Unit 7 The Reconstruction Era, 1865-1877


At the end of the Civil War the crucial question was, How was the defeated South to be treated? During the early period of Presidential Reconstruction (1865-1866), the Confederate states were treated very leniently, in keeping with Lincoln’s argument that they had never left the Union. After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson continued Lincoln’s moderate Reconstruction plan, and by December 1865 all of the former Confederate states, with the exception of Texas, had established new governments that had been recognized by the presidency.

During 1865 and 1866 the newly formed southern state governments, dominated by former Confederates (Democrats), enacted the infamous Black Codes. These were laws designed to reestablish white supremacy and return African Americans to conditions similar to slavery. They prohibited blacks from voting; purchasing or leasing land in certain areas; testifying in court against whites; and bearing arms or congregating in large numbers. They also, in attempting to eliminate vagrancy, literally forced blacks to sign exploitive and binding labor contracts, imposing heavy penalties on African Americans not employed by whites and fining those absent from work.

The vagrancy provisions of the Black Codes also threatened the considerable physical movement that many ex-slaves undertook in the early post-Civil War period; they often viewed their ability to come and go as they pleased as confirmation of their freedom. Thousands moved to different plantations or cities in search of work or went about the South seeking to reunite scattered families, Postwar black geographical mobility also involved many freedmen returning “home” to their original plantation as a consequence of the massive uprooting and displacement of African Americans that occurred during the Civil War.

The Black Codes alarmed southern blacks, and they held people’s conventions all over the South in protest. These meetings constituted the first general black political movement ever organized in the region. The Black Codes also infuriated the Radical Republicans (including Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania), who claimed the South had left the Union and should be treated as a conquered territory. They were further convinced of the need to seize control of Reconstruction when large numbers of African Americans were killed, injured, and intimidated in 1866 in race riots in Memphis (May) and New Orleans (July), and through the emergence of secret white terroristic organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (organized in 1866).

Using their considerable power in Congress, the Radicals began to orchestrate the passage of a series of laws designed to provide southern blacks with equal civil and political rights. One such law was the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (April), which granted African Americans national citizenship and entitled them to sue and be sued, to give evidence, and to buy, sell, and inherit land. Another was the Fourteenth Amendment. Ratified in July 1868, it made blacks both national (American) citizens and citizens of the states in which they resided, repudiating the 1857 Dred Scott decision; it also prohibited states from discriminating against blacks. When, through the elections of 1866, the Republican Party increased its congressional majority and the party came under even greater Radical influence, the stage was set for Radical Reconstruction or Black Reconstruction (1867-1877).

From 1867 to 1877, the Radical Republicans led Congress in enacting additional laws that attempted to ensure citizenship rights for blacks. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 (March) established the new procedure by which southern states were to be readmitted to the Union, and by 1870 all southern states had complied with it. Having enfranchised southern black males through this process, Congress in February 1869 next passed the Fifteenth Amendment; ratified in March 1870, it granted black males elsewhere the right to vote, especially in northern states, including New Jersey. (Although New Jersey rejected both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the first African American to vote under the provisions of the latter was Thomas Mundy Peterson, in a municipal election in Perth Amboy in March of 1870.) Further, in response to the continued reign of terror by whites against blacks and their supporters in the South, Congress passed the Enforcement Acts of 1870-1871 to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. One of these laws, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, went beyond protecting freedmen against hostile state actions and for the first time made the infringement by private individuals of a person’s civil and political rights a federal crime. And, finally, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (March), which specifically offered protection to blacks against segregation in public accommodations.

Another major result of the Reconstruction Acts was the unprecedented participation of African Americans in southern politics. All of the state constitutional conventions had black delegates, but only in South Carolina did they constitute a majority of the delegates. In addition, as a result of the successful Republican voter recruitment efforts led by the Union League and reinforced by the presence of blacks in state militias, southern blacks were elected to varied important state and local offices. All state legislatures, for example, had black members. Among the statewide offices held were acting governor (P.B.S. Pinchback in Louisiana); lieutenant governor in three states (Louisiana, South Carolina and Mississippi); secretary of state in four states (Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and South Carolina); superintendent of education in four states (Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi); and state treasurer in two states (Florida and South Carolina). African Americans were elected to both houses of Congress, two serving as senators and twenty as representatives.

Although early studies of Reconstruction portrayed Reconstruction governments as corrupt and dominated by ignorant, inept, and corrupt black politicians allied with scalawags and carpetbaggers and justified the use of violence by whites to “redeem” the South, more recent scholarship acknowledges that such governments made major and lasting contributions to southern society. They established the South’s first systems of free public education, repealed imprisonment-for-debt laws, and abolished property qualifications for holding office. More recent studies also suggest that black politicians, far from being the dominant force during Reconstruction, actually exercised little collective and long-term influence throughout most of the South. The reasons for this include their relatively small numbers, the numerical superiority of whites in the South, white terrorism directed at such politicians and their supporters, and inconsistent and generally weak support from the national Republican Party and the federal government.

Because the post-Civil War period witnessed no meaningful land reform or redistribution of land (most plantations were restored to their former owners or leased or sold to northern investors), blacks failed to achieve in any significant sense their primary goal: obtaining land and becoming self-sufficient yeoman farmers. With their failure in this regard came the emergence during Reconstruction of a labor system that would dominate African American economic life well into the twentieth century: sharecropping. Under this system blacks rented a plot of land and paid to the plantation owner a certain percentage of the cotton crop, usually a third or half, depending on what the owner supplied in the way of implements, work animals, fertilizer, and seed. Because croppers had a vested interest in the crops and were more likely to work harder than wage laborers and not break their contracts like them, planters found an advantage in sharecropping. For the sharecroppers the system also had appeal. They could organize their own time and be more independent of direct supervision than could hired workers. They also regarded the contract labor system, under which one worked in labor gangs, as too reminiscent of slavery. (Individual families-father, mother, and children-rather than labor gangs became the primary sharecropping work unit.) Still, sharecropping became a system under which croppers were greatly exploited in a variety of ways. The planters weighed the cotton and kept all records.

Planters charged high prices and outrageous interest rates for food and clothing purchased by sharecroppers on credit at the plantation store (with the crop as lien). From this arose a form of debt peonage whereby insolvent croppers became tied to the land. Unable to repay debts from one year to another, they were legally required to work indefinitely for the same unscrupulous planters.

Next to landownership, the freedmen most desired education. They saw it not only as a mechanism for acquiring greater personal autonomy, but also as a vehicle for upward social mobility and a means for accomplishing such specific tasks as reading the Bible or a labor contract. Thus, after the war, young and old former slaves flocked to the newly organized schools (many held in black churches), often learning in the same classroom. In the forefront of efforts to satisfy the former slaves’ tremendous hunger for education were black northern churches and northern freedmen’s aid societies that were often sponsored by religious denominations. Such churches and societies sent teachers, black and white, into the South to instruct the ex-slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau also played a major role in efforts to educate the former slaves; it often supplied the school buildings while the freedmen’s aid societies paid the salaries of teachers. Part of the overall effort to educate southern blacks during Reconstruction was the establishment of a remarkable number of institutions of higher learning. For example, just between 1865 and 1870 the following were established: Atlanta University, Virginia Union University, and Morgan State University (1865); Fisk University (1866); Talledega College, Morehouse College, Howard University, Johnson C. Smith University, Barber Scotia College, and Rust College (1867); Hampton University (1868); Tougaloo College (1869); Benedict College and Allen University (1870).

The religious life of southern African Americans also underwent considerable change during Reconstruction. There was a tremendous growth in the number of black Christians in the South. This development was aided in particular by the proselytizing activities of black missionaries from the North; they represented both white religious bodies (such as the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church) and black denominations (such as the AME and AME Zion). The second was the development of an autonomous religious life, best expressed in the creation of separate black churches. By the end of Reconstruction the vast majority of African Americans who had been affiliated with white churches had withdrawn from them, in large part because these institutions continued to discriminate against blacks (for example, by seating them in separate pews). Many of these withdrawals were led by black Baptist and Methodist exhorters who proceeded to establish separate congregations. The founding in 1870 of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was an additional expression of this desire for autonomy.

By 1876, Democrats had “redeemed” (restored to home rule) all but three southern states, in the process effecting the withdrawal of federal troops from these states. Factors in the restoration of home rule included the use of violence by white secret orders (for example, the Ku Klux Klan, Knights of the White Camelia, and White Brotherhood) to terrorize African Americans and their supporters, and the Depression of 1873-1877, which devastated the southern states’ credit, tax rolls, and budgets and allowed the Democrats to gain support for their calls for fiscal retrenchment. Political corruption, which the Democrats used to discredit Reconstruction governments, and the thinking by those Republicans repre- senting northern industrialist/financial interests that such interests could be best realized in the South through an alliance with southern planters/aristo- crats, were additional factors. Finally, the racist attitudes of many northerners, reflected in widespread racial discrimination in the North, helped convince them that sectional reconciliation was preferable to erecting a racially egalitarian society in the South. The disputed presidential election of 1876 between the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, governor of Ohio, and the Democratic candidate, Samual J. Tilden, gov- ernor of New York, set the stage for the final demise of Reconstruction: the Compromise of 1877. Marking a great retreat from the initial desire of the Radical Republicans to have the national government protect the fundamental rights of blacks as American citizens, the compromise meant that the welfare of African Americans was again in the hands of those who had oppressed them under slavery, those committed to upholding white supremacy.



Although African Americans made gains during Reconstruction (for example, the passage of federal legislation to protect the civil rights of southern blacks, the presence of southern blacks in the national legislature, and the presence of blacks in southern governments as executives and legislators), through actual or threatened antiblack violence the control of southern societv was ultimately returned to those committed to restoring and maintaining white domination.

Materials and Preperation

Students should read either chapter 18 in The African American Experience: A History (“The Promise and Failure of Reconstruction”) or chapters 22-24 in African American History (“Rebuilding the South,” “Blacks in Politics,” and “Reaction Sets In”).

Students should read the excerpt from Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.

Students and the teacher should read pages 45-54 in Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History.

The teacher should read chapters 12 and 13 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“The Effort to Attain Peace” and “Losing the Peace”).

Time Period

Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.


  1. Differentiate between Presidential Reconstruction and Radical Reconstruction (Black Reconstruction).
  2. Lead a class discussion on the pros and cons of both Presidential Reconstruction and Radical Reconstruction (Black Reconstruction). Students should be able to say whether they would have dealt with the South harshly or leniently in returning it to the Union.
  3. Evaluation: Have the students write a 500-word essay on why Radical Reconstruction was either good or bad.


  1. Explain how the sharecropping system worked, why it was initially favored by both croppers and planters, and the opportunities the system provided for the exploitation of the sharecroppers.
  2. Lead the students in a discussion of why the sharecropping system came into being and how it worked. It has been termed a form of peonage. Have students define peonage and compare it with sharecropping.
  3. Evaluation: Have each student write a short story about a sharecropping family coping with the abuses and injustices of the sharecropping system.


  1. Explain the significance of education to the ex-slaves and the various efforts undertaken to educate southern blacks.
  2. Have students read the excerpt from Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 and then suggest specific ways that education was important to former slaves. Among these should be: as a vehicle for social mobility; as protection for entering into labor contracts; reading the Bible; and as a general means of self-improvement. Have students assess the importance of these factors. Are some of the reasons for an interest in education shared by other ethnic groups in American society?
  3. Evaluation: Have students reenact a situation in which former slaves, spanning three generations, are students in a one-room school. Have members of each generation indicate why they are interested in learning how to read and write. For example, an elderly person might want to become literate in order to read the Bible. A young adult male might want to become literate in order to read a labor contract.

Supplemental Activities

  1. Have students read Robert C. Morris’s Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction: The Education of Freedmen in the South, 1861-1870, (1976), and prepare a book report of 500 words.

Key Persons

Blanche Kelso Bruce. The second black to be elected a United States Senator, he represented Mississippi from 1875 to 1881.

Thomas Mundy Peterson. The first black to vote in the United States under the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment, he voted in a municipal election in Perth Amboy on March 31, 1870.

P.B.S. Pinchback. One of three African Americans to serve as lieutenant governor of Louisiana, in 1873 he became acting governor and served for forty-three days when the elected governor was impeached.

Hiram Revels. A Republican from Mississippi, he was the first African American to serve in the United States Senate, serving from 1870 to 1871.

Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading


Bennett, Lerone. 1967. Black Power USA.
Romantic general survey of the “Black and Tan” Reconstruction governments, it highlights African American political achievements.
Bullock, Henry. 1967. A History of Negro Education in the South.
Provides a general introduction to contributions of black and white individuals, churches, and politicians to the creation of schools for the southern freedmen after the Civil War.
Cruden, Robert. 1969. The Negro in Reconstruction.
Best short general account of the political and economic consequences of emancipation for the freedmen.
DuBois, W.E.B. 1935. Black Reconstruction.
A classic revisionist study by a preeminent black scholar; it challenges the racist and paternalistic interpretation of Reconstruction that justified the restoration of white rule in favor of a triumphant, class analysis of racial conditions.
Foner, Eric. 1988. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution,1863-1877.
A fine, comprehensive study of the subject that counters the racist interpretation of Reconstruction that persisted for so long.
Jones, Jacqueline. 1985. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow.
First major history of African American women’s economic roles and impact both within and beyond their communities. Especially informative about the post emancipation years.
Litwack, Leon. 1979. Been in the Storm So Long.
An excellent study of the political, social, and economic life of ex-slaves in the Reconstruction period.
Oubre, Claude. 1978. Forty Acres and a Mule.
An account of the glorious but failed Freedman’s Bureau attempt at land reform for the ex-slaves.
Painter, Nell Irvin. 1979. Exodusters.
This study examines African American migration to the American West during and after Reconstruction.
Rabinowitz, Howard, ed. 1982. Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era.
Best collection of biographical portraits of black politicians in all parts of the South, including former slaves and northern and southern free blacks.
Rose, Willie Lee. 1964. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment.
This excellent study shows that many of the federal government’s short-lived efforts to provide relief and limited self-help initiative for the newly freed slaves of one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands foreshadowed policies and thinking that came to dominate Reconstruction.
Thornbrough, Emma. 1972. Black Reconstructionists.
Well-rounded collection of biographies of Reconstruction leaders, contemporary black and white views of the leaders, and words by the latter.
Trelease, Allan. 1971. White Terror.
Pioneering, detailed study of organized southern white racism during Reconstruction. It examines the origins and impact of the Ku Klux Klan, among other groups.
Walker, Clarence. 1982. A Rock in a Weary Land.
Informed and groundbreaking study of the aid the African Methodist Episcopal Church gave to the freedmen during and after the Civil War.


Jones, Jacqueline. 1980. Soldiers of Light and Love: Northern Teachers and Georgia Blacks, 1865-1873.
Examines the success and failures that northern educators experienced in their work with ex-slaves in Georgia after the Civil War.
Klingman, Peter D. 1976. Josiah Walls: Florida’s Black Congressman of Reconstruction.
An excellent study of an influential but little discussed black Reconstruction politician.
Lamson, Peggy. 1973. Glorious Failure: Black Congressman Robert Brown Elliot and Reconstruction in South Carolina.
Major study of a northern black’s noble but doomed efforts to campaign, while he was both in and out of office, for his southern brethren after the Civil War
Morris, Robert C. 1976. Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction: The Education of Freedmen in the South, 1861-1870.
A fine study that examines in particular the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau in educating former slaves.


Eric Foner — Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.

Digitized by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated: Wednesday, May 22, 2003