Reconstruction and the Rise of Jim Crow
Reconstruction and the Rise of Jim Crow
ADAPTED FROM ESSAYS BY MARCY SACKS,
ALBION COLLEGE/HAMILTON COLLEGE
On April 9, 1865, the Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) accepted the Confederate general Robert E. Lee's (1807-1870) surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The four years of bloodshed during the United States Civil War marked the deadliest period of fighting in this country's history. By the time the North could claim victory, 620,000 men had been killed, more than that had been wounded, and physical devastation marked portions of the Southern landscape. And while the Northern economy had boomed during the conflict, the South's economic infrastructure was devastated by the war.
While Southern whites mourned their losses, blacks throughout the country rejoiced at the victory, believing that whites would, at long last, recognize them as equal citizens. Former slaves in the South appropriated their freedom in numerous ways, most notably through their physical mobility. "I must go," one newly freed slave explained to his former master, "for if I stay here I'll never know I am free. "Others demonstrated their freedom by their refusal to work, by legalizing their marriages, and by shedding the outwardly submissive behavior they had been forced to adopt during the days of slavery. "There was to be no more Marster and Mistress now," a Richmond freedman joyously declared to his former master."All the land belongs to the Yankees now and they gwine divide it out among de coloured people."
But the process of reconstructing the South was not so simple and proved less rewarding for the former slaves than they had hoped. The nation had no guidelines explaining how to bring the rebel states back into the Union, and almost everyone seemed to have a different opinion about the best way to do so.
In the end, a fundamental belief in the inalienable right to property and a lack of concern for black people led to few essential alterations in the nature of race relations in the South, a situation that was not to change until the Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Excerpt from The South by J. T. Trowbridge
President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) had little opportunity to implement the reconstruction program he had devised during the war. While the fighting still raged, Lincoln outlined his "10 percent plan," which laid out the terms for readmitting the rebel states to the Union. Under this plan, Lincoln offered full pardon and amnesty to all Southerners (except high-ranking Confederate civil and military officers) who reestablished their allegiance to the United States by taking an oath of loyalty and by accepting the abolition of slavery. Confiscated property other than slaves would then be returned to those individuals. When the number of loyal Southerners in any state reached 10 percent of the number of votes cast there in the 1860 election, that minority could create a new state government and send representatives to the United States Congress. Conciliatory in his tone, Lincoln said little regarding the former slaves other than that they could not be returned to bondage.
Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) on April 14, 1865, only five days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Vice President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), a former Democrat who had joined the Republicans only a year earlier, suddenly became president of a still-divided nation. For nearly eight months, Johnson had complete control over reconstruction policy because Congress had already recessed for the summer. During that period, Johnson implemented a plan that initially appeared to strip the South's aristocrats of their wealth and power.
Following the outlines of Lincoln's program, Johnson offered amnesty to those who took an oath of allegiance. However, the new president barred officials of the Confederacy and the very wealthy (Southerners who aided the rebellion and who owned taxable property worth more than twenty thousand dollars) from receiving a pardon without direct application to Johnson himself. Johnson seemed bent on fundamentally altering the structure of Southern society.
But the president quickly changed his reconstruction policy. Under the provisional state governments set up by Johnson, members of the South's old elite reasserted their influence. Many won state and federal elections, returning them to positions of power. Furthermore, Johnson somewhat inexplicably began pardoning aristocrats and leading rebels, allowing them to take office.
As a result, by December 1865 many former Confederate officials had traveled to Washington to claim their newly acquired seats in Congress. But Radical Republicans in Congress, frustrated with both Lincoln's and Johnson's moderate policies, refused to seat their Southern counterparts or recognize the new state governments. Unlike either Lincoln or Johnson, the Radicals envisioned a new social order in the South emerging from the ruins of the war.
Even before Lincoln's death, Radical Republicans had pushed for a more complete reconstruction of Southern society. Led by Northerners such as Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) in the House of Representatives and Charles Sumner (1811-1874) in the Senate, Congress in early 1865 adopted the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which would abolish slavery throughout the United States. The states ratified the amendment that December. (The last state to do so, Mississippi, finally ratified the Thirteenth Amendment 130 years later in March of 1995.) In March of 1865, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau, an agency of the army led by General Oliver O. Howard (1830-1909). Authorized to operate for one year, the bureau helped establish schools, legalize marriages of former slaves, negotiate labor contracts for freed people, and distribute food to millions of people, white and black.
After Johnson's accession to office and the apparent return of the old Southern planter class to power, Radicals pushed even harder in their efforts to transform Southern society. By the time Congress met in December 1865, many Southern states had already established so-called black codes under the belief that the freed people would not work except by force. These laws, while recognizing the abolition of slavery, prohibited blacks from bearing arms, voting, holding public office, or assembling freely. Some states forbade blacks to work in skilled positions in which they would compete with white labor.
But the vagrancy provisions of the black codes proved to be the most offensive. The Georgia law, representative of similar statutes throughout the South, stipulated that any persons caught "wandering or strolling about in idleness, who are able to work and who have no property to support them" could be arrested and forced to labor on chain gangs or contracted out to planters. The black codes helped convince Republicans in Congress that under Johnson's reconstruction policy Southern society would remain much as it had been in the decades before the war.
Reconvening at the end of 1865, Congress took swift action to repudiate Johnson's policies. It began by refusing to seat the Southern representatives. Early the following year, Congress enacted a bill over President Johnson's veto extending the life and expanding the powers of the Freedmen's Bureau. It then quickly passed the first Civil Rights Act, also over the president's veto, which declared blacks to be citizens of the United States and empowered the federal government to intervene in state affairs in order to protect the rights of citizens.
Concerned about the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, Congress that summer approved the Fourteenth Amendment, which defined American citizenship for the first time. The first portion of the amendment identified "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" as citizens, and consequently entitled to equal protection under both state and federal laws. With this definition, Congress automatically extended citizenship privileges to American-born blacks. The second section of the amendment, while not granting blacks the vote, did penalize any state for withholding it from any of its adult male citizens. (This was the first time the Constitution had made reference to gender, quite clearly identifying suffrage rights as belonging solely to men.) Finally, the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited all Confederates who had taken an oath before the Civil War to uphold the Constitution from holding a federal or state office unless two-thirds of Congress voted to pardon them. The states finally ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in July 1868, two years after Congress initially approved it.
Of the many pieces of legislation emerging from the Radical Congress, the First Reconstruction Act had the most dramatic impact on Southern political life. The congressional plan divided the South into five military districts under the direction of a military general. The general had the responsibility of calling a constitutional convention in each state. The delegates were to be elected by universal adult male suffrage, black and white, excluding those deprived of the vote under the proposed Fourteenth Amendment. Once a new state government had been established and had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, it could petition Congress for readmission to the Union. Congress passed this act in 1867 over President Johnson's veto. By 1870, all of the Confederate states had been reconstructed.
IMPEACHMENT OF PRESIDENT JOHNSON
The Radical Congress and President Johnson continually clashed over their conflicting views of how to restore the Southern states to the Union. Mounting tensions ultimately resulted in an attempt to impeach the president. Despite his attempts to undermine Congress's reconstruction policies, no evidence existed to indicate that Johnson had ever committed "high crimes and misdemeanors"—the only constitutional grounds for impeachment.
Nonetheless, on February 24, 1868, the House voted for impeachment, 126 to 47. The trial before the Senate lasted for two months. At the end, the Radicals were one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove the president. The impeachment campaign was dead.
THE REALITIES OF RECONSTRUCTION
In the meantime, the Southern states were adjusting to their new political and social realities. The passage of the First Reconstruction Act initiated an unprecedented era of biracial democracy. For the first time in United States history, the state governments in the South had been organized on the basis of universal male suffrage. Blacks and whites confronted the presence of black voters, officeholders, jurors, and police officers. In Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi, blacks were the majority of the state's voters. But only in South Carolina did black legislators outnumber whites. And no state elected a black person to be governor.
Still, between 1869 and 1877, fourteen blacks won southern seats in the United States House of Representatives, and two (Hiram Revels [1827-1901] and Blanche K. Bruce [1841-1898] of Mississippi) in the United States Senate.
The new state governments made dramatic changes in Southern society. Starting essentially from scratch, many new state constitutions expanded democracy for blacks and whites by eliminating all property qualifications for voting and holding office. Blacks could finally sit on juries, and imprisonment for debt was abolished.
Most importantly, many Southern states provided state-funded public education for the first time. Seeking the education that had been legally denied them during slavery, blacks throughout the South clamored for the opportunity to learn. Black children flocked to the new schools; by 1877, more than six hundred thousand black pupils had enrolled. Night schools for adults flourished as well, and several colleges and universities, including Howard, Fisk, Atlanta, and the Hampton Institute, opened during this period.
Even in this new reformist atmosphere, however, Radical governments stopped short of fundamentally altering Southern society. Despite former slaves' demands for "forty acres and a mule," neither state legislatures nor Congress was willing to offer even a token payment to blacks for their years of unpaid labor.
THE END OF RECONSTRUCTION AND THE RISE OF JIM CROW
Even as the federal government was working to protect blacks' rights in the South, white supremacist organizations emerged to reassert whites' dominance and racial superiority. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and other secret organizations terrorized blacks and their supporters throughout the South.
The so-called Mississippi plan (see sidebar) became a model for the effective overthrow of Republican government. Through the systematic use of violence and repression, Democrats regained control of the state in 1875. President Grant refused to provide assistance to protect Republican voters. Encouraged by the federal government's failure to act, other Southern states quickly followed Mississippi's example. Within ten years after it had begun, Reconstruction and the experiment in biracial democracy had ended.
Although the period of Radical Reconstruction came to a close in 1877 with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893) to the presidency, white southerners did not succeed in disfranchising blacks until the end of the century. Mississippi again led the way with a new state constitution in 1890 that formalized white rule. The other southern states all followed suit. Within twenty years, black voting throughout the South had virtually ceased.
Considering the horrors that were yet to come, with the age of Jim Crow, and the radical rise in lynchings in the South in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, it is worth asking whether a different course would have produced different results. Should the Federal Reconstruction government have left matters more in the hands of the southern states, or should they have worked harder to enforce the changes of Reconstruction in the years following 1875-1890? Should they have maintained the presence of marshals and federal troops in the South? Should they have resisted the efforts of the Conservative Democrats bent upon a political terrorism designed to retake the various houses of the Southern state legislatures? Even after decades had passed, the Conservative Democrats continued to organize with the same intensity. Well into the twentieth century, the same forces were undiminished in their racial rage. During the same period, Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation in everything from education to public facilities to religion. In 1896 the United States Supreme Court upheld the "separate but equal" philosophy in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Most blacks in the South, now politically powerless, remained economically dependent as well. Few owned their own land; with each passing year they grew increasingly indebted to white landlords. And those who managed to achieve a level of economic success faced the daily threat of whites' wrath. In an effort to preserve their superiority and keep blacks "in their place," whites in the South enforced the color line with the use of physical violence. Between 1889 and 1941, an estimated 3,811 blacks were lynched in this country, often with thousands of white spectators cheering the event.
With the end of Reconstruction came the end of an era of tremendous promise. Blacks had envisioned a complete restructuring of southern society, in which they would have the chance to demonstrate their ability to act as respectable and educated citizens of the republic and thereby convince whites to abandon their racism. The restoration of white supremacy came with serious costs for the South: the escalation of tensions between whites and blacks, political and economic backwardness, and rampant illiteracy and poverty.
Nearly a century would pass before the South would again have the opportunity to make fundamental changes in its racial policies.
UNDERSTANDING RECONSTRUCTION-HISTORICAL INTERPRETATIONS
Almost before the period of Reconstruction came to an end, Southerners began interpreting this unprecedented time in American history. The impression that survived this era suggested that Reconstruction had been a "tragic" experience. Unscrupulous Northern white carpetbaggers, popular belief held, flooded the South to join poor white scalawags and ignorant and inferior blacks in a general ravishment of southern society. Nostalgia for the old South with its supposedly docile and happy slaves propelled this interpretation of history. The image of a prostrate South victimized by ineptitude and corruption passed into the nation's consciousness through movies and novels such as The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.
Historians quickly offered "proof" that Reconstruction had been a devastating time for the South. William A. Dunning became the most influential early historian to argue this position in his 1907 study Reconstruction, Political and Economic. Despite challenges to this interpretation, most notably by the eminent black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) in Black Reconstruction (1935), Dunning's view remained generally accepted by both scholars and the public.
In the 1960s, however, new students of the period thoroughly revised our understanding of Reconstruction. While admitting that corruption did exist in some southern legislatures during the period, these historians pointed to the many reforms undertaken by Reconstruction governments. The efforts to make biracial democracy a success were their most outstanding achievements.
Despite the repression that followed Reconstruction, recent scholarship points to some of the lasting accomplishments of that period. Even in the face of Jim Crow legislation, blacks were no longer slaves. And they continued to assert their freedom and citizenship in countless ways. Historians will continue to explore this turbulent era in United States history as they seek to understand fully the meaning of freedom for black Americans.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Excerpt from The South since the War by Sidney Andrews
Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. New York: Atheneum, 1935.
Foner, Eric. Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1983.
——. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
——. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper &Row, 1990.
Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Knopf, 1979.
McMillen, Neil R. Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction. New York: Knopf, 1976.
Rabinowitz, Howard N. Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Rosengarten, Theodore. All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. New York: Knopf, 1974.
Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.
Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1951.
——. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1974.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Excerpt from The South by J. T. Trowbridge
Traveling through the recently defeatedSouth during the summer of 1865, John Trowbridge saw much that was discouraging. White Southerners remained defiant of federal reconstruction and eager to thwart the progress of emancipated slaves. Freed people themselves lived in conditions of poverty and neglect and under the constant threat of violence. The record of Trowbridge's travels, The South, published in 1866, did much to push the North toward the firmer policies of Radical Reconstruction.
In his travels, Trowbridge also found scenes of hope. In Hampton, Virginia, he visited a new settlement of freed people working to establish independent lives. In the chapter entitled "About Hampton," Trowbridge described their efforts.
As it was my intention to visit some of the freedmen's settlements in the vicinity, the General kindly placed a horse at my disposal, and I took leave of him. A short gallop brought me to the village of Hampton, distant from the Fortress something over two miles.
"The village of Hampton," says a copy of the "Richmond Examiner" for 1861, "is beautifully situated on an arm of the sea setting in from the adjacent roadstead which bears its name. The late census showed that the aggregate white and black population was nearly two thousand. "Some of the residences were of brick, erected at a heavy cost, and having large gardens, out-houses, and other valuable improvements. The oldest building, and the second oldest church in the State, was the Episcopal Church, made of imported brick, and surrounded by a cemetery of ancient graves. "Here repose the remains of many a cavalier and gentlemen, whose names are borne by numerous families all over the Southern States."
On the night of August 7th, 1861, the Rebels, under General Magruder, initiated what has been termed the "warfare against women and children and private property," which has marked the war of the Rebellion, by laying this old aristocratic town in ashes. It had been mostly abandoned by the secessionist inhabitants on its occupation by our troops, and only a few white families, with between one and two hundred negroes, remained. Many of the former residents came back with the Rebel troops and set fire to their own and their neighbors' houses. Less than a dozen buildings remained standing; the place being reduced to a wilderness of naked chimneys, burnt-out shells, and heaps of ashes.
I found it a thrifty village, occupied chiefly by freed-men. The former aristocratic residences had been replaced by negro huts. These were very generally built of split boards, called pales, overlapping each other like clapboards or shingles. There was an air of neatness and comfort about them which surprised me, no less than the rapidity with which they were constructed. One man had just completed his house. He told me that it took him a week to make the pales for it and bring them from the woods, and four days more to build it.
A sash-factory and blacksmith's shop, shoemakers' shops and stores, enlivened the streets. The business of the place was carried on chiefly by freedmen, many of whom were becoming wealthy, and paying heavy taxes to the government.
Every house had its wood-pile, poultry and pigs, and little garden devoted to corn and vegetables. Many a one had its stable and cow, and horse and cart. The village was surrounded by freedmen's farms, occupying the abandoned plantations of recent Rebels. The crops looked well, though the soil was said to be poor. Indeed, this was by far the thriftiest portion of Virginia I had seen.
In company with a gentleman who was in search of laborers, I made an extensive tour of these farms, anxious to see with my own eyes what the emancipated blacks were doing for themselves. I found no idleness anywhere. Happiness and industry were the universal rule. I conversed with many of the people, and heard their simple stories. They had but one trouble: the owners of the lands they occupied were coming back with their pardons and demanding the restoration of their estates. Here they had settled on abandoned Rebel lands, under the direction of the government, and with the government's pledge, given through its officers, and secured by act of Congress, that they should be protected in the use and enjoyment of those lands for a term of three years, each freedman occupying no more than forty acres, and paying an annual rent to government not exceeding six per cent. of their value. Here, under the shelter of that promise, they had built their little houses and established their humble homes. What was to become of them? On one estate of six hundred acres there was a thriving community of eight hundred freedmen. The owner had been pardoned unconditionally by the President, who, in his mercy to one class, seemed to forget what justice was due to another.
The terms which some of these returning Rebels proposed to the freedmen they found in possession of their lands, interested me. One man, whose estate was worth sixteen dollars an acre, offered to rent it to the families living on it for eight dollars an acre, provided that the houses, which they had themselves build, should revert to him at the end of the year.
My friend broke a bolt in his buggy, and we stopped at a blacksmith-shop to get another. While the smith, a negro, was making a new bolt, and fitting it neatly to its place, I questioned him. He had a little lot of half an acre; upon which he had built his own house and shop and shed. He had a family, which he was supporting without any aid from the government. He was doing very well until the owner of the soil appeared, with the President's pardon, and orders to have his property restored to him. The land was worth twenty dollars an acre. He told the blacksmith that he could remain where he was, by paying twenty-four dollars a year rent for his half acre. "I am going to leave," said the poor man, quietly, and without uttering a complaint.
Except on the government farm, where old and infirm persons and orphan children were placed, I did not find anybody who was receiving aid from the government. Said one, "I have a family of seven children. Four are my own, and three are my brother's. I have twenty acres. I get no help from government, and do not want any as long as I can have land. "I stopped at another little farm-house, beside which was a large pile of wood, and a still larger heap of unhusked corn, two farm wagons, a market wagon, and a pair of mules. The occupant of this place also had but twenty acres, and he was "getting rich."
"Has government helped you any this year?" I asked a young fellow we met on the road.
"Government helped me?" he retorted proudly."No; I am helping government."
We stopped at a little cobbler's shop, the proprietor of which was supporting not only his own wife and children, but his aged mother and widowed sister."Has government helped you any?" we inquired."Nary lick in the world!" he replied, hammering away at his shoe.
Driving across a farm, we saw an old negro without legs hitching along on his stumps in a cornfield, pulling out grass between the rows, and making it up into bundles to sell. He hailed us, and wished to know if we wanted to buy any hay. He seemed delighted when my companion told him he would take all he had, at his own price. He said he froze his legs one winter when he was a slave, and had to have them taken off in consequence. Formerly he had received rations from the government, but now he was earning his own support, except what little he received from his friends.
It was very common to hear of families that were helping not only their own relatives, but others who had no such claim of kindred upon them. And here I may add that the account which these people gave of themselves was fully corroborated by officers of the government and others who knew them.
My friend did not succeed very well in obtaining laborers for his mills. The height of the freedmen's ambition was to have little homes of their own and to work for themselves. And who could blame this simple, strong instinct, since it was not only pointing them the way of their own prosperity, but serving also the needs of the country?
Notwithstanding the pending difficulty with the land-owners, those who had had their lots assigned them were going on to put up new houses, from which they might be driven at any day,—so great was their faith in the honor of the government which had already done so much for them.
Revisiting Virginia some months later, I learned that the Freedmen's Bureau had interposed to protect these people in their rights, showing that their faith had not been in vain.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Excerpt from The South since the War by Sidney Andrews
The journalist Sidney Andrews was born inMassachusetts in 1834 and spent much of his youth in Dixon, Illinois. As a young man, he edited the Daily Courier in Alton, Illinois, where Elijah Lovejoy had once tried to set up an abolitionist press. Lovejoy's work ended when an angry mob of slavery advocates shot him. During the Civil War, Andrews moved to Washington, D.C., and began writing journalistic pieces under the pen name of Dixon.
In the fall of 1865, following the Confederate surrender, Andrews spent fourteen weeks traveling in the Carolinas and Georgia. His aim was to report on the progress of Reconstruction policies and on the various state conventions taking place in Southern states, and to provide a general picture of conditions and attitudes in the postwar South. His essays were published as they were written in the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Advertiser, and collected in the 1866 volume The South since the War.
Already in 1865, Andrews could see that President Andrew Johnson's leniency toward Southern rebels was frustrating Northern hopes for a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the region's economy and racial practices. In "The Situation with Respect to the Negro," Andrews detailed his conversations with a number of white Southerners whose racial attitudes boded ill for emancipated African Americans. The end of the essay suggests the coming racial violence that would be used everywhere in the South to keep freed people in submission.
Orangeburg C. H., September 9, 1865.
Recalling how persistently the whites of this State have claimed, for twenty-five years, to be the negro's special friends, and seeing, as the traveller does, how these whites treat this poor black, one cannot help praying that he may be saved from his friends in future. Yet this cannot be. Talk never so plausibly and eloquently as any one may of colonization or deportation, the inexorable fact remains, that the negro is in South Carolina, and must remain here till God pleases to call him away. The problem involved in his future must be met on the soil of which he is native; and any attempt to solve it elsewhere than in the house of these his so-called special friends will be futile.
The work of the North, in respect to South Carolina, is twofold: the white man must be taught what the negro's rights are, and the negro must be taught to wait patiently and wisely for the full recognition of those rights in his own old home. He waited so long in the house of bondage for the birthright of freedom, that waiting is weary work for him now; yet there is nothing else for him and us,—nothing but faith, and labor, and waiting, and, finally, rest in victory.
The city negro and the country negro are as much unlike as two races. So, too, the city white man and the country white man differ much from each other. The latter, however, is just what he chooses to be, while the country negro is just what slavery and his late owners have made him. Tell me what you will derogatory of the country negro, and very likely I shall assent to most of the language you use. He is very often, and perhaps generally, idle, vicious, improvident, negligent, and unfit to care well for his interests. In himself, he is a hard, coarse, unlovely fact, and no amount of idealizing can make him otherwise. Yet, for all that, he is worth quite as much as the average country white.
The negro, one may say, is made by his master. I even doubt if he is, in many cases, morally responsible for his acts. With him there is no theft when he takes small property from the white; there is, of course, crime in the eye of the law, but there is none in the design or consciousness of the negro. Has not every day of his existence taught him that robbery is no crime? So, too, if this uncouth freedman, just from the plantation, falls into a passion and half kills somebody, you will utterly fail in your effort to make him understand that he has committed a grave crime. Has not his whole life been witness of just such right and lawful outrage on humanity? This language may indicate a bad state of affairs; but it points out certain conditions with respect to the negro that must be taken into account by any one undertaking to deal with him as a freedman.
Everybody talks about the negro, at all hours of the day, and under all circumstances. One might in truth say—using the elegant language of opposition orators in Congress—that "the people have got nigger on the brain. "Let conversation begin where it will, it ends with Sambo.
I scarcely talk with any white man who fails to tell me how anxious many of the negroes are to return to their old homes. In coming up from Charleston I heard of not less than eleven in this condition, and mention has been made to me here in Orangeburg of at least a score. The first curious circumstance is, that none of them are allowed to return; and the second is, that I can't find any of those desirous of returning. I presume I have asked over a hundred negroes here and in Charleston if they wanted to go back and live with their old masters as slaves, or if they knew any negro who did desire to return to that condition, and I have yet to find the first one who hesitates an instant in answering "No."
I spoke of this difficulty I have in finding a single negro who loved slavery better than he does freedom to an intelligent gentleman whom I met here last evening,—a member of the Rhett family."I am surprised to hear that," said he; "but I suppose it's because you are from the North, and the negro don't dare to tell you his real feeling. "I asked if the blacks don't generally consider Northern men their friends. "O yes," he answered, "and that's the very reason why you can't find out what they think."
They deserve better treatment than they get at our hands in Orangeburg, at least; and I am told that what I see here is a forecast of what I shall see in all parts of the State. Theoretically, and in the intent of Congress, the Freedmen's Bureau stands as the next friend of the blacks; practically, and in the custom of the country, it appears to stand too often as their next enemy. That General Saxton is their good friend does not need to be asserted. Very likely the district commissioners under him are wise and humane men, and unquestionably the general regulations for the State are meant to secure justice to the freedmen.
The trouble arises from the fact that it is impossible for the State Commissioner or his chief deputies to personally know all, or even half, their various local agents. Take the case right in hand. Head-quarters for this district are thirty miles below here; and the ranking officer of the bureau has, probably, agents in at least forty different towns, the majority of whom are doubtless lieutenants from the volunteer forces of the army. They are detailed for this duty by the military commander of the post or the district,—sometimes after consultation with the district commissioner, but quite generally without. As the post garrisons are constantly changing, there may be a new agent of the bureau once a month in each town of the district; and I need not add, that the probabilities are that half the aggregate number on duty at any given time are wholly unfit for the work intrusted to them.
Again, take the case right in hand. The acting agent here at present is a lieutenant from a New York regiment. He is detailed by the colonel commanding, and has been on duty several weeks. Yet he never has seen the district commissioner of the bureau. His duties are to examine, and approve or disapprove, all contracts between the planters and the negroes, and to hear and determine all cases of complaint or grievance arising between the negroes themselves, or between the whites and the negroes. He treats me courteously, but he has no sympathy with the poor and lowly; and his ideas of justice are of the bar-room order,—might makes right. He doesn't really intend to outrage the rights of the negroes, but he has very little idea that they have any rights except such as the planters choose to give them. His position, of course, is a difficult one; and he brings to it a head more or less muddled with liquor, a rough and coarse manner, a dictatorial and impatient temper, a most remarkable ability for cursing, and a hearty contempt for "the whole d—n pack o' niggers. "I speak from the observation of a good deal of time spent in and around his office.
I found Charleston full of country negroes. Whites of all classes concur in saying that there is a general impression throughout the back districts that lands are to be given the freed people on the sea-coast; and this, I am told, renders them uneasy and unreliable as plantation hands. Whites of all classes also concur in saying that they will not work.
"I lost sixteen niggers," said a Charleston gentleman; "but I don't mind it, for they were always a nuisance, and you'll find them so in less than a year. "I asked, as usual, what they are now doing. Two or three of the men went into the army, one of the women had gone North as a cook, another is chambermaid on a steamer, and he found three of the men at work on one wharf the other day. "But," said I, laughing, "I thought the free negro would n't work.""O well, this is only a temporary state of affairs, and they'll all be idle before winter; and I don't look for nothing else when cold weather comes but to have them all asking me to take them back; but I sha'n't do it. I would n't give ten cents apiece for them."
Many of the private soldiers on duty here tell me that the planters generally overreach the negroes on every possible occasion; and my observation among such as I have seen in town tends to confirm this assertion to a considerable extent.
Coming up in the ears from Charleston I had for seatmate part of the way one of the delegates to the Convention which meets at Columbia next week. He was a very courteous and agreeable gentleman, past middle age, and late the owner of twenty-two negroes. He was good enough to instruct me at some length in respect to the character of the negro."You Northern people are utterly mistaken in supposing anything can be done with these negroes in a free condition. They can't be governed except with the whip. Now on my plantation there was n't much whipping, say once a fortnight; but the negroes knew they would be whipped if they did n't behave themselves, and the fear of the lash kept them in good order. "He went on to explain what a good home they always had; laying stress on the fact that they never were obliged to think for themselves, but were always tenderly cared for, both in health and sickness; "and yet these niggers all left me the day after the Federals got into Charleston!" I asked where they now are; and he replied that he had n't seen anybody but his old cook since they ran away; but he believed they were all at work except two, who had died. Yet I am told constantly that these ungrateful wretches, the negroes, cannot possibly live as free people.
Yesterday morning while I sat in the office of the agent of the Freedmen's Bureau there came in, with a score of other men, a planter living in this district, but some sixteen miles from town. He had a woful tale of an assault upon himself by one of his "niggers,"—"a boy who I broughten up, and who's allers had a good home down ter my place. "While the boy was coming in from the street the man turned to me and explained,"It never don't do no good to show favor to a nigger, for they's the most ongratefullest creeturs in the world. "The dreadful assault consisted in throwing a hatchet at the white man by one of a crowd of negroes who were having a dispute among themselves, and suddenly discovered, in the early evening, somebody sneaking along by the fence. The boy said it was n't a hatchet, but a bit of brick; and added, that the man was so far away that no one could tell whether he was white or black, and that he did n't throw the brick till after he called out and told the man to go away. I followed the negro out after he had received his lecture from the officer, and had some talk with him."D—n him," said he, referring to his employer,"he never done nufin all his d—n life but beat me and kick me and knock me down; an' I hopes I git eben with him some day."
Riding with an ex-Confederate major, we stopped at a house for water. The owner of the property, which was a very handsome one, was absent; and it was in charge of a dozen negroes, former slaves of the proprietor.
"Now here," said the late officer, "here is a place where the negroes always had the pleasantest sort of a home,—everything to eat and drink and wear, and a most kind master and mistress."
Pompey, aged about twelve, came to bring us the water.
"Pompey," said the Major,"Pompey, how do you like your freedom?"
He hung his head, and answered, "Dun know, mawssa."
"O, well, speak right out; don't be afraid; tell us just how it is now," said he again.
Whereupon Pompey: "Likes to be free man, sah; but we 's all workin' on yer like we did afore."
"That's right, Pompey," said I; "keep on working; don't be a lazy boy."
"It won't do," said the Major; "he'll grow up idle and impudent and worthless, like all the rest."
"No, sah," answered Pompey, "I 's free nigger now, and I 's goin' to work."
There is much talk among the country people about a rising of the blacks. A planter who stopped here last night, and who lives twelve miles to the west, told me that it was believed in his neighborhood that they had guns and pistols hid in the timber, and were organizing to use them. His ideas were not very clear about the matter; but he appeared to think they would make serious trouble after the crops are gathered. Another man, living in Union district, told the company, with evident pleasure, that they 'd been able to keep control of the niggers up to his section till 'bout three weeks ago; he 'lowed thar 'd bin some lickin', but no more 'n was good fur the fellows. Now the Federals had come in, and the negroes were in a state of glad excitement, and everybody feared there would be bloody business right away.
A thing that much shocks me is the prevalent indifference to the negro's fate and life. It is a sad, but solemn fact, that three fourths of the native whites consider him a nuisance, and would gladly be rid of his presence, even at the expense of his existence. And this is face of the fact that all the planters are complaining about the insufficiency of labor. Thus, in Charleston, a merchant told me, with relishing detail, a story to the effect that, soon after the promulgation of the order against wearing Confederate buttons, a negro soldier doing duty in the city halted a young man, informed him of the regulations, and told him that if he was seen on the street again wearing the obnoxious buttons, he would probably be arrested; whereupon the hopeful scion of the Charleston aristocracy whipped out a large knife, seized the negro by the beard, and cut his throat. The soldier died in about a week; but nothing had been done with the man who killed him. So, too, a man who seems to be acting as stage-agent here says "a d—d big black buck nigger" was shot near Lewisville about three weeks ago; and the citizens all shield the man who shot him, and sanction his course. All the talk of men about the hotel indicates that it is held to be an evidence of smartness, rather than otherwise, to kill a freedman; and I have not found a man here who seems to believe that it is a sin against Divine law.
On the "Golden Age" and the 1876 Mississippi Elections
The period immediately following the Civil War was extraordinary in that African Americans from various states were elected to Congress. Two African Americans from Mississippi, Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Rhoades Revels, were elected to the Senate during the nineteenth century. However, whites in government, in particular the conservative Democrats, responded with a determined campaign to win back the seats occupied by African Americans. Not until 1929, with the election of Oscar Stanton DePriest, was another African American elected to these high offices.
During the years following the Civil War, Mississippi led the way in devising legislative and openly discriminatory practices that would effectively disenfranchise black voters and circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment. Its numerous tactics, which included intimidation and violence, became known as "the Mississippi plan," and served as a model for other southern states that were anxious to preserve a governmental structure that excluded African Americans. So while the first decades of Reconstruction offered promise, it was not long before the "Mississippi plan" reversed the trend of political opportunity for African Americans.