While politicians in Washington, D.C., were busy passing Reconstruction legislation in the late 1860s, the South remained in upheaval, as the ruined economy tried to accommodate newly emancipated blacks and political power struggles ensued. As freed slaves tried to establish livelihoods for themselves and take advantage of their new rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, politicians and vigilantes used insidious legislation and intimidation to try to maintain the prewar status quo.
The Union Army’s advance deep into southern territory in the final months of the Civil War freed thousands and thousands of slaves. Although some of these slaves were emancipated officially in the final days of the conflict, most freed themselves, simply refusing to work or walking away from the fields to follow the Union Army.
The end of the war meant that thousands of blacks could search freely for family members from whom they had been separated when they were sold or auctioned. Many black couples took the opportunity to get married after being freed, knowing that they could never again be lawfully separated. The number of black marriages skyrocketed.
Many freed blacks, previously forbidden to learn to read or write, wanted their children to receive the education that they themselves had been denied. The Congress-created Freedmen’s Bureau, assisted by former abolitionist organizations in the North, succeeded in establishing schools for thousands of blacks during the late 1860s.
In addition, many former slaves established their own churches. White southern clergymen had often defended slavery in their sermons in the period before the Civil War. As a result, blacks distrusted their white congregations, so they created their own as soon as they had the opportunity.
Meanwhile, some northerners jumped at the opportunity to move to the South in the wake of the Confederacy’s defeat. Commonly known as carpetbaggers because of their tendency to carry their possessions in large carpetbags, some moved from the North to promote education, others to modernize the South, and others to seek their fortune. White southern Unionists, or scalawags, attempted to achieve similar aims. Carpetbaggers and scalawags served in state legislatures in every southern state during Reconstruction.
Despite efforts by white landowners to force blacks back into wage labor on large plantations, emancipation enabled southern blacks to rent their own plots of land, farm them, and provide for their families. A system of sharecropping emerged in which many former plantation owners divided their lands and rented out each plot, or share, to a black family. The family farmed their own crops and rented their plot of land in exchange for a percentage of their crop’s yield. Some poor, landless whites also became sharecroppers, farming lands owned by wealthy planter elites. By 1880, the vast majority of farmers in the South were sharecroppers.
Unfortunately, the economic prospects for blacks under the sharecropping system were usually poor. Many former slaves ended up sharecropping on land owned by their former masters, and the system kept blacks tied to their shares—their rented plots of land—and thereby indebted to white landowners. Moreover, because cotton prices dropped steadily from about fifty cents per pound in 1864 to a little over ten cents per pound by the end of Reconstruction, sharecroppers’ incomes were meager. Most black farmers were able to purchase items only on credit at local shops—almost always owned by their landlords—and thus went deep into debt.
Despite the efforts of Radical Republicans in Congress, the white elite in the South did everything it could to prevent blacks from gaining civic power. In reaction to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, every southern legislature passed laws to restrict opportunities for blacks. These black codes, which ranged widely in severity, outlawed everything from interracial marriage to loitering in public areas. One code outlawed unemployment, which allowed white landowners to threaten their tenant farmers with eviction if they decided to give up their land. The black codes in Mississippi were arguably the worst: they stripped blacks of their right to serve on juries and testify against whites, and also outlawed free speech. Other codes forced black children into unpaid apprenticeships that usually led to fieldwork.
Southern whites passed these laws because they feared black political influence, especially in states like South Carolina where blacks outnumbered whites. Many racist white southerners also worried that freed slaves would seek revenge on their masters, rape white women, and ruin the economy. Wealthy southern landowners, for their part, supported the black codes because the codes ensured that they would have a stable and reliable black workforce. Some of the black codes forced former slaves to sign contracts, requiring them to work for meager wages, while some even required them to work on chain gangs in the fields.
Once the Republican Party took control of Reconstruction, they forced southern state legislatures to repeal many of the black codes. Nonetheless, many wealthy white southerners continued to enforce the codes unlawfully for years, even decades, after Reconstruction.
Despite the progress blacks made in the South after the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, racism still existed, and angry whites sometimes resorted to violence to intimidate blacks. The most notorious of these initiatives was the Ku Klux Klan, a secret society of white supremacists formed in Tennessee in 1866 to terrorize blacks. Klansmen, who wore white hoods to conceal their identities, harassed and beat blacks, carpetbaggers, and scalawags, and sometimes even conducted lynchings—mob killings of blacks, usually by hanging.
The Klan often used these tactics to scare blacks away from the polls during elections and to punish those who did not obey their demands. In one extreme case, Klansmen murdered several hundred black voters in Louisiana in 1868. Congress, realizing the need to protect blacks, passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 to try to curb the tide of violence and intimidation.