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[Detail] sit-down strike after being refused service

Reconstruction and Its Aftermath

Thomas Nast. Emancipation

Thomas Nast. Emancipation Philadelphia: S. Bott, 1865. Wood engraving. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-2573

The image above shows the famous illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast’s vision of the future of the African Americans freed through the Emancipation Proclamation. Examine the image closely and read the introduction to the section of the Special Presentation on Reconstruction and Its Aftermath.

  • How did Nast envision the future for freed African Americans? Would you say his view of the future was generally positive or generally negative?
  • Does the introduction to the Special Presentation section on Reconstruction support or refute Nast’s view? Cite specific language from the introduction to support your answer.
  • What do you see as the major problems facing the nation as a whole and African Americans in particular at the end of the Civil War?

In January 1867, the Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau made a report to Congress on the status of affairs in the Southern states. He described many problems, as seen in this excerpt from the report on South Carolina:

I found the freed people in a most wretched condition from want of clothing and food. They were treated generally in a most cruel and, in many instances, a most barbarous manner by their former masters, who seemed to be doubly bitter because they could no longer hold them as slaves. Outrages, such as whipping, typing up by the thumbs, and shooting, were of daily occurrences, and the force of troops in the State was totally inadequate to meet the demands made upon it for ferreting out and arresting the perpetrators of these outrages. . . .

The schools for freed people in this State are in successful operation . . . There is a strong desire on the part of this race of people to obtain the knowledge which was denied to them while in the bonds of slavery; their progress is very creditable to them, and their examinations would not be discreditable to a school of white children under the same circumstances.

From “Laws in Relation to Freedmen, U.S. Sen. 39th Congress, 2nd Sess. Senate Executive Doc. No. 6.,” images 112, 113, and 115

Read the report from one of the Southern states, making a list of all the problems mentioned. Code your list to show who felt its effects—African Americans, Southern whites, or both. Also code what you believe to be the source of each problem—the prior conditions under which African American lives, the current attitudes of people of both races, nature, or other causes. Write a paragraph summarizing the problems and issues facing the Southern states in the years following the Civil War. What approach would you have recommended to solve these problems? If you had been a freed African American, would you have stayed in the South? Why or why not?

Many emancipated African Americans did choose to stay in the South, while others moved North and yet others headed for the West. The latter group, dubbed “Exodusters,” established all-black communities in several western states. One of these communities was Nicodemus, Kansas. Examine the text and documents about Nicodemus provided in the Special Presentation. Then consider the following questions:

  • Where was Nicodemus located? What natural resources would have been available in that area?
  • How far would African Americans in Southern states have had to travel to get to Nicodemus? What does this tell you about their motivation to relocate?
  • How did organizers like Benjamin “Pap” Singleton convince African Americans to become Exodusters? What can you infer from the poster about some of the issues facing African Americans looking to leave the South?

Education for African Americans was an essential endeavor following the Civil War. Since the slave states had forbidden slaves from becoming literate, most African Americans could not read or write—but they were highly motivated to learn. Teachers, both black and white, often worked in harsh conditions to help a majority of African Americans become literate. Many African Americans went on to college at such institutions as Wilberforce University, an Ohio school established specifically to serve black students. Read the letter from the Pennsylvania Branch of the American Freedman’s Union Commission.

J. Hoover. Heroes of the Colored Race

J. Hoover. Heroes of the Colored Race Philadelphia, 1881. Color lithograph with portraits of Blanche Kelso Bruce, Frederick Douglass, and Hiram Revels. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-10180

  • According to this letter, why was it necessary for people interested in educating newly freed African Americans to form “Freedmen’s Associations” and the American Freedman’s Union Commission”?
  • In what ways did the Pennsylvania Branch help newly freed African Americans in the South?
  • What did the writers mean by “Each teacher is expected to go to the field in the missionary spirit”? How do you respond to that statement?
  • Teachers were instructed to correspond with the individuals, churches, or communities supporting them. Why was this important?
  • To what values did the Union Commission appeal in asking Pennsylvanians to raise money to support teachers? How do these values relate to the situation in which newly freed African Americans found themselves?

With the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed all male citizens the right to vote, African Americans became active in Southern politics. From information in the Fruits of Reconstruction section of the Special Presentation, create a list of African Americans who served in government, either in elected or appointed positions, during Reconstruction. Create your own “Heroes of Reconstruction” poster to show the contributions of these leaders.