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The Politics of Reconstruction Previous Next
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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