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Republican Governments in the South Previous Next
Digital History ID 3105


In an event without historical precedent, former slaves joined with white Republicans to govern the South. The freedmen, in alliance with carpetbaggers (Northerners who had migrated South during or after the Civil War) and southern white Republicans derogatorily called scalawags, temporarily gained power in every Confederate state except Virginia. Altogether, over 600 African Americans served as legislators in Reconstruction governments (though blacks comprised a majority only in the lower house of South Carolina's legislature).

The Republican governments were damned for their extravagance, but they gave the South its first public school systems, asylums, and roads. Southern Republicans sought to modernize the South by building railroads and providing free public education and other social services. The Reconstruction governments drew up democratic state constitutions, expanded women's rights, provided debt relief, and established the South's first state-funded schools. Before Reconstruction, there were no statewide, tax supported education systems in the South, except in Tennessee. Freedmen's academies set up by northern philanthropists to educate former slaves provided the framework for state education systems. Meanwhile, the first institutions of higher education for blacks were established in the South. Black colleges founded during Reconstruction included Fisk University in Nashville in 1866, Howard University in Washington in 1867, and Virginia's Hampton Institute in 1868.

To be sure, some of the reconstruction governments were plagued by inexperienced and incompetent leadership and corruption, which disillusioned many northerners. There were a number of examples of flagrant corruption, including one instance in which a state legislature awarded a thousand dollars to a member to cover a lost bet on a horse race. In another example, a New York publisher gave a $30,000 loan to a Georgia official to convince him to adopt a textbook. Nevertheless, the nation's first integrated governments had many substantial achievements.

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