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What were the economic and social conditions of blacks in the South during Reconstruction?
Most made their living as farm laborers and tenant farmers; many made their living as household servants; a good number made their living in the mechanical trades such as carpentry, brick laying, etc.
Generally speaking, their former masters were their best friends and supporters amongst the white population. And generally speaking, those whites who had never owned slaves, both middle-class and poor, sought "to keep them in their place." Their former owners were not into elevating them politically or socially across the board but were supportive of giving them opportunity to elevate themselves individually through their own efforts. The former nonslaveowning whites were for denying them opportunity to elevate themselves through individual effort. In a democracy, the majority (non former slave owners)soon suppress the minority (former slave owners) even if the minority is more elevated in its principles.
Blacks fared better in parts of the South that were majority black because there were fewer former nonslave owning whites living in those areas; many or most whites in those areas were former slave owners who thought more of giving the blacks a chance.
The Republican Party had prosecuted the War against the South and were the post-war exploiters and oppressors of the South, so most Southern whites hated the Republican Party. On the other hand, the Republican Party was responsible for the freedom of the blacks, so most Southern blacks supported the Republican Party. For a time, the Republican Party ruled the South by disenfranchising many whites and enfranchising the blacks. This also created white resentment against the blacks which later translated to intensified efforts "to keep them in their place."
There is a short story of fiction about this era that you can find on the Internet. It was written by a woman from the North who lived in the South during this period. Most historical fiction has its author's slant to the interpretation, but then so does most history. A fiction writer can lie but a history writer can only distort or he will receive no creedence at all. But I digress. This story will give you an idea of some aspects of race relations and black status during Reconstruction. It is "King David" by Constance Woolson. The link is below.
One of the most powerful institutions in the South that allowed white landowners to maintain an incredible amount of power over the lives of blacks that stayed in the South was sharecropping. The way that a tenant was allowed to use the land but still owe basically their entire lives to the landowner.
With this and the various powerful groups working to maintain the status quo, most blacks remained in incredible poverty, without access to education and basic services, and at the mercy of white landowners. There were certainly positive changes and the beginnings of the civil rights movement, etc., but it would take a very long time for major improvements to take place.
This varied among blacks of course, but the general answer is that blacks were mostly poor (a large proportion of them were sharecroppers). On the social side, they were discriminated against quite harshly, but historians like to talk about how they were building their own communities and societies in the face of the discrimination.
During and after the Civil War, what blacks wanted most after freedom was land. They thought that having land would make them economically self-sufficient and allow them to be truly free. However, the US government was not willing to take the plantations and divide the land among the ex-slaves. This meant that most blacks ended up poor.
Socially, whites tried hard to keep blacks "in their place." However, historians emphasize that blacks were building up community institutions. They especially talk about the role of black churches and of black fraternal organzations. These are said to have been important in the process of black people making a new life for themselves after slavery.
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