Black History: Reconstruction And Its Teachings
February 11, 2014
My grandmother taught school for over 40 years, many of them at a high school that at one time had been the only one available for African-American children in the St. Louis area to attend. She taught me a lot of Black History, but much of what she said did not fully register until Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Being a typical self-absorbed teenager, I had not related to the television camera shots of civil rights protesters in the South having fire hoses turned on them and being beaten on the head with police clubs. One of the things she used to tell me about was reconstruction -- the intentions, good, bad, and how it still applied.
For all intents and purposes slavery died with the end of the Civil War; however it did not end the resentment or bitterness of many in the South and North. Slavery had provided an economic windfall for many southerners directly and indirectly. Imagine being able to run a business and never having to pay a wage.
Although the institution of slavery ended, many of the beliefs continued such as preventing blacks from changing jobs, making better wages, and restricting property ownership.
Following the war, three constitutional amendments gave birth to new rights for African-Americans.
- 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery in all states and territories.
- 14th Amendment prohibited states from depriving any male citizen of equal protection under the law regardless of race.
- 15th Amendment granted former slaves/African-Americans the right to vote.
Good News and Bad News
Those three amendments were the good news; the bad news was former slaveowners came up with what were called The Black Codes. Mississippi and South Carolina were the first states to enact these codes which required African-Americans to have written evidence of employment for the coming year each January. If anyone left before the end of the contract, they would be forced to forfeit wages already earned and be subject to arrest. In South Carolina an additional law prohibited African-Americans from holding any job other than as a farmer or servant, unless an annual tax of anywhere from $10 to $100 was paid.
Thanks to the policies of President Andrew Johnson, nearly all of the southern states came up with various Black Code state laws to control former slaves as a labor force. To sugarcoat things or look like what is termed "passionate conservatives" these days, there were provisions within the codes to give the appearance of caring -- including the right to buy and own property, marry, make contracts, and testify in court if it involved other African-Americans. On paper a lot of things sound better than they are, like restrictions on what types of property former slaves could own. In theory Reconstruction was a way of righting the wrongs of a system that allowed free labor with the side effect of human suppression for an entire race of people.
Free But Restricted
In order to keep fellow southerners from even thinking about getting the best workers, there was a Black code law called anti-enticement; designed to punish anyone offering higher wages to African-Americans already working for someone paying lower wages. Anyone who broke, or in some instances even thought about breaking, the state-enforced Black code labor contracts were subject under the law to arrest, beatings, and forced labor. Did I mention the apprenticeship laws forcing minors in unpaid labor for white farmers? It was all legal and enforced by all white police and state militia which usually consisted of Confederate veterans of the Civil War.
Political Gain and Education
During reconstruction, former slaves became elected officials at local, state, and the federal level. It has been estimated somewhere between 600 and 1000 former slaves held office, including two in the U.S Senate and 20 in the House of Representatives. Among the Black Codes and intimidation tactics, there were some measures that did some good, like the first public taxed school systems in the South that gave African-Americans and poor whites a chance for education.
Brutalized For Being Black
I mentioned intimidation of former slaves; how about pure savage behavior by Southern and Northern whites at the abolition of slavery? According to rough estimates, some 5,000 blacks were severely beaten or killed because of their race.
Past Behavior Can Predict Future Behavior
The reversal of portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, new state voter ID laws, attempts to roll back health privileges for women, and keeping the minimum wage far below what it costs to live sounds like an attempt to hold African-Americans and other minorities at a stalemate while the population numbers race towards a minority Majority. Let's learn from Black History to keep the minority of the oppressive from winning the control game over the masses.
Black History month rolls on with more next week.