Digital History
Digital History ID 3813

African Americans After Slavery

Interpreting Primary Sources

All freedmen...over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time, and all white persons so assembling with freedmen...shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction thereof shall be fined in the sum of not exceeding in the crease of a freedman...fifty dollars, and a white man two hundred dollars, and imprisoned at the discretion of the court....

And in case of any freedman...shall fail for five days after the imposition of any fine...for violation of this shall be ...the duty of the hire out said any person who will, for the shortest period of service, pay said fines....

Mississippi Black Code, 1865

This is an institution of Chivalry, Humanity, Mercy, and Patriotism...its peculiar objects protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless, from the indignities, wrongs, and outrages of the lawless, the violent and the brutal; to relieve the injured and oppressed; to succor the suffering and unfortunate, and especially the widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers....

Interrogations to Be Asked

5th. Are you opposed to Negro equality, both social and political?
6th. Are you in favor of a white man's government in this country?

Principles of the Ku Klux Klan

These men are not only armed, disciplined, oath-bound members of the Confederate army, but they work in disguise; and their instruments are terror and crime....They pretended, I believe, in the outset to be representative ghosts of the Confederate dead...and they terrified men, women and children, white and black....They are secret, oath-bound; they murder, rob, plunder, whip, and scourge; and they commit these crimes, not upon the high and lofty, but upon the lowly, upon the poor, upon feeble men and women who are utterly defenseless.

Senator John Sherman on the Ku Klux Klan, 1871

It is assumed that the power of Congress [includes the] authority for declaring by law that all persons shall have equal accommodations and privileges in all inns, public conveyances, and places of public amusement; the argument being that the denial of such equal accommodations and privileges is in itself a subjection to a species of servitude within the meaning of the [Thirteenth] amendment....

Can the act of a mere individual, the owner of the train, the public conveyance, or place of amusement, refusing the accommodation, be justly regarded as imposing any badge of slavery.... We are forced to the conclusion that such an act if refusal has nothing to do with slavery or involuntary servitude. Mere discriminations on account of race [is] not regarded as badges of slavery.

Supreme Court invalidates the postwar Civil Rights Act in the Civil Rights Cases, 1883

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority....The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the Negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races....

Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.

Supreme Court upholds segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country....But in view of the Constitution...there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respects of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.

Justice John Harlan's dissent, 1896

I do not think it was ever intended by the Creator that the two races should live together upon equal terms...One or the other must rule. The people of the South tried to share with the Negro the government of the country after the war, but the Negro declined to share with the white man. Black heels rested cruelly upon white necks for many years after the close of the war. The white man endured the Negro's misrule, his insolence, impudence, and infamy. He suffered his criminal incapacity to govern until the public domain had been well-nigh squandered and the public treasury looted....We invoked the law of self-preservation; we arose in the might of an outraged race and...the southern white man drove from power the scalawag, the carpetbagger, and the incompetent Negro.

James K. Vardaman, 1914

Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life....

You [white Southerners] can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen....In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

Booker T. Washington, 1895

As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years that have occurred:
1. The disenfranchisement of the Negro.
2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.
3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.
These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington's teachings; but his propagandas, without a shadow of doubt, helped their speedier accomplishment.

W.E.B. DuBois, 1903

I believe Booker T. Washington's heart is right, but that in fawning, cringing and groveling before the white man he has cost his race their rights, and that twenty years hence, as he looks back and sees the harm his course has done his race, he will be brokenhearted over it.

Charles Satchel Morris, 1906

While most of us were agonizing over the Negro's relation to the State and his political fortunes, Booker Washington saw that there was a great economic empire that needed to be conquered. He saw an emancipated race chained to the soil by the Mortgage Crop System, and other devices, and he said, "You must own your own farms"--and forthwith there was a second emancipation. He saw the industrial trades and skilled labor pass from our race into other hands. he said, "The hands as well as the head must be educated."

William Henry Lewis, 1915

Questions To Think About

1. Describe the obstacles that stood in the way of economic and political equality for Southern blacks in the late l9th century.

2. How did the Supreme Court respond to the growth of racial segregation?

3. Describe the conflicting strategies pursued by black leaders to achieve full racial equality.

4. What advice did Booker T. Washington offer to black Southerners?

5. Why did Washington's opponents criticize his "Atlanta Compromise"? Are their criticisms valid?

6. Which in your view was the most effective strategy for late l9th century black Southerners to pursue--accommodation to racial prejudice and efforts for economic self-development or a commitment to full political and social equality?

Study Aid

The Supreme Court and Civil Rights

Hall v. DeCuir 1878 Struck down Louisiana law barring racial discrimination on railroads and other "common carriers."
U.S. v. Harris 1882 Declared federal laws punishing murder and assault unconstitutional.
Civil Rights Cases 1883 Struck down Civil Rights Act of 1875.
Plessy v. Ferguson 1896 Upheld Louisiana law requiring "separate but equal" accommodations on railroads.
Williams v. Mississippi 1898 Upheld a state law requiring a literacy test for voting.

African Americans - from Slavery to Freedom

Interpreting Statistics

Blacks Living
Outside the South
1860  400,000 
1870  500,000 
1880  600,000 

Questions To Think About

1. Where did most blacks live after the Civil War--in the South or outside the South?

2. In what conditions did most Southern blacks live after the Civil War?

1885 184
1890  96
1895  179
1900 115
1905 62
1910 76
1915 69
1920 61
1925 17
1930 21
1935 20
1940 5
1945 1
1950 2
1955 3

Questions To Think About

1. When was lynching most common?

2. What factors may have contributed to a decline in lynching?

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