When I began writing my fictional trilogy about the South, I, like many Americans, felt well-informed on the subject. As a student of history, researcher, and writer, I felt particularly well-versed in the period before the war (Antebellum) through the war years (1861-65). But as I began the final book in the trilogy, I soon found out how little I knew about the immediate aftermath of the war (Reconstruction) and the shocking depredations spawned during this critical transition.
The Civil War ended in 1865, freeing from slavery four million blacks (freedmen and freedwomen) who owned no land and had little money or education, which was often proscribed for slaves. Believing education would keep them from returning to slavery and enable them to prosper, freedmen immediately began establishing schools for themselves. “They sprung up like mushrooms after a rainstorm,” as one Southerner described the phenomenon. Creation of these schools was aided by the Freedmen’s Bureau, established by Congress to help the impoverished black population with food, medical care, and education. By 1870, over 4,000 of these schools had been established throughout the South, attended by a quarter million children and adults.
The legal challenges blacks faced proved far more daunting. Abraham Lincoln was shot five days after the war ended, to be replaced by a Southerner, Andrew Johnson. Johnson wanted the Southern states restored to the Union as quickly as possible, requiring new state constitutions be established. Because Johnson’s plan only allowed whites to vote for convention delegates or to participate in drafting the new state constitutions, not one of the states granted the right to vote to blacks. As the provisional governor of South Carolina made clear at his convention: “this is a white man’s government.”
And who was called upon to create these new constitutions? Politically powerful former Confederates. In Mississippi, for example, the 1865 constitutional convention included twelve men who had been delegates to the secession convention of 1860, including the president who entered the motion for secession; a number of Confederate generals; a Confederate senator; and a Confederate governor. Subsequently, many ex-Confederate leaders won elections for state government offices and for Congress.
Black Codes Instituted
State legislatures quickly moved to restore de facto slavery throughout the South, in essence, reversing the verdict of the war by passing laws called Black Codes in various forms that limited the freedom of former slaves. These laws replicated colonial statutes, restricting blacks from voting, serving on juries, traveling freely, or working in jobs of their own choice. Even their marriages weren’t considered legal.
For example, the severe penal codes for slaves were retained, merely replacing the word “slave” with the word “freedmen.” South Carolina’s Black Codes even established a racially separate court system for all civil and criminal cases that involved a black plaintiff or defendant. It allowed black witnesses to testify in court, but only in cases affecting “persons of color.” Crimes that whites feared freedmen might commit, such as rebellion, arson, burglary, and assaulting a white woman, carried harsh penalties. Most of these crimes carried the death penalty for blacks, but not for whites. Punishments for minor offenses committed by blacks could result in forced labor (“hiring out”) or whipping, penalties rarely imposed on white lawbreakers.
The Supreme Court’s 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education” decision, ruling that separate schools for blacks and whites were unequal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped put an end to the most egregious of these practices.
Dr. King stated that “history bends toward justice.” Looking back at the troubled Reconstruction era, and in light of Black History Month 2019, we can see how far social justice has progressed in the United States. We must do our best to maintain and advance that progress.
Ed Protzel is a novelist and author of the Civil War-era DarkHorse Trilogy: The Lies That Bind, Honor Among Outcasts, Something in Madness (late-2019). He lives in St. Louis. Find him at: www.edprotzel.com.
© Ed Protzel, St. Louis, MO
Within two years, these specific Black Codes were rescinded by Congress. Nevertheless, new state laws and practices were instituted to replace them, reproducing the same effect. Eventually, of course, Jim Crow would further enshrine into law the black community’s subservient status.