Blanche Bruce. Library of Congress description: “Hon. Blanche Kelso Bruce of Mississippi” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For the most part, everyone knows about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves and Martin Luther King Jr. leading the fight against segregation. This is roughly a 100 year period during which there were several significant wars, women’s suffrage, and the growth of the US as an international superpower (whether it wanted to or not). An often forgotten (especially internationally) period is Reconstruction: the immediate 10-15 years after the Civil War. A Civil War that in many ways, America is still fighting.
Q: What was Reconstruction?
A: It was the name for the rebuilding of the Southern states recaptured during the Civil War by the US government. It’s important to remember that the US government was an occupying power in these states which had declared their independence, and that the Union troops were not seen as a welcoming power.
Q: What was Reconstruction like for former slaves?
A: On one hand it was good…at least on paper. Slavery was now outlawed, and via several other amendments (the 14 & 15th), the former slaves were given full citizenship and former slave males were given the right to vote. Demographically, the former slaves also formed the majority in many Southern states, and it was an era that saw the first Black politicians elected to congress (including a relative of mine, Blanche Kelso Bruce, the first Black Senator to serve a full term). That’s the upside, but here’s the downside: While former slaves were a new demographic force, they were still economically disadvantaged. Reconstruction saw the growth of the KKK and other vigilante groups formed by former plantation owners–many of whom were also now just as economically disadvantaged as the slaves. Instead of working together, the two sides grew ever more polarised and incidents of lynching and attacks on Blacks grew.
Q: What happened politically in the Reconstruction states?
A: The freed slaves overwhelmingly voted Republican, because it was the Republicans (under Lincoln) who freed them. Prior to the Civil War, the South was strongly Democrat. Emancipation changed that. This did not mean that there was a new era of working together, far from it. Remember, the South was still under military occupation.
That’s the upside, but here’s the downside:
While former slaves were a new demographic force, they were still economically disadvantaged. Reconstruction saw the growth of the KKK and other vigilante groups formed by former plantation owners–many of whom were also now just as economically disadvantaged as the slaves. Instead of working together, the two sides grew ever more polarised and incidents of lynching and attacks on Blacks grew.
Q: What happened politically in the Reconstruction states?
A: The freed slaves overwhelmingly voted Republican, because it was the Republicans (under Lincoln) who freed them. Prior to the Civil War, the South was strongly Democrat. Emancipation changed that. This did not mean that there was a new era of working together, far from it. Remember, the South was still under military occupation. The Houses of several Southern States had to be protected by National Guardsmen in order to conduct business because of the constant attacks by disgruntled Democrats.
Q: What did the rest of the US think of Reconstruction?
A: The Reconstruction of the South was seen at first as a necessary need and then progressively as a drain on the military and on the nation’s finances. It was not helped by the fact the presidents in power at the time were not strong administrators like Lincoln, and were effectively figureheads. Some really only got in based on charisma and party politics. The other states wanted Reconstruction over as soon as possible and if it meant putting back discriminatory laws against Blacks, then so be it.
Q: Discriminatory laws? Are these the Jim Crow laws?
A: Yes, though they weren’t called as such at the time. These laws and they varied a bit from state to state effectively prohibited blacks from using the same public facilities as whites and effectively prohibited them from voting in a very insidious way. For example: while a black voter had the effective right to vote, there were poll taxes (money which had to be paid prior to being allowed to vote), character assessments, and in some states and counties you had to show proof that your grandfather had been a voter. These were not overturned until the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The Jim Crow laws which came into effect in 1876 are considered the end of the Reconstruction Era.
Q: What about the Great Migration?
A: These days, if any group was presented with such a slate of discriminatory laws, one would think there would be an outpouring of refugees into places where they’d be treated better. This didn’t occur in the US until 1910 and continued all the way until 1970. In 1900, 90% of the Black population of the US still lived in the South, despite Jim Crow. Based upon my own conversations with relatives and family anecdotes, I can only presume that even in adversity, people can still find a way of comfort. The overall belief was separate but equal, plus the South was still an economic powerhouse, albeit an agrarian one. (See Wikipedia entries about sharecropping and 40 acres and a mule.) What really got the Black population moving was the industrialisation of the North and the West, where they could make more money.
The Great Migration occurred in two waves, the first from 1910 to 1930 saw the movement of 1 million Blacks to the North.
The second from 1941 to 1970 saw 5 million Blacks leave the South.
It is nigh on impossible to find a Black family who has not been affected by the Great Migration, but while Black families moved geographically North, the Culture remained effectively Southern.
For example, my father’s family moved from Mississippi to Detroit, but they remained in an enclave of Detroit that was surrounded by people from Mississippi, indeed my father never lost his very strong Mississippian accent throughout his whole life. (He left Mississippi at age 7, remained in the “North” for his whole entire life, but culturally–you would think that he’d never left the County he grew up in.)
My mother, conversely, was born in Ohio, to two Virginians. She grew up in Virginia, but despite losing her Virginian accent (much different from the Mississippian one), she retained many Southern cultural practices throughout her life .
I was born and raised in Wisconsin, and have a fair amount of Wisconsin cultural attributes, but I have even more Southern* cultural attributes courtesy of my parents.
*A hodge-podge, because the cultures of Mississippi and Virginia are very different.