OVERVIEW / U.S. History I

Reconstruction Era
Part 3: Reconstruction in Practice

Reconstruction brought important social changes to former slaves. Families that had been separated before and during the Civil War were reunited, and slave marriages were formalized through legally recognized ceremonies. Families also took advantage of the schools established by the Freedmen's Bureau and the expansion of public education, albeit segregated, under the Reconstruction legislatures. New opportunities for higher education also became available with the founding soon after the Civil War of black colleges, such as Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The number of African‐American churches grew significantly and became social and political centers as well as houses of worship. Black ministers assumed a leadership role in the community and were among the first elected officials. The most fundamental concern of blacks through all of the changes, though, was economic survival.


Any hope of large‐scale black property ownership disappeared soon after the Civil War. Although Congress considered breaking up plantations as part of Reconstruction, Radical Republicans were more interested in securing suffrage for and protecting the civil rights of African Americans than in reforming southern land distribution. The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 did provide 44 million acres to freedmen, but the land was marginal at best. Whites generally refused to sell land to former slaves, who, in any event, did not have the money to buy it or the farm implements needed to work it. The upshot for the large, poor, and landless black population was sharecropping. White landowners divided their plantations into thirty‐ to fifty‐acre plots; blacks leased the land, worked it, and paid half of the crop to the owner.

Sharecroppers needed credit to buy seeds, tools, and other supplies. Under the crop‐lien system, they put up the proceeds from the sale of their harvest as collateral. A poor harvest or a succession of bad years would plunge sharecroppers further into debt, leaving them unable to pay the merchant who had advanced the credit or make the in‐kind payment to the landowner. The system kept sharecroppers in a cycle of perpetual poverty from which they were unable to escape.


Reconstruction meant that blacks in the South participated in the political process for the first time. In addition to taking part in the state conventions, African Americans served in the state legislatures and were elected to Congress. During Reconstruction, fourteen black representatives and two black senators served in Congress; however, no African American became a governor of a southern state, and only in South Carolina did the number of black officeholders reflect their voting strength. Those elected were the African‐American elite: men who had been free before the Civil War, landowners, the educated, and clergy. The African‐American voters helped keep Republicans in control of the former Confederacy, and they consistently went to the “party of Lincoln” in national elections well into the twentieth century.

Although Reconstruction brought about a revolution in black political power (short‐lived though it was), African Americans did not have a voting majority throughout the South, so the Republicans needed white support as well. White Republicans, mainly yeoman farmers who had leaned toward the Union during the Civil War, were called scalawags by die‐hard Confederates; these southern Republicans backed such federal programs as public education, road construction, and rebuilding the economy. Another political force during Reconstruction were the northerners who went South after the war in search of lucrative government work—the so‐called carpetbaggers.The “coalition” between black Republicans, white Republicans, and northerners was fragile indeed. Relying primarily on the race issue, Democrats were able to regain control of state governments throughout the South during the 1870s.


The Ku Klux Klan, formed in Tennessee in 1866, was one of several secret societies that used intimidation and force, including murder, to advance white supremacy and bring an end to Republican rule. These organizations formed a tacit alliance with the Democratic party in the South and played a key role in bringing about “ Redemption,” the Democrats' term for their regaining control of the old Confederacy. Although the Klan was officially disbanded in 1869, Congress took action against its activities in a series of laws known collectively as the Enforcement Acts (1870–71). The legislation, which was intended to “enforce” the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and make it a crime for anyone to interfere with a citizen's right to vote, included the Ku Klux Klan Act, which outlawed conspiring, wearing disguises, and intimidating officials for the purpose of undermining the Constitution. President Grant used the law to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in parts of South Carolina, and he successfully prosecuted the Klan in that state. In the long run, however, federal officials found it as difficult to root out the Klan and other white supremacist groups as it was to make it possible for blacks to exercise their right to vote.