Reconstruction

In the seventeen hundreds, British colonists living in the New World rose up against their government in a war that would set an American precedent and found the country upon the basis of freedom, a principle which would continue well into its future. Yet America was flawed from its construction. It has been said that slavery was the country’s first sin, written into law by a constitution which considered an enslaved person to be nothing more than property and, for the benefit of their white oppressors in a representative standard, to be only three fifths of a person. Abolitionist movements brought forth the horror of the industry as sectionalism began to settle a shift into America, pitting the educated liberals of the North against a population of mainly illiterate Southerners for whom slavery was a way of life. The result was a war known as the bloodiest in American history, where disease claimed more lives than violent battles, and where entire towns were levied in scorched earth campaigns. America was split open to her bones, and when the smoke settled slavery had been cut from her like limb of a soldier ruined by rot and made useless by the shrapnel of a lethal miniĆ© ball. Yet though the illness had been removed, the wound still festered. The infection of bigotry continued to ravage the nation, for the strength of hatred had not been stoppered by the war. Under the policies of Reconstruction, black Americans would be granted a life of freedom from slavery, but would find that the world they stepped into was little more welcoming than the chilled heart of an overseer.    

The thirteenth amendment abolished slavery, the fourteenth established equal protection underneath the law for all citizens of the United States, declaring all those born within her bounds were by law citizens of the nation. Equality is a tricky term, however. How does one measure equality? By what standards is it set? During the time of Reconstruction, equality for black and white Americans was not about being in all ways equal and providing an integration which gave freedmen the same opportunities white men enjoyed. This was made clear when Plessy v. Ferguson was brought before the highest court, the United States Supreme Court, and when that court subsequently ruled that segregation was legal. This established a principle of discrimination and Jim Crow laws which would for more than a century enable a legal distinction between the races, wherein African Americans were subject to the conditions of “separate but equal.” Equal was not in this case the same in condition but in existence at its most fundamental level. Black Americans could not attend the same schools, dine in the same restaurants, or even use the same bathroom facilities as white people of their time. Facilities meant for people of color were often sub-par to those for the white elite. Even within the workforce, segregation existed. Black employees were subject to separate working, eating, and toilet facilities even within government positions, an action of discrimination which in part justified by the inherently racist proclamation that the separate facilities were protecting white women from the sexuality and disease of black men. Yet this was not the sole core of inequality for African Americans in the job market.   

Discrimination in the workforce for black Americans ran deeper than segregation. It began with the Black Codes, a series of laws enacted by most previously Confederate states under the lenient presidency of Johnson. These laws restricted African Americans in a multitude of ways. Under the so-called black codes in Mississippi, black people were required to have evidence of employment each January for the year to follow, and were resultantly subject to arrest and forfeit of prior wages should they leave before the contract reached its finality. Black codes in South Carolina strategically discouraged black Americans from taking positions which were above the rank that state had prescribed for them, enforcing a tax upon African Americans who ventured into an occupation that was not of farming or servitude. Southern states passed anti-enticement measures discouraged employers from paying black laborers already under contract a higher wage. The Black Codes, though incapable of reinstituting slavery by law of the thirteenth amendment, did make a strong attempt to regain and ensure white dominance over black people. The severe punishments they placed on African Americans for minute crimes of vagrancy extended in some extremes to forced plantation labor. It was not in its title slavery, could not legally be declared as such, but the Shakespearian declaration of “a rose by any other name,” held remarkably true for newly freed black persons penalized in that manner.   

The greatest privilege and greatest responsibility which comes with democracy is the right and duty to vote. Voting is how private persons extend their hand to the affairs of the nation. But for freedmen during reconstruction, voting was a task in and of itself. Though the fifteenth amendment would grant suffrage to all male citizens, the actuality of voting allowance for black people during this era was much less than that. Laws were established with the ultimate purpose of denying the vote to people of color, such as literacy tests of the time. These tests were designed to exploit the lack of education slavery had imposed upon African Americans of the time, much as the poll taxes were meant to take clear advantage of poor blacks. To ensure however that whites who were ravished by poverty would not be similarly affected (and to therefore ensure white dominance), the Grandfather Clause was adapted to give exemption to these laws in clear favor of white Americans. Change could not by African Americans be brought about via the vote in many instances, because the vote was systematically denied to them.   

The discrimination and vehement bigotry of white Americans during the Era of Reconstruction has been well documented throughout history. It is important to understand that there were, of course, other groups who had been similarly cheated of an equal existence during this time, groups who the Reconstruction forgot. Distrust for immigrants was stirred in cities like Boston, where even white persons could be seen inferior if it was from Ireland they hailed rather than England. Laws were enacted to discourage Chinese person from emigrating to America. Women were of course the single most denied group. Incapable of voting, subject to laws which forced them to forfeit property in the event of marriage, and unable even to sue in court, women were subject to the vehement ignorance of men to their abilities and worth, denied under law many of the rights men enjoyed. They too were forgotten by the Reconstruction, and forgotten indeed by the fifteenth amendment, which granted voting rights to all male citizens but denied them to their female counterparts.The great female abolitionists who had strove so long for freedom for slaves, had to watch as a law was signed which would give the vote to those who they had spoken for, but denied them once more.  

Change is difficult. Revolutions take time, even if they exist within a country which has known their path before. The Civil War was revolutionary in its own right. It was a great change for the United States. The Reconstruction was a time to soften the change, to ease it into being. Yet the Reconstruction failed in granting equality to the people who had for decades suffered most. The slaves who had been freed now found that freedom was all they had, and that in some ways it could be equally as lethal as the chains their former masters had bound them in. The women who had been a vital part of overthrowing the industry of slavery were pushed back into silence like children being told to wait their turn, as though equality was a game that could be played at only by men, and even then, as the infamous line does go, by “not all men.”   

 

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