The end of the civil war should’ve marked a major turning point for the position of African Americans. The north’s victory marked the end of slavery and in addition, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendment guaranteed African Americans full civil and political equality. However, the end of the civil war and the beginning of the reconstruction era was seen a ‘false dawn for the slaves in the former confederacy and border states.
1865 saw the creation of the freedman bureau to provide food, shelter and medical aid and land to ex- slaves. The passing of the 1866 freedman bureau act over President Johnson’s veto meant an extension of work of the bureau. It also included the right of military courts in the south to hear racial discrimination cases. Despite the fact the freedman’s bureau was poorly resourced with limited financing, it played a fundamental role in the creation of African American schools and was aided by charity workers in the north and with African Americans. In 1965 95% of black slaves were illiterate, but this number had fallen by 14% by 1870. Furthermore, there were increased opportunities for Black Americans to continue with higher education due to the development of higher education institutions0 such as Howard University and Fisk University 1866-7.
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During the reconstruction period, African Americans benefited from the civil rights act of March 1866 and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendment. However, for African Americans in the former confederacy, opportunities were limited as in1865 and 1866 the former confederacy states passed black codes’ a replacement of the former slave codes, which once again forcibly cemented the second-class status of African Americans. The most oppressive of the codes was against vagrancy, which meant that all homeless African Americans would be fined and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the civil rights act did aim to counter the black codes.
Furthermore, the reconstruction period also saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan from ex-confederates in Pulaski, Tennessee. The KKK used violence and intimidation against African Americans and supporters against Southern reconstruction governments. Their heinous attacks included a mutilation of a leading Black Republican and killing 46 African Americans who served in the Northern Army in Memphis Tennessee. However, the rise of the KKK also meant that congress had to rise up to battle against the racist organization, and thus forth, they succeeded in passing the First Enforcement Act (to protect black voters) and the Second Enforcement act (to supervise elections). The third enforcement act was the power to suspend habeas corpus and arrest suspected KKK members.
Although the reconstruction acts of 1867 and 1868 completely changed the electorate in the former confederacy, in Southern states, prejudice that African Americans faced was still ripe. Even when African Americans tried to escape the discrimination and intimidation they faced in the South to the North and West, racial tolerance was not always given.
The reconstruction era ended, with the compromise of 1877 where republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, needed southern electoral college votes .in doing so, he abandoned reconstruction and allowed white supremacists to seize control of the democratic party, thus allowing a new ‘dark age’ for African Americans in the South.
In conclusion, it would be unfair of one to say that the reconstruction period brought about very little change for African Americans. For one, the thirteenth amendment sought to end slavery, while the fourteenth aimed to provide equal protection for all, irrespective of race, and the fifteenth ensured that everyone was granted the right to vote. With such amendments made to the US constitution, one would think that this would mean the end to racial prejudice that African Americans faced. Alas, this was not the case. Although slavery was abolished and numerous laws were passed in order to protect African Americans, the ex-slaves were released with no property, education or money and thus forth faced a new type of social injustice. For example, work on the plantation was replaced by sharecropping, which had very high rates of interest for borrowing money. African Americans weren’t able to afford this sum and thus forth found themselves in a recurring cycle of poverty.
Furthermore, despite the Federal government’s attempts to combat white vigilance, violence was still continuously used against African Americans. Although higher education was now available to African Americans with the opening of universities such as Howard and Fisk, many ex slaves remained uneducated and therefore maintained an inferior position in society. Like French political observer Tocqueville noted, although slavery no longer existed, ‘racial prejudice’ continued. This allows us to draw the conclusion that while the reconstruction period succeeded in aiding African Americans in the fight for civil rights, its goals were not full-filled.