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Did The Civil War End of Slavery? Introduction:

In this episode, we will assess fruits of the struggle to define “citizenship” in “post-slavery” America. 

What did “freedom” mean for former slaves?  How did black women fare in the period of reconstruction? 

Finally, how did the reality of emancipation stack up against the aspirations of African Americans who fought and sacrificed during the Civil War?

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The Reconstruction Amendments: Glimmer of Hope

With the end of the Civil War in 1865, the first real gains African Americans experienced as the United States was being reconstructed are what are commonly called “The Reconstruction Amendments.” These are the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the constitution.

The thirteenth amendment stated in part that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States…” The wording here is very important.  Significantly, it goes on to say “… except as punishment for a crime.” The words, “except as punishment for a crime,” are going to set up former slaves for a form of “involuntary servitude” that, while technically not slavery, is going to provide a mechanism for transitioning African Americans from the slave plantations to the prison chain gang.

The 14th Amendment to the constitution provided for citizenship for former slaves and equal treatment and protection under the law. The three main impacts of the 14th Amendments that I will discuss here are with regard to citizenship, the 3/5 clause and civil rights.

First, the question of citizenship was effectively put to rest. On a national level, the status of African Americans was settled by the Dred Scott decision of 1857. In the infamous Dred Scott decision, the court ruled that African Americans were not citizens and had no rights that whites were bound to respect. One immediate effect of the 14th amendment was to reverse the Dred Scott decision.

A second impact was that the 3/5 compromise was effectively nullified. Thirdly, with the 14th Amendment, African Americans now had a vehicle for addressing threats to their rights as citizens through the courts.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909, quickly established court litigation as a major part of their strategy for integration and social change. Their most celebrated achievement – the famous Brown vs. Board Of Education decision of 1954 – was based on the 14th Amendment.

The fifteenth amendment to the constitution provides that “the right to vote shall not be abridged on account of race … or previous condition of servitude.” Note here that the amendment is written in the negative.  It does not say that all citizens shall be granted the right to vote.  It says the right to vote shall not be abridged for a variety of reasons.  What that means is that there are any number of ways to effectively disenfranchise former slaves for any number of “nonracial” reasons.  For example, it doesn’t say that the right to vote shall not be abridged on account of lack of ability to pay a poll tax or meet literacy requirements.

A Return to Slavery?

One of the systems of labor that would emerge in the reconstruction era that immediately undermined the 13th Amendment was sharecropping.  It was a system in which former slaves worked a plot of a plantation in exchange for a share of the proceeds.  Sharecroppers tended to be subjected to extreme exploitation.  Often the terms of the contract were rigged such that at the end of the harvest sharecroppers often found that their share did not amount to the debts they had incurred throughout the year. That meant that they were bound to service for an additional year to pay off the debt in a revolving door of debt peonage.

The infamous “Black codes” imposed severe restrictions on Reconstruction Blacks.  African Americans who were not under labor contract were considered vagrants and subject to imprisonment.  Thus, they were forced to sign the very exploitive labor contracts.  In addition, emancipated Blacks were incarcerated en masse for any number of reasons and from there they were leased out as convict laborers.

The Rise Of Jim Crow and Disenfranchisement

Another blow to the 14th Amendment came with the rise of Jim Crow segregation. The term, “Jim Crow” came to signify the rigid laws of segregation that took hold in the south by the end of the reconstruction period that separated every aspect of life between black and white Americans literally from the cradle to the grave.  Additionally the rise of the Ku Klux Klan saw strict social codes of white supremacy enforced by violence.

As a result of social terrorism and exploitative measures such as the grandfather clause, literacy tests, and poll taxes that were selectively applied, the brief period of African-American enfranchisement and representation came to end and by the turn of the twentieth century.

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