Short History of the American Negro - Benjamin Brawley


76. Difficulties of the Problem.—On arriving at the era of Reconstruction, we come to that period which is still the most hotly debated in American history. The enormous difficulties of the problem are hardly yet fully appreciated. The Civil War meant more than the emancipation of four million slaves, with all the perplexing questions that that liberation brought with it, it involved the overturning of the whole economic system of the South. A stroke of the pen had declared the bondmen free; but to educate these people, to train them in citizenship, and to give them a place in the new labor system, was all a problem for the wisest statesmanship and the largest and most intelligent patriotism. The Southern man, whose fortune was swept away, whose slaves were free, and whose father, son, or brother had died in battle, not unnaturally looked upon any legislation by the North as adding to his cup of humiliation. The North on the other hand was quick to interpret any effort by the white South in the readjustment of social and labor conditions as evidence of a refusal to accept in good faith the results of the war.

To increase the complication and the delicacy of the situation there were sometimes present personal or other peculiar elements which seemed to contradict all the leading tendencies of the period. Some Negroes, for instance, personally attached to their masters, were unwilling to accept their freedom; and generally throughout the South the white people, who laid most of their ills at the door of the Negro, resisted violently any considerable effort toward migration on the part of the former slaves. Such were but some of the things which increased the difficulties of the problem in this era of shifting status.

77. Reconstruction. The War Amendments.—According to the view of their status maintained by the Southern states at the close of the war, each state was theoretically indestructible, and the only thing necessary for one to resume its former place in federal councils was for it, having laid down its arms, to repeal all acts that had looked toward disunion. According to the view of President Lincoln, the act of rebellion had been one not of the states themselves, but of certain disloyal persons who had subverted the government. Each state then continued to exist, and the problem presented was simply to place the loyal elements in control. As this involved the use of the pardoning power, the President regarded the matter as one for executive rather than legislative authority.

Opposed to this was the opinion of Congress embodied in the Wade-Davis act of 1864, differing from the President's view in regarding the problem primarily as a legislative one, in requiring the loyalty of a majority of the white voters of a state as the basis of a reconstructed government instead of that of the one-tenth of the qualified voters of 1860 advocated by Lincoln, and in exacting for the Negro the full reality of his freedom and making sure the complete ascendancy of the victorious republican party over the Southern and Northern democrats who for so many years before the war had controlled national affairs. The leaders of this school of opinion were Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, in the Senate, and Thaddeus Stevens, of Pennsylvania, in the House. The breach which opened between the President and Congress because of these conflicting views, but which Lincoln might have closed by his tact, fell to the lot of President Johnson, who, on May 29, 1865, issued a proclamation of amnesty with the understanding attached that those excluded from its benefits might make special application to him, and who, within the next few months, while Congress was not in session, worked out generally his theory of reconstruction. In the summer of 1865 conventions were held in the various Southern states, and in December the President informed Congress that with the exception of Texas, whose convention did not meet until the following March, all the states had been reconstructed and were ready to resume their places in Congress. Because, however, of certain legislation in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, embodied in what were known as Black Codes, Congress doubted whether the states were acting in good faith. These Black Codes were in the nature of police regulations ostensibly designed to prevent disorder and pauperism among the freedmen, but were of such a nature as to lead to the thought that they were really designed to curtail generally for the Negroes the benefits of emancipation; and there was probability that other states would go quite as far as those mentioned in the passing of such acts.

In the meantime the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution had been sufficiently ratified and was passed (Dec. 18, 1865), reading as follows: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." Furthermore, in March, 1866, Congress passed over the President's veto the first Civil Rights Bill, guaranteeing to the freedmen all the ordinary rights of citizenship; and it enlarged the powers of the Freedmen's Bureau, which had been recently established.

At this point feeling in the North was intensified by some violent attacks on Negroes and white radicals in the South, especially by one such affair in New Orleans in which about forty men were killed and one hundred and fifty wounded. When Congress met in December, 1866, failing to impeach President Johnson, by various measures it limited his power, and then established Negro suffrage in the District of Columbia and the territories, and, urged on by the action of the Southern states in rejecting the proposed Fourteenth Amendment, it proceeded to divide the ten states which had seceded into five military districts, as follows: (1) Virginia, (2) North and South Carolina, (3) Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, (4) Mississippi and Arkansas, (5) Louisiana and Texas. Military law now protected everybody in the enjoyment of the rights of person and property, and oversaw the registration and voting of all men without regard to race or color. By February, 1868, conventions were in session in every state that had seceded. These were made up very largely of the freedmen, of Northern men who had come South since the war and who were called in derision "carpet-baggers," and Southern men who acted at variance with the prevailing sentiment of the South and who were known as "scalawags." Moreover, secret organizations, of which the Union League was the best example, were formed for marshalling the Negro vote for the republican party.

The Fourteenth Amendment, as finally passed by Congress (July 28, 1868), denied to the states the power to abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, or to deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; and enacted that if a state discriminated against any class of citizens in voting privileges, its representation in the national Congress was to be decreased proportionately. The third section of the amendment excluded from all national and state offices (except under a two-thirds vote of Congress) all persons "who, having previously taken an oath . . .to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or even given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof." At the time when Grant came to the presidency (1869), four states (Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, and Georgia) had still not accepted the new settlement. By July 15, 1870, however, when Georgia was admitted, they had all been forced to accept the Fifteenth Amendment (passed March 30, 1870), which sought to protect the Negro in the right of suffrage instead of giving to him a guarantee of military protection. This amendment read: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." The carpetbag governments were now in full career, and there set in an era of extravagance, plunder, and increasing debt in which for the most part the carpetbaggers and the scalawags rather than the Negroes reaped the benefit. Then it was that the Ku Klux Klan began to terrorize Negroes with a view to preventing them from exercising their political rights. In 1875 was passed the second Civil Rights Act, which was designed to give Negroes equality of treatment in theaters, railway cars, hotels, etc.; but this the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 1883. Meanwhile the withdrawal of the federal troops and the wholesale removal of disabilities by Congress weakened the reconstruction governments and made possible democratic success in the South.

78. Freedmen's Bureau.—Such is a bare outline of political events in the South in the chaotic era succeeding the war. Some subjects prompted by this review, however, are deserving of more than passing attention. One of these is the Freedmen's Bureau. This was not exactly a missionary organization, but its efforts were largely philanthropic, and it became connected with more distinctively missionary enterprises. It was created as a charge of the War Department by an act of March 3, 1865, and was to remain in existence throughout the war and for one year thereafter. Its powers were enlarged, however, by an act of July 16, 1866. "It was rendered necessary by the presence within the Federal lines of vast numbers of Negroes who had escaped or had been rescued from slavery, and of whom at least a million were at the time of the passing of the act dependent for support upon the Federal Government."

The Freedmen's Bureau was to have the "supervision and management of all abandoned lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen." Of special importance was the provision that authorized the President to appropriate for the use of freedmen the confiscated and abandoned lands within the Southern states; each male refugee was to be given forty acres with the guarantee of possession for three years. The Bureau's chief work ended January 1, 1869; its educational work was continued for a year and a half longer. When it came to an end, it turned its educational interests and much money over to the religious and benevolent societies which had co-operated with it, especially to the American Missionary Association. Throughout the existence of the Freedmen's Bureau its chief commissioner was Gen. O. O. Howard. While its principal officers were undoubtedly men of noble purpose, many of the minor officials were just as undoubtedly corrupt and self-seeking. Altogether it established 4,239 schools in the South for Negro pupils, and these had 9,307 teachers and 247,333 students. Its real achievement has been thus ably summed up: "The greatest success of the Freedmen's Bureau lay in the planting of the free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary education among all classes in the South. . . . For some fifteen million dollars, beside the sum spent before 1865, and the dole of benevolent societies, this bureau set going a system of free labor, established a beginning of peasant proprietorship, secured the recognition of black freedmen before courts of law, and founded the free common school in the South. On the other hand, it failed to begin the establishment of good will between ex-masters and freedmen, to guard its work wholly from paternalistic methods which discouraged self-reliance, and to carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises to furnish the freedmen with land." To this tale of its shortcomings must be added also the management of the Freedmen's Bank, which "was morally and practically part of the Freedmen's Bureau, although it had no legal connection with it." This institution made a really remarkable start in the development of thrift among the Negroes, and its failure, involving the loss of the first savings of hundreds of ex-slaves, was as disastrous in its moral as in its immediate financial consequences.

79. Representative Negroes.—Deserving at least of passing notice in this interesting period is the large number of Negroes that the new order of events brought into prominence. The freedmen were not only very active in Southern legislatures, but were also frequently sent to Congress. Mississippi sent Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce to the United States Senate, and a considerable number of Negroes went to the House of Representatives. South Carolina was represented by Robert C. DeLarge, Alonzo J. Ransier, Joseph H. Rainey, Robert Smalls, and Robert B. Elliott; Alabama sent James T. Rapier, and Mississippi John R. Lynch. Oscar J. Dunn, P. B. S. Pinchback, and C. C. Antoine became lieutenant-governors of Louisiana; Richard H. Gleaves and Alonzo J. Ransier held the same position in South Carolina, and Alexander Davis in Mississippi. Of all these men the foremost for general ability were Robert B. Elliott and Blanche K. Bruce. Elliott was born in Boston, received a good education in England, and, returning to America, developed highly the arts of a politician. In Congress he attracted attention by a speech in reply to Alexander Stephens of Georgia on the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Bill. Bruce was well informed on matters pertaining to the race, and in the course of his life held several public offices besides the senatorship. For two separate terms (1881-85 and 1897-98) he was Register of the Treasury.

80. Ku Klux Klan.—An important consideration in this era of change is the means by which the white people of the South regained political power. Even before the war a secret organization, the Knights of the Golden Circle, had been formed to advance Southern interests; but far more important anything of this nature that had preceded it was the Ku Klux Klan. This organization began in Tennessee in 1866 as an association of young men for amusement, and its membership included some of the representative citizens of the Old South. It soon developed, however, into a union for the purpose of whipping, banishing, terrorizing, and murdering Negroes and Northern white men who encouraged them in the exercise of their political rights. The costume of the members especially was designed to play upon the superstitious nature of the uneducated Negroes. "Loose flowing sleeves [were worn], with a hood, in which the apertures for the eyes, nose and mouth were trimmed with some red material. The hood had also three horns, made of some common cotton-stuff, standing out on its front and sides." The Ku Klux Klan finally extended over the whole South, being highly developed in its organization; and it greatly increased its operations on the cessation of martial law in 1870. As it worked generally at night with its members in disguise, it was difficult for a grand jury to get evidence on which to frame a bill, and almost impossible to get a jury that would return a verdict for the state. Repeated measures against the order were of little effect until an act of 1870 extended the jurisdiction of the United States courts to all Ku Klux cases. After this the Klan declined and eventually died out.

81. Negro Exodus. The aftermath of the whole reconstruction era was what was known as the Negro Exodus. By 1879 conditions in the South had changed so much that Negroes were denied political recognition, were charged exorbitant prices by many merchants, were forced to pay excessive rents, and generally kept down in every possible way. At last in some localities, especially in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, the state of affairs became so bad as to be no longer tolerable. A general convention of Negroes held in Nashville in May, 1879, adopted a report that set forth their grievances and encouraged emigration to the North and West, where rights would not be denied. Thousands now left their homes in the South, going in greatest numbers to Kansas, Missouri, and Indiana. Within about twenty months Kansas alone thus received an addition to her population of 40,000 Negroes. Many of these people arrived at their destination practically penniless and with no prospect of immediate employment. Large sums of money for their relief were raised throughout the North, however, and gradually they found a place in their new homes.

In the Southeast there was also some movement in the same direction. One account says that in one noteworthy week about 5,000 Negroes removed from South Carolina to Arkansas. This part of the country was also remarkable for an effort in another direction. In 1877 the Liberian Exodus Joint Stock Company was formed by the Negroes with the threefold purpose of sending emigrants to Africa, of bringing African products to America, and of establishing a regular steamship line between Monrovia and Charleston. In this enterprise Baptists and Methodists joined hands, and at an expense of $7,000 a vessel, the Azor, was purchased in Boston. The white people of Charleston, who not only did not wish to lose their labor but who also realized the possibilities of the company as a business enterprise, sought to embarrass the promoters in every possible way. Although the Azor  had recently been repaired in Boston, they induced the custom house officials not to grant it clearance papers until a new copper bottom had been put on it at an expense of $2,000. Moreover, not all the people the vessel could hold were allowed to go on the first trip. Finally, through the treachery of the captain and his connivance with prominent business men of Charleston, the Azor  was stolen and sold in Liverpool. One gets an interesting sidelight on conditions in these times when he knows that even the United States Circuit Court in South Carolina refused to entertain the suit brought by the Negroes.