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.

The Black Codes

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.

The Ku Klux Klan

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.

Popular pages: Reconstruction (1865–1877)