the ten southern states followed Johnson’s advice. However, the 14th Amendment became part of the Constitution when it was ratified by the northern states in 1868.


Radical Republicans had won the battle with President Johnson over Reconstruction, and Johnson left office in 1869. When the Republicans realized how important the black vote had been in electing Grant to the presidency, the Republican-controlled Congress approved the 15th amendment. It stated that no one could be denied the right to vote because of race. The amendment was ratified in 1870.
By then, all the former Confederate states had been brought back into the Union. Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina had been readmitted by 1868. Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia and Texas took longer to ratify the 14th Amendment. They also had to ratify the 15th Amendment before they were readmitted.


Because almost all the fighting of the Civil War had taken place in the South, large areas of the South lay in ruins in April 1865. The homes of planters, poor farmers and former slaves alike had been deliberately burned by Union soldiers or had been caught in the middle of fighting. Fields were trampled, and crops burned or left to rot. Some of the land had gone unplowed for several years. Hard work would be needed to clear it and make it productive again. Many cities, such as Richmond, Vicksburg and Atlanta were burned-out ruins. Most of the South’s railroads had been destroyed , either to keep them from falling to the Union or to cut off supplies to the Confederates.
Besides the destruction, there was great human suffering. Many Southerners, black and white, were without food, clothing and shelter. Many people had lost family members in the fighting.


After the Civil War, the North’s economy was booming. The economy of the South, which had always lagged behind the North’s, was almost destroyed. The end of the Confederacy had made Confederate money and bonds worthless. Southerners who had lent money to the government lost it all. In addition, the end of slavery cost slave owners their means of making money – slave labour to work their fields.
Landowners had little or no money to pay freed slaves who now worked for wages or even to buy farm tools and supplies. The land owners had to borrow money from northern banks, but money was scarce. Most bankers preferred to lend money to businesses in the North and West, areas that were expanding. For their part, former slaves worked for wages but were paid less than white workers. Their one hope of economic independence was owning land. But, as we already know, the Radical Republicans’ plan of “40 acres and a mule” was killed. Even if former slaves had been given land, they would not have been able to farm it without money for tools, farm animals, seed and other supplies.
As a result of these problems, a new system of farming developed in the South. Many southern landowners broke their holdings into small units. On each unit, the landowner settled a family of sharecroppers. A sharecropper is a person who farms someone else’s land in return for part of the crops. Sharecropping is similar to tenant farming. The landowner supplied the house, tools and seed. The sharecropper provided the labour. Generally, the landowner received half the crops that the sharecropper raised. If the sharecropper provided the supplies, then less of the crops were paid to the landowner.
The system did not work well. The money that sharecroppers made from their share of the crop was usually not enough to provide their families with food, clothing and household goods. As a result, the sharecroppers were constantly in debt either to their landowner or to local merchants. Landowners often cheated their sharecroppers. The sharecropping system was not limited to former slaves. Poor white farmers also found themselves sharecropping in the post-Civil War South.
Even former slaves who were skilled in such crafts as carpentry and blacksmithing had a difficult time. The black codes required that they buy licenses, which could be difficult if they had little money. Even blacks who had never been slaves were required to have a license. Like former plantation workers, freed blacks craftworkers lacked the money to buy tools and open shops. If they managed to open a small business, they often had trouble attracting customers. Many blacks did not have the money to pay to have work done, and many whites would not patronize a black-owned business. They viewed these craftworkers as threats to the jobs of whites.

Looking back

- What are the two main consequences of Black Codes?

- The Freedmen's Bureau was created by _____________ in __________

- What does the expression "40 acres and a mule" mean?

- What did the Civil Rights Act state?

- Explain the dynamics of Reconstruction in the South

- What is a sharecropper?



    Nessuna voce inserita

Inserisci approfondimento/commento

Indice percorso Edita
Edurete.org Roberto Trinchero