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Black Status: Post Civil War America

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Black Status: Post Civil War America


After the emancipation of slaves in 1862, the status of African-Americans in post civil war America up until the beginning of the twentieth century did not go through a great deal of change. Much legislation was passed to help blacks in this period. The Civil Rights act of 1875 prohibited segregation in public facilities and various government amendments gave African-Americans even more guaranteed rights. Even with this government legislation, the newly dubbed 'freedmen' were still discriminated against by most people and, ironically, they were soon to be restricted and segregated once again under government rulings in important court cases of the era.

Reconstruction was intended to give African-Americans the chance for a new and better life. Many of them stayed with their old masters after being freed, while others left in search of opportunity through education as well as land ownership. However this was not exactly an easy task. There were many things standing in their way, chiefly white supremacists and the laws and restrictions they placed upon African-Americans. Beginning with the 'black codes' established by President Johnson's reconstruction plan, blacks were required to have a curfew as well as carry identification. Labor contracts established under Johnson's Reconstruction even bound the 'freedmen' to their respective plantations. A few years later, another set of laws known as the 'Jim Crow' laws directly undermined the status of blacks by placing unfair restrictions on everything from voting rights all the way to the segregation of water fountains. Besides these restrictions, the blacks had to deal with the Democratic Party whose northern wing even denounced racial equality. As a result of democratic hostility and the Republican Party's support of Black suffrage, freedmen greatly supported the Republican Party.

As a result of the failure of Johnson's Reconstruction, Congress proposed its own plan. The 14th amendment was one of the many things implemented under this plan. Among other things, this amendment forbade ex-Confederate leaders from holding political office, and gave freedmen their citizenship. The Southern rejection of this amendment, largely as a result of the actions of their former Confederate leaders then in state office, paved the way for the Reconstruction Act of 1867. This dismantled all Southern governments and established military control over the South. It guaranteed freedmen the right to vote under new state constitutions, and required the Southern states to ratify the 14th amendment. With the inclusion of African-American votes in southern elections, and with the help of Northerners known as "Carpet Baggers" and other white Southerners known as "Scalawags," the Republican Party gained almost complete control over the American South. During this time, the status of freedman was significantly increased, and by 1868 many state legislatures had African-American delegates. In 1870 the 15th amendment was passed, forbidding the states from denying the right to vote to any person "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Although giving ethnic groups such as African-Americans the right to vote, this amendment was deliberately left open to interpretation by the states, who continued to deny suffrage to such groups as women and illiterate people.

Many Southern states, starting with Georgia in 1877, took advantage of this by introducing a series of laws. Georgia (soon followed by many other Southern states) put a tax on voting. A few years later in 1890 the Mississippi plan was established. This plan required voters to pay a poll tax eight months before the election, and to prove that they were literate and could understand their state constitution. This in turn prompted Louisiana to enact the first "Grand Father Clause." This clause established voting and property qualifications by not allowing those whose grandfathers were ineligible to vote before 1867. The total number of eligible voters in the South declined rapidly as a result. The divisions that were common under the institution of slavery were now also common under American law. Court rulings as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 did not help. The courts believed that government could not control private individuals over matters of race, so the federal government could not force a shop or bar owner to desegregate. This helped to establish the principle of "separate-but-equal" which was upheld by later rulings in cases such as "Plessy v. Ferguson." After the advent of the 'separate-but-equal' doctrine America began to see the spread of what were known as "Jim Crow laws."

Freedmen were not only discriminated against by court rulings. Southern whites both rich and poor were severely opposed to emancipation. The poor feared the competition in the labor force, and the rich encouraged this attitude to keep a strong division in the blacks and the whites. In the early years after Reconstruction there was some violence towards blacks, but as the years went on this violence increased. Terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) arose to torment and commit violence against both African-Americans and strong Republicans. Frederick Douglas, a dominant Republican said "Rebellion has been subdued, slavery abolished, and peace proclaimed," he said, "and yet our work is not done...We are face to face with the same old enemy of liberty and progress.... The South today is a field of blood." The violence associated with racism was a horrible problem. Although groups such as the KKK operated solely in the South, discrimination of a lesser sort was also prevalent in northern cities. At the end of the 18th century many whites used violence to scare away African-American from white neighborhoods. Whites organized protective associations so homes in white neighborhoods could never be sold to an African-American man. This is very apparent in the makeup of many different northern cities. These cities had homogenized residential districts for blacks. Even in the North where most civil rights reformers hailed from, people discriminated based on color.

Post Civil War America saw great many changes concerning civil rights and black suffrage. Many laws were passed to give a black person more rights. Unfortunately, many laws were also passed by state legislation to counter these; the Black codes and the Jim Crow laws of the late 18th century are examples. The north welcomed emancipation, but did so at the expense of the Black people. Emancipation secured the North's position over the South, won at such cost during the war, but it is interesting to note that even though North supported emancipation, discrimination based on race was prevalent there as well as in the 'racist' South. Many labor contracts still bound freedmen to plantations and the only other work that was available was that of domestic servants and farm hands, just as was the case for blacks under slavery (Norton, p. 499).

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