I think God intended the n*ggers to be slaves...Now since man has deranged God's plan, I think the best we can do is keep 'em as near to a state of bondage as possible…My theory is, feed 'em well, clothe 'em well, and then, if they won't work…whip 'em well.—white Delta planter, Mississippi (1866)

The policy that emancipated and armed the Negro—now seen to have been wise and proper by the dullest—was not certainly more sternly demanded than is now the policy of enfranchisement. If with the Negro was success in war, and without him failure, so in peace it will be found that the nation must fall or flourish with the Negro.—ex-slave Frederick Douglas, Reconstruction (1866)


"From the Plantation to the Senate"- depiction celebrating ex-slaves elected to political office

during Reconstruction, dated 1883- source: The Library of Congress lithographs

The quote above by ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas championed a new era for black America with the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Recently freed slaves tested the limits of their freedom by daring to reach for what only a few years prior had been beyond imagination. At no other time, including the present day, was black political power so strong throughout the South. Unfortunately, it would not last. As the quote by the white planter (also above) attests, the old Confederacy had been defeated; but it was not dead. And it would see white supremacy restored in the New South, by any means necessary.

Reconstruction was the period in the US immediately following the Civil War, during which the South was to be rebuilt. Backed by Union troops and the federal government, freed slaves sought to establish themselves in the ruins of the old Confederacy. The Freedman's Bureau—officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—was created by Congress in March 1865 to aid in this. Run by the War Department, its first commissioner was General Howard, a white Civil War veteran and hero sympathetic to recently freed blacks.

The purpose of the Freedman's Bureau was to assist in the transition from slavery to freedom in the South. Responsibilities included introducing a system of free labor, overseeing some 3,000 schools for recently freed slaves, settling disputes and enforcing contracts between former plantation owners and their newly wage-contracted black labor force, and securing justice for blacks in state courts only recently run by the Confederacy.


The Freedman's Bureau posited itself as a mediator between freed blacks and white southerners

Freed slaves sought to recreate themselves, often leaving plantations they had known all their lives to find work elsewhere. Many sought out family members separated from them during slavery. Numerous ex-slave narratives in the 1930s would tell stories of mothers who had escaped slavery during the chaos of the Civil War, returning to their old plantations to take back their children. For most freed slaves the main goal was now to secure land and join in the agrarian economy so common in the South. For many, education was key. Freedmen's schools were set up where ex-slaves—from the young to the elderly—would learn to read, acquire new skills and more. A few however, went beyond this, seeking not only education but political power.

With their numerical advantage in several regions, recently freed blacks used the power of the ballot. Allowed to vote, freed blacks elected hundreds of black legislators to state and national offices. Blanche Kelso Bruce, an ex-slave, came to represent Mississippi in the state legislature. In Louisiana, P.B.S. Pinchback, who had escaped slavery at a young age, was not only elected to the state Senate, but became lieutenant governor, and for 35 days—from December 9, 1872, to January 13, 1873—was the first, and only, African-American to serve as governor of the state. A black face occupied a seat on the state supreme court in South Carolina as well.


Ex-slave John Roy Lynch was elected to Congress in 1874 in Mississippi

and helped write and pass numerous laws on civil rights and public education.

In some parts of the South, blacks were superintendents of education, judges, state treasurers, solicitors and major generals of militia. In a few places, blacks and whites attended the same schools while an interracial board was put in place to run the University of South Carolina. Reconstruction was seen by both freed slaves and white Radical Republicans as a chance to rewrite Southern history in a matter of a few years, to bring men and women (though women themselves were not yet allowed to vote) once held in bondage up to a state of equality.

But what seemed like a dream to blacks was a bitter nightmare to wealthy white southerners and poor southerners alike. Once opulent plantations lay in ruins. The wealth of the South seemed depleted. And for even poor whites, the recently freed black population now threatened to completely reverse the only world they had known. In order to restore their dominance, white southerners rallied together, rich and poor, to strip blacks from any offices of power and prevent others from gaining such positions.


Negative Southern portrayal of Freedman's Bureau as keeping the

"NEGRO in idleness at the EXPENSE of the white man," dated 1860.

source: Library of Congress Broadsides Collection

They declared black politicians either ignorant or corrupt, sweeping many from power through fraud elections. They went after any whites, Radical Republicans at the time, who aided blacks. But in the end it was the power base of black politicians that had to be neutralized. This lay in the black masses and the black vote. Whites established laws that discriminated against illiterate blacks or those who had been slaves at one time. What were known as "black codes"—the precursor to Jim Crow—were established to limit black mobility, the right to own land, housing and more.

Polling places were purposefully set up far away from black communities. Those who attempted to reach them found roads conveniently blocked or ferries out of repair. Sometimes the polling places were changed without warning or notice. Stuffing of ballots was so common that one smug Southern Democrat stated, "black Republicans may outvote us, but we can out count them."


negative political cartoon casting Southern elections as one between white freedom and black barbarity


When these measures did not work, whites simply resorted to terror. It was called "whitecapping," the use of violence to remove blacks from political posts, drive them off their land and out of their businesses. North Carolina governor Daniel Russell would proclaim that for any black man "to get above his ordained station in life is to invite assassination." Southern General John McEnery of Louisiana declared, "We shall carry the next election if we have to ride saddle-deep in blood to do it." And in many instances, they did.

As early as 1866 the white population of Memphis went into a riot against freed slaves and black Union troops. Forty-six blacks were killed, some 80 wounded and five black women were raped; 12 black schools and 4 black churches were burned down. In South Carolina a black postmaster, his wife and infant were shot and burned to death by an angry white mob. Throughout Southern states, blacks were rounded up into chain gangs for minor infractions (petty theft or even loitering) and put to work in a state of near slavery. Others were stripped and whipped in the streets for the smallest offense. Many, especially those that challenged the white power structure, were simply murdered outright--shot down, lynched and massacred. This was how white power and control of the South was to be reasserted. As a South Carolinian newspaper told its white readers, "We must render this a white man's government or convert the land into a Negro's cemetery."


violence and terror were key tactics used by white Southerners to regain power


Though this violence could come from any sector of the white Southern community, nothing symbolized the terrorism of white supremacy of the era than the Ku Klux Klan. Formed by ex-Confederates in 1865, these hooded riders sought to take vengeance for the loss of the Civil War. Their main targets would be the recently freed slaves. And they were not alone, with other  organizations like the White League engaging in similar acts of terrorism. With violence and brutality, these groups sought to turn back the clock on Reconstruction and destroy any aspirations of black empowerment.

In reaction to this wave of violence and repression, from 1870 and 1871 Congress passed the Enforcement Acts—criminal codes that protected the rights of blacks to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws in the South. In 1875, in a last-ditch effort to protect what remained of Reconstruction, Congress passed a civil-rights bill that sought to guarantee the freedom of ex-slaves. "Be it enacted, That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude." However, as with many such laws, these acts came with little to no enforcement. And in the election of 1876, a political compromise would put an end to Reconstruction for good.


political cartoon from 1874 depicting freed slaves living under the terror

of the KKK and the White League. the caption reads, "Worse Than Slavery."

source: Library of Congress


After Lincoln's assassination in April of 1865, the new President Andrew Johnson proved to be a far cry from the reluctant emancipator. Johnson supported white supremacy in the South and favored pro-Union Southern political leaders who had aided the Confederacy. His Reconstruction policy towards the Southern states was lenient at best, only pushed along by white Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, who were increasingly a minority in the party.


The presidential elections of 1876 would divide the country between North and South once more, with candidates representing either region getting a near equal share of the electoral votes. With the country in deadlock, a deal was struck with the larger Republican party, ignoring the protests of the shrinking and marginalized Radicals. If Southern Democrats would allow the election of the Republican candidate Rutherford Hayes, Reconstruction would come to an end in the South. Union troops would withdraw and the North would agree to turn a blind eye as whites reasserted their control over the recently freed slaves. With this new mandate to see to their affairs, white southerners set about in an attempt to restore slavery in substance if not in name.

What little black political power was left in the New South swiftly vanished, under an onslaught of violence that disfranchised ex-slaves of every possible right and liberty. Blacks did fight back as best they could, at times arming themselves--both men and women--against the violence. But without the protection of federal troops, and new laws forbidding blacks to carry weapons, they were quickly outgunned and overwhelmed. Out of the ashes of the fall of black power, the dark era of Jim Crow would be born, bringing with it a period of brutal lynchings and oppression that would come to define black Southern life for a almost a century.



Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. (2002)

Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction after the Civil War (1995)

Oshinsky, David M. "Worse than Slavery:" Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (1996)


PBS. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (2002)


PBS. Reconstruction: The Second Civil War (2003)


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