|The Politics of Reconstruction
|Digital History ID 3101|
The failure of Reconstruction was not inevitable. There were
moments of possibility when it seemed imaginable that former slaves
might achieve genuine freedom.
Immediately following the war, all-white southern legislatures
enacted "black codes," designed to force ex-slaves to
work on plantations, where they would be put to work in gangs.
These codes denied African Americans the right to purchase or
even rent land. Vagrancy laws allowed authorities to arrest blacks
"in idleness" (including many children) and assign them
to a chain gang or auction them off to a planter for as long as
a year. The more stringent black codes also bar ex-slaves from
owning weapons, marrying whites, and assembling after sunset.
Other statutes required blacks to have written proof of employment
and barred them from leaving plantations.
The Freedmen's Bureau, which was established in March 1865
to aid former slaves, helped enforce laws against vagrancy and
loitering and refused to allow ex-slaves to keep land that they
occupied during the war. It ordered freed slaves to sign labor
contracts with former masters and other white landowners. In many
instances, these contracts did not require the payment of wages.
One black army veteran asked rhetorically: "If you call this
Freedom, what did you call Slavery?"
Many African Americans in the South defied these efforts to
reduce them to virtual reenslavement by staging strikes and other
protests. But lacking land of their own, most ex-slaves were eventually
forced to become tenant farmers.
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