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[Detail] Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81

Reconstruction and Beyond

During the Civil War, many slaves escaped plantations and sought refuge with the Union army.  Once the war ended, African Americans throughout the states that had remained at war after January 1, 1863, were set free.  Northern reformers referred to as “Carpetbaggers” moved south to serve with the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency responsible for providing relief and educational services to the newly freed slaves.  Schools for African American children were established, staffed mainly by Northern white teachers. Duncan Gaines recalled reactions to the availability of school:

Duncan was 12 years of age when freedom was declared and remembers the hectic times which followed. He and other slave children attended schools provided by the Freedmen’Aid and other social organizations fostered by Northerners. Most of the instructors were whites sent to the South for that purpose.

. . . All of the children secured enough learning to enable them to read and write, which was regarded as very unusual in those days. Slaves had been taught that their brain was inferior to the whites who owned them and for this reason, many parents refused to send their children to school, thinking it a waste of time and that too much learning might cause some injury to the brain of their supposedly weak-minded children.

From “Duncan Gaines,” images 136-137

Simon Phillips reported that carpetbaggers directed the freedmen to divide the plantation lands that they had previously worked. Ellis Ken Kannon recalled that many believed that the federal government would soon allot each family 40 acres of land and a mule, but Kannon did not know anyone who actually received this allotment.

Many interviews revealed negative attitudes toward Carpetbaggers.  Henri Necaise remarked:

It was dem Carpetbaggers dat ‘stroyed de country.  Dey went an’ turned us loose, jus’ lak a passel o’ cattle, an’ didn’ show us nothin’ or giv’ us nothin’.  Dey was acres an’ acres o’ lan’ not in use, an’ lots o’ timber in dis country.  Dey should-a give each one o’ us a little farm an’ let us git out timber an’ build houses.  Dey ought to put a white Marster over us, to show us an’ make us work, only let us be free ‘stead o’ slaves.  I think dat could-a been better’n turnin’ us lak dey done.

From “Henri Necaise, ex-slave, Pearl River County,” image 122

Gabe Hines told of a Carpetbagger who caused trouble and was driven out of town by the Ku Klux Klan.

  • What efforts were made to assist the freedmen after the Civil War?
  • In what ways did the experiences of slavery continue to affect the freedmen?
  • What may account for some freedmen’s hostility to Carpetbaggers? Do you think this hostility was justified? Why or why not?

A considerable number of interviews refer to the Ku Klux Klan.  Henry Garry and Francis Bridges both told similar stories of how an army of ghosts would ride up to a well and drink an abundance of water, often remarking it was the first water they had consumed since a particular battle or “since returning from hell.”  They would then release the water from a false stomach so that it appeared that water was flowing through bullet holes. This elaborate scheme was designed to frighten and intimidate.  Sam Kilgore told of burning and looting by the Klan, and Maria Sutton Clemments recalled Klan activity in Georgia, remarking, “It was heap worse in Georgia after freedom than it was fore.”

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Both Felix Street and John Hunter described individual and group efforts to repulse Klan attacks.  “Aunt Hannah” Irwin, a former slave on the Bennett Plantation near Louisville, Alabama, revealed a different attitude about the Klan: she saw the Klan as maintaining order and keeping “unruly” blacks in line.  When asked if she was afraid of the Ku Klux Klan, “Aunt Hannah” responded:

Naw’m, I warn’t afeered of no Ku Klux.  At fu’st I though dat dey was ghosties and den I wuz afeered of ‘em, but atter I found out dat Massa Bennett wuz one of dem things, I wuz always proud of ‘em.

From “Ku Klux rides when de niggers starts trouble,” image 219

Use Ku Klux Klan in a full-text search to find references to the activities of the Klan during Reconstruction.  Research the activities of the Klan during Reconstruction and the effectiveness of the Ku Klux Klan Acts of 1870 and 1871.

  • Why was the Ku Klux Klan organized? 
  • What methods did the Klan use to enforce its racial policy?
  • What strategies were used to try to control the Ku Klux Klan, both legally and extra-legally?
  • Why were sections of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1870 declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court?

After the war, a number of former slaves stayed on plantations and worked the land under a share crop arrangement.  Isaac Adams recalled that about half of the freedmen on the Sack plantation in Louisiana stayed on after the war, working sections of the land and paying rent out of their shares of the produce.  Henry Lee described his mother’s original sharecropping agreement, which provided them with one-half of their crop.  The contract was later changed so that the family’s share was reduced to one-third.  Even with the reduction, Lee remarks, “things went on very well till the commissary came about.”  Sharecroppers bought the supplies they needed through a commissary, a store where the landowner set prices for goods.   Many of the interviews reveal the difficult times during Reconstruction.  Liney Chambers described life in the post-Civil War era as worse than the Depression.

Ellis Jefson worked as a nurse in Memphis in 1882 during the yellow fever epidemic and described conditions in the city and whites fleeing the city during the crisis.  He also discussed outbreaks of violence in Helena, Arkansas, in 1875, when black elected officials were driven from office: “The Republican party would ‘lect them and the Democratic party roust them out of office.” He concluded the interview with a criticism of African Americans, saying, “They will never progress till they become more harmonious in spirit with the desires of the white people in the home land of the white man.”

A number of former slaves discussed voting and politics. Paul Jenkins described his father’s political career following the Civil War while George Benson reflected on the meaning of the vote:

I voted ever since I got to be a man grown. That is – as long as I could vote. You know – got so now they won’t let you vote. I don’t think a person is free unless he can vote, do you? The way this thing is goin’, I don’t think the white man wants the colored man to have as much as the white man.

From “[Interview with Benson, George],” image 154

Conduct a full-text keyword search to locate other recollections of voting. Then consider the following questions:

  • How do the experiences recounted in the interviews reflect the history of voting for African Americans?
  • What array of attitudes toward voting did you find in the interviews? In what ways are these attitudes similar to and different from public attitudes about voting today?
  • What is your assessment of Ellis Jefson’s criticism of some African Americans? Do you think it reinforced Jim Crowism in late nineteenth-century America? Why or why not?
  • Construct an argument supporting George Benson’s belief that a person isn’t free unless he can vote.  How could the argument be applied to contemporary situations in the world?

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