Reconstruction In South While reading Eric Foner’s book I came to appreciate the difficulties the freed black slaves encountered for example, how the previous slave owning class continued to manipulate the freed slaves. Also, I was impressed at the great sacrifice they made when attempting to become educated. Last of all I was surprised at the severity of persecution and abuse of blacks that was still considered legal after they were freed. When the label of slave was removed from the black American, it was meant to clarify that they were human beings. Human beings eligible to participate in America’s society and culture. However, racism denied them the privileges of the American citizen.
Although they were no longer slaves, they were still considered to be savages, unintelligent, and the lowest class of person in the United States. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The Proclamation set the American slave population free. However, it did not indicate how new Black citizens would be incorporated into the free society. Emancipation would redefine how blacks saw themselves and their aspirations, and it would redefine the labor system.
Blacks believed that they could equally share in prosperity and progress with whites. Blacks desperately wanted to move up in social standing and become educated. They desired literacy. They wanted to plant their own crops and have the chance to sell them for profit. They wanted to work hard for the chance of a better life for their children. The commitment to white supremacy in the South began with the planter’s intention of keeping the institution of slavery.
Whites perceived emancipation as uncompensated liquidation of the nation’s largest concentration of private property and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American society(p.2). Blacks saw emancipation as their opportunity to become involved with society without the burden of being owned by someone. The labor system of free labor versus slavery contained a transition that few in the south were willing to accommodate. Planters went from owning blacks as property, to negotiating a wage in exchange for their labor. Although blacks were declared free, some were required to sign a yearly contract that promised service to one planter.
If a free black chose not to sign the contract, he was intimidated into signing. The underlying message was clear, sign or have you and your family live in constant fear of abuse. With these contracts, planters tightened authority and presided over all details of the lives of blacks. Blacks were closely supervised to the point that the pace of work they desired was routinely challenged. The freedmen were persuaded to sign the contract in order to preserve the labor system that had been prevalent in the South. By voluntarily signing and adhering to contracts, both planters and freedmen would develop the habits of a free labor economy and come to understand their fundamental harmony of interests(p.75).
The Southern white planters would determine these interests. The contracts themselves bound the freedmen into a continued extorted form of slavery. At harvest time, most planters did not pay the blacks their earned wages. Blacks would labor the entire season only to be left with the feeling of desperation that was identical to slavery. Some contracts stipulated that if a crop failed the blacks would receive nothing and fines could be charged against their wages if the planter determined the work was unsatisfactory.
Some contracts allowed the planter to penalize full wages accrued if the freedmen left work. On some plantations physical brutality and corporal punishment continued as if slavery never ended. The overall goal for equal treatment for the freedmen was contradicted as idle white men were never required to sign a labor contract (p.76). The South wanted the amenities that the North had, as long as the primary source of labor went undisturbed. Redefining the black labor force could endanger the entire economic system subscribed by the South.
The prejudice and commitment to the continuation of a plantation slave labor system limited overall progress in the South. Southern planters would not accept that blacks were free Americans and could leave the area. Blacks however saw things differently. At the initial prospect of being free, they saw themselves as a citizen of the U.S. with the same rights as whites.
They wanted to participate in all forms of activity they had been denied because of their color. They wanted to be involved in both business and politics. They genuinely believed in the laws of the United States that indicated they were freedmen and were no longer restricted because of color. They wanted the same opportunities as the whites, desired the same for their children, and coveted the life of the whites that now nothing prevented them from earning. They wanted the chance to work for themselves.
They wanted to own their own piece of property, grow a crop, and harvest for themselves. I can only imagine the heartache and internal suffering felt when they realized that even though they had been declared free, limitations and barriers were still placed upon them. Quickly, blacks recognized that education was the key to their social mobility. Education began to take precedent in the freed black community. Many black soldiers began their quest for literacy while serving in the Union army. Before the civil war, most southern states prohibited the instruction of slaves(p.43).
After the war, it seemed as if blacks were willing to do anything to learn. This applied to both the young and old. They set up their own schools, holding classes anywhere they could, in abandoned warehouses, billiard rooms, or churches (p.43). Children taught parents and parents taught their children. Over lunch breaks laborers would challenge each other, all excited to understand and learn. The responsibility of educating blacks was realized within their own community. Throughout the South, blacks in 1865 and 1866 raised money to purchase land, build schoolhouses, and pay teachers’ salaries.
Some communities voluntarily taxed themselves; in others black schools charged tuition, while allowing a number of the poorest families to enroll their children free of charge(p.43). Not only did blacks raise the money to fund the schoolhouse; they also donated their labor to erect the building. They were extremely committed to advancement and redefining themselves. Southern states as a whole began to encourage literacy and education. The question arose as to where the blacks would fit in.
Some proposed that the state provide funds for the education of blacks. Delaware, Kentucky, and Maryland Democrats initially made no provision at all for black education, then ordered that these schools that these schools be financed by taxes on black parents (183). Given their racist attitudes not many were supportive of spending white tax dollars on black schools. Proposed next was the integration of blacks into existing white schools. Foner indicates that integration was defended at times so white students could be taught caste and hate and black students could be taught their inferiority (p.227). Reluctant of integration, some whites avoid an academic institution altogether.
If black students were going to be integrated into a white classroom, most whites refused to stay. At the University of South Carolina in 1873, the first black student in the history of the school enrolled in their college of medicine. Soon after, most white students and some white faculty relocated. The governor of North Carolina in 1865 persuaded the state legislature to abolish the state school system. The governor feared that if white children were educated at public expense, it would be required to educate blacks as well.
Most blacks who desired a college education had to go to the north. Hideous crimes committed by both Southern and Northern whites against blacks mostly went unpunished. In one Democratic Alabama county in 1870, a black woman was brutally beaten by a group of whites was ordered to raise $16.45 for court costs before her complaint was heard. After she did so, the judge released the offenders and instructed the injured woman to drop the matter or face a jail term (p.182). At the first inclination of black progress, violence raised its ugly head.
The emergence of a hate groups and mobs policed elections and occasions where blacks as a race could challenged the racist institutions of the past. The Ku Klux Klan emerges as a military force serving the interests of the Democratic party, the planter class, and all those who desired the restoration of white supremacy(p.184). The K.K.K. wanted full control of the blacks as a labor force. The primary objective of the K.K.K. was to weaken Reconstruction and reinstate racial inferiority in every condition of Southern life. Murders and lynchings were a standard form of coercion to terrorize blacks back into submission. Many blacks lost their lives if a politician was sympathetic to the black cause or if the threat of widespread black vote for a certain candidate could determine the outcome of an election. Beatings, whippings, and raids on black homes continued throughout the South.
Educated blacks and black leaders were persecuted and killed in order to persuade other blacks to refrain from objecting to longstanding policies. Blacks were tortured both mentally and physically in their struggle for freedom. Racism prevented Reconstruction’s incorporation of the free black into white American society. The disenfranchisement of the black citizen pervaded America’s culture and politics. Racism allowed the south to remain a one-party system ruled by a regressive privileged few who used violence and deception to repress internal dissension.
The black American desired and deserved independence from racial bigotry, caste, and segregation. Bibliography Eric Foner – Reconstruction History Essays.