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Was Reconstruction a Success or Failure Essay

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African-American History: How did African-Americans envision their freedom after the 13th Amendment and to What Extent were They able to Achieve their Goals during Reconstruction?

Using Eric Foner’s definition of Reconstruction, the period lasted from 1863-1877, beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation, the freeing of slaves in rebel states, and ending with the compromise of 1877 (Foner, 2014). African-American definitions and expectations for freedom differed between individuals during this period, but the themes of autonomy, economic independence, and education were constants amongst African-Americans throughout Reconstruction. The Thirteenth Amendment, adopted on December 6, 1865, formally abolished slavery, except as a punishment, and was hailed by many white abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, as the ultimate success of abolitionism (Foner, 2014). The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments completed the trio of Reconstruction Amendments, bringing equality of rights and voting into the Constitution. However, these amendments were quickly perverted through the Slaughter-House Cases of 1873, which Stephen J. Field’s dissenting statement argued made the Fourteenth Amendment a ‘vain and idle enactment’ (Graham, 2013). Moreover, the actions of white supremacist terrorist groups such as the KKK or White League restricted the rights of African-Americans, particularly opposing the African-American vote, further embedding the inequality of the Southern States. The inability, and lack of desire, of the Federal Government to uphold the Reconstruction Amendments resulted in the African-American goals of autonomy, economic independence, and education being severely restricted, despite some successes such as in religion and emancipation. Reconstruction was a failure for African-American goals, despite its successes, described by Eric Foner as a ‘disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure’ (Foner, 2014).

Religion existed as the foundation of African-American desire for autonomy during slavery, continuing in this role behind the majority of African-Americans’ visions for Reconstruction and emancipation. Independence from white denominations, which during slavery had often used religion as a tool to enforce bondage, was the backbone of the African-American drive for autonomy. Newly created churches such as the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church allowed former slaves independence from white oversight in one of the most important aspects of their lives (Walker, 1985). During slavery, religion was a unifying feature of slave communities, providing an outlet for the agency, focusing on the Old Testament and the freeing of the slaves in Exodus as an act of hope and resistance (Dennard, 1984). This agency carried through into Reconstruction, the focus on God and family establishing the basis of African-American expectations and hopes for their freedom. To an extent, this freedom was realized, with multiple black denominations forming throughout the South, and Northern churches sending missionaries and expanding (Walker, 1985). These churches existed as the core of black independence from white authority, developing into societies and fraternal orders, largely providing freedom from white oversight (Foner, 2014, Campbell, 1995). By the end of Reconstruction, most Southern blacks were no longer in churches dominated by whites (Foner, 2014). However, these new churches still retained much of the hierarchies of white denominations, with women being refused ordination (Maffly-Kipp, 2001). The continuation of patriarchal hierarchies in African-American churches, and communities, restricted the freedom of African-American women, but they were still able to exercise a vastly more independent religious life than ever before, forming missionary groups, educating, and advocating for racial uplift (Maffly-Kipp, 2001).

Education in African-American communities often relied on religious organizations, groups, and scriptures, with missionaries and Northern teachers providing the first public education in the South (Morrow 1954, Foner, 2014, Anderson 1988). Education was seen by the majority of freedmen as one of the most important steps towards increased freedom, autonomy, and economic independence. Through education, African-Americans proved their desire for independence, especially against claims that freed slaves would be lazy and reliant upon the state for survival. Northern societies and state governments provided the majority of the funding for education in the South, but in practice, African-Americans established and ran most of the black education in the South. African-American education was one of the strongest manifestations of black freedom and the goal of racial equality during Reconstruction, by educating themselves, many African-Americans saw education as the best method of ensuring their freedom could be acted upon. Through education, African-Americans saw an opportunity to become politically aware and active, be able to enter into artisan work, and become closer to equality with white Americans. Education has been noted as one of Reconstruction’s successes, giving both the right and means to education to African-Americans, allowing organization and political activism to remove white control from communities (A.A. Taylor, 1938). Even after the white supremacist Redeemers took power at the end of Reconstruction, education in the South remained superior to when blacks were wholly excluded (Du Bois, 1935). However, despite the increased access to education, African-American schools quickly ran out of funding in the early years of Reconstruction; in 1866, The African-American Savannah Education System had to turn over black schools to the white-dominated American Missionary Association as they could not afford the costs, and the black teachers were quickly reduced to assistants, replaced by white teachers (Foner, 2014). It was often near impossible for African-Americans to remove themselves from a white authority, which was usually fuelled by the same beliefs of racial “paternalism” which assumed black childishness and laziness, making freedom through independence increasingly difficult. Moreover, discrimination existed within the African-American community as well, with free blacks from before the Civil War feeling a sense of exclusivity, and reluctant to send their children to school with former slaves (Foner, 2014).

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The desire for direct equality acted as the driving goal for many African-Americans, particularly among leaders and intellectuals. Henry M. Turner, a leading African-American minister during Reconstruction stated ‘If I cannot do like a white man I am not free’ (Foner, 2014). Turner exemplified the desire for autonomy, independence, and equality, but by his definition of freedom, Reconstruction was a complete failure. By the end of the period, white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White League had destroyed African-American political participation, and the Black Codes and other pieces of legislation had created de facto black criminalization in multiple Southern states. Immediately after Andrew Johnson’s suspension of slavery in 1864, Tennessee jurisdictions introduced harsh Black Codes, with blacks going from one-fiftieth to one-third of inmates in prison (Forehand, 1996). The de facto laws of black criminalization directly opposed the conditions of the Reconstruction Amendments by specifically targeting African-Americans, such as the South Carolina legislature clearly reusing aspects of slave codes in their language, and creating laws that hindered African-American merchants (Ranney, 2006, Forte, 1998). This inequality is exemplified by what Douglass Blackmon describes as ‘Neoslavery’ (Blackmon, 2008). As the Thirteenth Amendment allows slavery only as a punishment, the Black Codes and other forms of legislation specifically targeting African-Americans can be seen as the South attempting to restore the institution of slavery. Examples of these laws include Louisiana’s 1866 criminalization of cursing and “disobedience” towards white people (Forte, 1998). The Black Codes restricted black autonomy by creating constant white surveillance, and when African-Americans could not afford to pay the fines for their “crimes”, they were sentenced and used as forced labor, often under worse conditions than during slavery, as white overseers now had less economic incentive to protect the lives of workers (Blackmon, 2008, Stampp, 1965). ‘Neoslavery’ and the de facto criminalization of African-Americans in the South demonstrate one of the ways in which Reconstruction failed to achieve African-Americans’ goals. Many Republican lawmakers believed that because African-Americans were legally equal, African-Americans should then no longer need government assistance, an idea reflected in cartoonist Thomas Nast’s ‘Is This a Republican Form of Government?’ (Fairclough, 2018, Du Bois, 1935).

The violence of white supremacist terrorist groups during Reconstruction further embedded the inequality between white and black Americans. The Ku Klux Klan, throughout the early years of Reconstruction, committed acts of extreme violence against African-Americans, such as lynchings and whippings. These acts of violence were intended to restore white supremacy, as African-Americans began gaining increasing independence and autonomy, particularly attacking African-American leaders and political activists, a tactic later used by the White League for the same intention. Many African-Americans hoped that Reconstruction would signal freedom from the extreme violence of slavery but violence under the Klan was often more extreme than that experienced under bondage, as white supremacy no longer had an economic incentive to restrain its violence. Reconstruction failed to give African-Americans freedom from violence, with the campaigns of the KKK and other white supremacist groups having a clear impact on politics in contributing to the rise of the Redeemers to power and the subsequent disenfranchisement of African-Americans and establishment of Jim Crow laws. The success of white supremacist groups represented a huge loss for African-American freedom and goals, especially politically, as Frederick Douglass stated when the Thirteenth Amendment passed, ‘Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.’ The loss of political ability and representation, combined with the Neoslavery conditions suggests African-Americans’ goals were failed by Reconstruction. However, Eric Foner notes how the KKK pushed African-Americans further into expressing their individual rights and desires, with the extremity of their violence forcing the Federal Government to intervene to protect the rights of African-Americans (Foner, 2014). But the damage that these terrorist groups did to African-American political participation and representation was one of the most damaging legacies of Reconstruction, the political impact helping establish segregation laws and white supremacist rule, restricting African-Americans’ goals and freedom for generations.

One of the main groups of African-Americans that the KKK would target was economically successful. Economic independence became one of the primary goals of African-Americans during Reconstruction, the desire to be free of white supervision and be self-reliant exemplifying the goal of autonomy. Freedom meant economic independence through wage labor and economic emancipation from the reliance on white America. This goal can be shown by the large number of former slaves who demanded ownership of the land they formerly worked, insisting their years of bondage entitled them to the estate (Foner, 2014). Some blacks in 1865 went further, refusing to leave the properties entirely (Foner, 2014). Very few freedmen actually gained land or wealth through this method. Freedmen believed the Federal Government would support their claims to land and redistribution, likely as a result of promises such as ‘Forty Acres and a Mule’ made by Sherman in 1865 (Webster, 1916, Foner, 1988, Saville, 1994). The desire for land is the strongest representation of the African-American desire to escape white supervision, believing that owning land would ‘complete their independence’ (Foner, 2014). This goal was achieved by some African-Americans, a large number of artisan workers developed throughout Reconstruction, almost entirely male, as women were still forced into domestic work (Hunter, 1997). However, the majority of African-American men and women were living in poverty and debt, forced back into a sharecropping system, and often reliant on producing cotton for white merchants (Barney, 1987). The perseverance of cotton farming and poverty for many African-Americans suggests that despite experiencing increases in freedom and rights, especially emancipation, the conditions and institution of slavery continued in all but name, with African-American workers being unable to leave, and their economic independence is severely restricted.

In conclusion, African-Americans envisioned Reconstruction as a period of increasing economic independence, greater individual and collective autonomy, and rising quality of life. In some forms these goals were achieved, with a rising artisan class of African-Americans, independent black religious denominations removing the influence of pro-slave Christianity, and increased access and right to education, for all ages. However, despite these successes, Reconstruction was overwhelmingly a failure for African-American rights and goals, especially when looked at through the Reconstruction amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, yet the Southern states quickly returned African-Americans to a form of quasi-slavery through economic domination, white supremacist terrorism, and black criminalization. The Fourteenth Amendment made discrimination on account of race illegal, yet African-Americans routinely suffered discrimination both de facto and de jure, through the Black Codes, terrorism, and the perseverance of slave and paternalistic beliefs of African-American’s “childlike” and “lazy” characters. The violent campaigns of terrorist groups such as the KKK or White League made the Fifteenth Amendment void, restricting the right and ability of African-Americans to participate in politics through fear and murder. The Reconstruction Amendments represented the goals of African-Americans in the Constitution. The manner that which all three were perverted and neglected throughout Reconstruction demonstrates how African-Americans’ goals failed in spite of their agency and determination to reduce white control over their lives and uplift themselves from slave conditions.

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