The Promise of Freedom
Edisto Island must have seemed like an exotic place to Mary Ames. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Ames had arrived in this community in the Sea Islands, located just off the shore of South Carolina, in May 1865. Mary believed that slavery (the practice of forcing human beings to work for no wages and without the prospect of freedom) was wrong. She had come to Edisto Island to give its black residents—most of them former slaves freed after the Union victory in the Civil War (1861–65)—something they had long been denied. She was here to give them an education, to teach them.
The Civil War may have ended, but great challenges lay ahead. Black and white Southerners sought to remake a society that had been shaken by four years of bloody conflict between the Northern Union (federal government) and the Confederacy, the eleven Southern states that had seceded, or broken away, from the United States. Initially sparked by the secession of the Confederacy and the desire to keep the Union together, the war eventually became a struggle to free the four million blacks held as slaves in the South. Like other Northern teachers who had traveled south to help in this effort, Mary Ames was struck by the freed slaves' eagerness to learn. Students of all ages, from small children to grandparents, flocked to the brand new schools. In her diary, Ames wrote that on the first evening of class, a bent-backed old...
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The Civil War Draws to a Close
Passing through Mathews County, Virginia, one of eleven states that seceded (separated themselves) from the Union to become the Confederacy, a Union officer encountered a slave woman named Eliza Sparks. Stopping to admire her baby, the officer asked for the child's name. The woman answered that the baby's name was Charlie Sparks, just like his father's. As the officer rode off he called out, "Goodbye, Mrs. Sparks!" As recorded in Been in the Storm Too Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, the woman was pleasantly surprised to be shown such respect by a white person. "Now what do you think of dat?" she said. "Dey all call me Mrs. Sparks!" In the days before the Civil War (1861–65), the African American people who had lived in the Southern United States for over two hundred years as slaves were known—to whites, at least—only by their first names. Among the many rights denied them was the simple one of being addressed with respect, as an adult human being like any other.
The last two years of the American Civil War (1861–65) would be full of moments like that experienced by Eliza Sparks, moments when sometimes thrilling, sometimes shocking evidence of change would boldly appear before both black and white Southerners. As the Union army made its slow and steady progress across the South—from its occupation of the important port city of New Orleans, Louisiana, in the spring of 1862, to its...
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Slavery's End Brings Both Joy and Confusion
January 1, 1863, was a day of joy for African Americans. On that day, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared that most of the four million black people who had, beginning in the seventeenth century, been enslaved in the Southern United States were forever free. The Civil War (1861–65) had raged for two years by then, pitting the Northern defenders of the Union against the Southern members of the Confederacy (the name for the states that had separated themselves from the United States to form their own country) in a bloody conflict.
At first, the war had seemed to be more about the rights of individual states than about freeing the slaves, but President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had changed the focus of the struggle. From that day on, the Civil War was about freedom. When the war ended in April 1865, the period referred to as the Reconstruction era began. It would last roughly until the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) in 1877, but its consequences would be felt throughout the following century. During this period of both achievements and setbacks, representatives of the U.S. government—including the president and Congress—and the military would join with both white and black Southerners to try to reorganize the political and social structure of the...
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The President's Plan for Reconstruction
For more than four million African Americans living in the Southern United States, the end of the Civil War (1861–65) brought the freedom they had hoped for during all the long years of slavery. Ever since the arrival of the first white colonists in the New World, blacks captured in Africa and transported across the sea on slave ships had toiled without pay in fields and as house servants in the South. They had endured harsh conditions with remarkable strength and adaptability. Freedom brought great joy and expanded opportunities, but it also created new challenges. Probably the most threatening was the resentment of white Southerners, who found this changed society—and especially their new relationship with blacks—hard to accept.
A changed society
Northern journalists who traveled south in the days following the war's April 1865 conclusion found a devastated landscape littered with the debris of the bloody conflict: torn-up railroads, bridges, and fences; fields overgrown with weeds; ruined walls and chimneys left in the wake of an invading army that had burned everything in its path. They found black people both jubilant and in need of help as they tried to establish independent lives. White Southerners, meanwhile, were reeling not only from their personal losses but from the collapse of their society and...
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The Radical Republicans Clash with the President
For some African Americans, the end of slavery came with the January 1863 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that proclaimed most of them free. For others, it came in April 1865 with the end of the Civil War (1861–65). This bloody, four-year conflict had divided the nation, pitting the Northern Union (federal government) against the Confederacy, the eleven Southern states that had seceded (broken away) from the United States. In any case, all of the four million former slaves rejoiced in their freedom.
The end of slavery did not, however, bring with it an easy solution to the problems facing black people. As noted in The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877, according to respected African American leader Frederick Douglass (c. 1817–1895), a former slave who fought first for the abolition of slavery and later for black civil rights, the freed people "were sent away empty-handed, without money, without friends, and without a foot of land to stand upon. Old and young, sick and well, they were turned loose to the open sky, naked to their enemies."
The enemies Douglass referred to were all around them, in the form of white Southerners embittered by defeat and unwilling to accept the realities of their postwar lives, especially their changed relationship with the black people who had been their unpaid laborers and servants. During the period known as...
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The Radical Republicans Move Forward with Reconstruction
At a Freedmen's Convention (a large political meeting made up largely of former slaves) held in Arkansas soon after the end of the Civil War (1861–65), an African American leader named William H. Grey (1829–1888) spoke about his people's newfound independence. As quoted in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Grey declared, "We have thrown off the mask, hereafter to do our own talking, and to use all legitimate means to get and to enjoy our political privileges. We don't want anybody to swear for us or to vote for us; we want to exercise these privileges for ourselves."
The spirit present in Grey's words coexisted with both the jubilation that African Americans of this period felt and their worries about the challenges that they faced. This mix of forces had been unleashed by the war's outcome: a victory for the Union (the federal government) over the Confederacy, the eleven Southern states that had seceded or separated themselves from the United States in order to protect the traditions of the South. These traditions centered around the enslavement of four million black people, who had been brought since the seventeenth century from Africa and forced to work in the fields and homes of white Southerners. During the Reconstruction era (which lasted roughly from the Civil War in April 1865 to the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes [1822–1893; served...
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The Reconstruction Governments
The passage of the Reconstruction Acts by the U.S. Congress in 1867 set in motion a remarkable experiment. Because this legislation (passed over the objections of President Andrew Johnson [1808–1875; served 1865–69] and many white Southerners) guaranteed participation by all the citizens of the South—whether black or white—this experiment was truly revolutionary. For the first time in the nation's history, the state governments of the South (including the eleven that had formed the Confederacy, which had in 1861 seceded or broken away from the rest of the United States, sparking the Civil War [1861–65]) would take the form of multiracial democracies.
In a region that had once been the setting for the enslavement of four million blacks (brought from Africa since the seventeenth century and forced to work without pay on white farms, plantations, and households), people of both African and white European heritage were participating in government and in civil life. For the first time, black people were voting in elections, serving on juries, and attending school. Eventually, they would also be holding political offices at the local, state, and even national levels.
These great changes in Southern life—and in U.S. society in general—had come about through a chain of events that began even before the Civil War ended. During a period referred to as the...
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White Supremacists "Redeem" the South
Chattanooga, Tennessee, was the setting for an incident that became, in the troubled yet hopeful years of the Reconstruction era (stretching from the end of the Civil War in April 1865 to the 1870s), all too common in the Southern United States. The hooded henchmen of the Ku Klux Klan, one of several white terrorist groups that roamed the South during this period, trying to control blacks and their sympathizers through fear, severely beat a black man named Andrew Flowers. The attack was spurred by Flowers's recent election as justice of the peace (a kind of judge who can hear minor cases in towns and counties). One of many victims of such violence, Flowers later recalled that his attackers had "said they had nothing in particular against me, that they didn't dispute I was a very good fellow, but they did not intend any nigger [a derogatory word for African American] to hold office in the United States."
Flowers's only crime was having the nerve to imagine that a black citizen of the United States could become an officeholder. Such a development was unthinkable to many white Southerners, whose lives before the Civil War had been built around the institution of slavery. Established in the earliest days of white settlement in the United States, this system had involved the capture of blacks in Africa and their transportation to the Southern region of the new nation, where they were forced to become...
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The Mixed Legacy of the Reconstruction Era
Union army general Rufus Saxton (1824–1908) had long been a friend to African Americans. He had been on hand in the Sea Islands (located off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia) in the summer of 1865, just after the end of the Civil War (1861–65). For a brief period, it appeared that the federal government would soon be distributing free land to the newly freed slaves, in recognition of the many years of unpaid labor they had provided and in compensation for the crime of slavery. The collapse of that promise was just one of many disappointments that African Americans had endured, and Saxton had shared in that disappointment.
In a letter written many years later to black South Carolina politician Robert Smalls (1839–1915), Saxton remembered a happier day: January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation (a document issued by President Abraham Lincoln [1809–1865] that declared most slaves free) was signed. Describing the celebration of that event in Beaufort, South Carolina, Saxton, quoted in Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913, wrote: "Never in all his round did a glad sun shine upon a scene of more dramatic power. What a day of promise that was!"
Unfortunately, that promise went mostly unfulfilled. Black and white...
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