“Freedmen has nothing but their freedom”. Discuss the treatment of ex slaves in the South during Reconstruction. Freedmen itself is the term used to describe slaves who became free men after the US Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1862. Previously, at the outset of was in Tinkell and Shi’s text ‘America, A Narrative History’ one is made aware that at the beginning of war, then President Lincoln, whom was later assassinated had promised to restore the union but “maintain slavery where it existed”. It must also be noted that Congress also took up this position.
With the onslaught of fighting brought new issues to a head. Lincoln found himself in the middle of a melting pot of racial prejudice. The war was forcing the issue of emancipation for slaves and in April 1862 Lincoln signed an Act which abolished slavery in the District of Columbia and subsequently in July 1862 the Confiscation Act was passed. Essentially, freedom was indeed the perfect ideology for slaves but the question one must pose is that did these slaves ever truly envisage a life away from the plantations and entrapment of their masters, or was it all a form of fairytale for them.
Freedom came at a cost to these ex slaves. Frightening uncertainties emerged for ex slaves n the South during the process of Reconstruction. Uncertainty arose around homelessness, education, health and work, not to mention the treatment of these ex slaves, particularly by the Acts being passed, and the emergence of not only the Ku Klux Klan, but other organizations of the same nature. One shall be discussing during this essay the process of reconstruction in the South and discuss the way in which the ex slaves were treated.
In Kenneth Stampp’s text ‘The Era of Revolution 1865-1877’ he tells us that Lincoln hoped that with reconstruction the nation’s wounds would heal and to achieve a long and lasting peace. Throughout this period however it became apparent that this was never going to be the case. Many historians have alluded to this phase as “The Tragic Era”, “The Dreadful Decade” and the “Age of Hate”. Reconstruction in the South represented the shame of the American people. After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson became the successor to the Presidency.
He was described as being somewhat of a “Lone Wolf” (Mckitrick, E, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction, Page 85). He was also said to be battling against all odds when it came to Reconstruction. Importantly, one must ass that Johnson himself was indeed a slave owner. Being a Democrat, Johnson showed a lack of willingness to cooperate with political parties and in Congress even seemed to wage “a guerilla warfare” (McKitrick, E, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction, Page 88). One would argue that with such a leader the process of Reconstruction and treatment of ex slaves was never going to be a smooth transition.
One must also describe the ways in which slaves were treated in the South before Reconstruction to fully understand the plight they faced later. Joseph Holmes. A former slave recollected that during his time as a slave, his Mistress would not allow her slaves to be mistreated as she saw it as “poor business”. Another ex slave, Tempe Durham recalled how her white Mistress threw a massive party for her and her husband on their wedding day. Although these narratives seem to hold slave owners as decent, this was not always the case, especially not during Reconstruction.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution indeed abolished slavery, however, after this all former slave States adopted so called ‘Black Codes’ enhancing the view that Freedmen indeed did have nothing but their freedom. With reference back to these new black codes one will be focusing on the States of Mississippi and South Carolina. These Southern States gave freedmen next to no civil rights and no voting rights during Reconstruction. Plantation owners in the South convinced themselves that slavery was indeed justified and sought to control them, ensuring that social equality would never occur.
In the State of Mississippi, black workers had to make yearly contracts for their work in writing and if they ran away their wage would be stopped for the year. In addition to this they also had to have a license which had to cite their authority to work. One must ask oneself why, after the abolition of slavery were these ex slaves being treated like this. The answer is simple. White plantation owners feared they would lose their land, so sought a different form of oppression over the ex slaves. In the case of South Carolina, black labour force was to now be known as servants nd was to call their employers Master. One would argue that in this case the only change was now that the term slave had now been replaced by servant. In the case of these two States it is abundantly clear that even during Reconstruction in the south, ex slaves were being treated with oppression, not to mention a complete lack of respect. They were in fact being treated worse than previously. One would argue that the fear of the plantation owners drove them to treat the freedmen in the way that they did with the imposing of oppressive rules.
Although it is clear that the period of Reconstruction was having a devastating effect on the treatment of ex slaves, one is told in Alfred E Young’s text ‘The American Revolution’ that the revolutionary era, far more than the Reconstruction period shaped the foundation for Afro American life. Although this quote may indeed have a point, the Reconstruction period one would argue had a far more devastating effect on the ex slaves in the South, given the somewhat bizarre restrictions being forced upon them, even after the abolition of slavery.
In Roark’s text ‘Masters without Slaves’ he claims that the “Southern struggle to preserve slavery is as old as the nation itself” (Roark, Masters Without Slaves, Page 4). This quote gives the idea that at all costs, some form of domination and slavery would plague the Southern Stated long after the process of Reconstruction. One must ask oneself why the ex slaves seemed to accept being treated in this way. Although ex slaves were free to provide care such as shelter and food for their families because plantation owners were no longer responsible for them there came with this freedom certain insecurities.
Many of the ex slaves even became employees of the plantations. The insecurities in work and housing leading them to this. Another very important and somewhat violent aspect in the treatment and lives of ex slaves was the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan. This organization which was formed in Tennessee promoted a form of organized terrorism. It must be notes that the Ku Klux Klan was only one of many different strands of organized terror. Others included those of the ‘Knights of the White Camellia’ and the ‘White Brotherhood’.
All of these organizations one is told in Stampp’s text ‘The Era of Reconstruction’ sought membership from predominantly poor white people, although this was not always the case. According to the Klan’s prescript, it was an institution of “chivalry, humanity, mercy and patriotism” (Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, Page 200). The Klan was opposed strongly to black equality of a social and political nature and used violent methods to gain notoriety. The Klan’s reign of organized terror began in March 1868 when Republican George Ashburn was murdered in Georgia.
During the months that followed, the Klan spread violence throughout Georgia’s so called ‘black belt’. The action of the Klan was designed to intimidate black voters and supporters of the Republican Party. Violence was also specifically aimed at freedmen. Black schools and churches were burned, teachers of these schools were attacked and some freedmen were beaten and sometimes killed. Local law enforcement seemed unwilling to stop the Klan and in 1871 Congress passed a bill which enabled the Federal government the power to prosecute Klan members.
Even though convictions were won, few members of the Klan were punished, although it must be said that Federal intervention did indeed put an end to most Ku Klux Klan activity. Even though most Ku Klux Klan activity was indeed stopped, this does still highlight the fact that the ex slaves during the Reconstruction were treated in such a way as to ensure their oppression, by the Ku Klux Klan on a social basis and by former Masters on the same basis. The final way one shall be discussing as to the plight of African Americans is with the Freedmens Bureau Act.
The Freedmens Bureau is also known as The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. One of its main aims was to provide practical aid to around four million newly freed African American slaves on their transition from slavery to freedom. This Act was passed by Congress in March 1865; its aim was to give “support of indigent persons in the United States”. (Stampp, Kenneth, The Era of Reconstruction. Page 112). The Bureau supervised affairs relating to freedmen in areas such as employment, health, education and clothing.
It also controlled abandoned and confiscated land and property. This Bureau was supposed to last only one year after the ending of war, however, President Johnson vetoed a bill which aimed to extend its life and to increase its powers. This veto by Johnson marked the beginning of an unsuccessful fight over the process of Reconstruction. In overseeing the movement from slavery to freedom in the South, the Freedmen’s Bureau was seen as the principle expression of Federal authority. The Bureau had the power to set aside lands which had been either onfiscated or abandoned and assign land, approximately forty acres to every man, even freedmen. Accomplishing this goal however did not occur. The Bureau was said at best to be underfunded and undermanned. Its funding coming from Congress was from a six percent yearly rent on lands rented to freedmen. In 1865 President Johnson granted a pardon to most planters as few rents were materializing, resulting in the restoration of property. This came with devastating results to the freedmen.
Their economic independence was hampered and their faith in Government was gone. In the end the Freedmen’s Bureau fell rather short in providing on all that it had promised. It has been argued that the Bureau can be accused of promoting a rather racist attitude and forced former slaves into agreements which were more advantageous to whites. With all the information that has been gathered, it is very apparent that during the Reconstruction period ex slaves in the South were treated rather inhumanely.
The very definition of freedom as having the power to determine ones own actions without restraint seems to have been lacking in the South. The Confiscation Act which was passed in 1862 abolishing slavery altogether appears to be at worst ignored by those who wished to keep African Americans under control during this Reconstruction period. One must ask oneself why there was such a segment of the Southern population that wished to more or less keep the newly free African Americans as slaves, and who justified to themselves that slavery was indeed justified.
These people, in the case of many white plantation owners feared that they would lose their lands and feared a kind of social uprising from the former slave community. On a more violent level, the emergence of organized terror organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan highlighted the plight of the African Americans. Black churches, schools and houses were burnt to the ground, teachers were attacked and people were brutally murdered during this period.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, which was supposed to free these ex slaves and give a form of salvation did little to help them, succeeding only some historians would argue in encompassing a rather racist attitude and forcing slaves into agreements which were more advantageous to whites. The Bureau had the power to assign land to freedmen, however in practice this was not so easy. Eventually President Johnson issued a pardon to planters which resulted in the restoration of property, devastating the freedmens search for economic independence and assuring their faith in Government was well and truly gone.
From this evidence it is altogether very apparent that ex slaves were treated relatively poorly during the period of Reconstruction.
References McKitrick, Eric. Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction Roark, James L. Masters Without Slaves Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877 Tindall & Shi. America. A Narrative History Young, Alfred E. The American Revolution Bibliography Paskov & Wilson. The cause of the South Potter, David M. The South and the Sectional Conflict Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution