The Status Of African Americans In The United States After The Civil War
Have you ever knocked over a fragile china plate and caused it to shatter into pieces? Then, you tried to glue the pieces back together. Were you able to make it whole again with no noticeable cracks? This models the situation the United States faced after the Civil War when the Northern and Southern states struggled to find their new balance with each other. The Reconstruction was a time when people were unsure of how to act or think about their “new” neighbors — North next to South and black next to white. Do they pretend nothing has happened or embrace the change? This question puzzled many but ultimately, because people were so uncertain about what to do, they reverted back to their old habits, making the so called “new birth of freedom” just a new name for the same situation. In the North, very little action was taken to improve the black’s lives while in the South, many actions were taken to restrict blacks’ rights; this results in basically no change of freedom.
In the North, President Lincoln made a speech to the rest of the Union about the purpose of the Civil War: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” He stated that the issue of slavery was not the main objective so he did not prioritize the advancement of blacks’ rights. This means that at the end of the war when the Union was back together, “the new birth of freedom” for Americans would be the exact same as what America was like before the split; the only difference would be the abolishment of slavery. The African Americans were not slaves anymore? They’re free! New birth of freedom! Well, not really because even though the blacks were freed from their masters, none of their property was freed with them. They literally only had the clothes on their backs. Some Northerners, like Thaddeus Stevens, recognized how this would lead to the problem of the freedmen still relying on their former owners simply because they don’t have any other options. Blacks were free so they could own land! No, they didn’t have any money. Blacks were free so they could get higher paying jobs! No, they didn’t have any education. The only thing the freed slaves knew how to do was farm, but farming requires land. This is why Thaddeus Stevens advocated the “forty acres and a mule” law and asked for more funds for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a bureau created by Congress to help the African Americans’ transitions to freedom. While Stevens’ opinions might be biased and more extreme in effort to persuade Congressmen, Stevens himself was an educated lawyer who had substantial credibility. There are also claims that he had a black mistress, further influencing his radicalness, but there are other sources that agree with Stevens’ statement so they are probably trustworthy. He claimed that “The guardianship of the Freedmen’s Bureau, that benevolent institution, cannot be expected long to protect them,” since there was not enough funding to support the help it needed to give. However, Congress stuck to their more traditional values and did not pass Stevens’ proposal. No action taken equals the same situation.
This situation left African Americans with just their freedom and nothing more, right? Wrong! In the South, most of the white Southerners created new restricting laws called Black Codes that mirrored slavery and threatened any freedmen who acted like they were free. For example, in Opelousas, Louisiana, the Black Codes prohibited freedmen from doing almost anything such as renting a house, having public meetings, carrying a firearm, or selling anything within the city limits. The only thing most Southern African Americans could do was fieldwork for their former owners for very little pay. Freedom was only a name, not a real word for these freedmen. One of them was named Henry Adams, and he gave a statement about his experiences in front of the U.S. government. His view is probably biased because he wants action to be taken and the statement was given in 1880, fifteen years after the Civil War ended, but the core events in his narrative probably happened. Life threatening situations are hard to forget, they can ultimately shape a person’s life so it is unlikely that his entire story is untrue; while smaller details might have been embellished, this still illustrates how racist Southern society was. Adams describes instances where violence from the whites is used to keep the freedmen in check such as when “him and two others struck me with a stick and told me they were going to kill me” or “madame takin’ a stick and beat one of the young colored girls.” What prompted this acts of cruelty? Adams stated that when he told the white men that he belonged to no one, they went into a rage and beat him. He also claimed how the madame ordered them to address white people as “master” and “missus” like during slavery, and even said how “you all are not free yet.” This shows how many white Southerners were unable to accept the changes, and used violence and intimidation to scare the blacks into behaving the same way they used to during slavery. The “new birth of freedom” freed nothing since blacks were still under the control of the whites.
The two main goals of the Reconstruction Era, the time after the Civil War, were to keep the Union together and to identify the new boundaries between whites and blacks after the abolition of slavery. Lincoln’s first goal was successful: every state that has seceded from the Union returned. The second goal was much more complicated; African Americans were “freed” but how do they interact in this new world? Do they treat whites as equals or just simply have a choice in what to do? The first option would get you and your entire family lynched, but is the second option even true? Did freedmen have options? They couldn’t move to a new place without money, find a new job without education, say what they wanted without fear of harm, or even plant food without land. How are they even considered free? According to the Oxford Dictionary, the very first definition of the term “freedom” is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.” The so called freedmen were not able to do this without the threat of death or torture looming over them. So were they really free? They were not slaves anymore, but what does it mean to be a slave? The Merriam Webster Dictionary describes it as “1. A person held in servitude as the chattel of another” or “2. One that is completely subservient to a dominating influence.” The second definition could be used to describe a poor, recently “freed” African American in the South who still relied on his former master for a job and a house. This “new birth of freedom” was a lofty goal that was not accomplished because there was no real freedom for the African Americans in the South.
Even today, one could argue how African Americans, or people of color in general, have less freedom because of the possible repercussions one would receive if they acted or said what they really felt. There is, as German Lopez says in his article about police brutality, “a systematic emphasis on excessive use of police force, particularly on racial and ethnic minorities.” This can be traced back to the past where the police force was all white, and many — most notably members of the Ku Klux Klan — misused their power to reinforce the idea of white supremacy. While there is a lot more tolerance today, institutional racism plays a role in these acts. If there had truly been a “new birth of freedom,” racism would not be as common back then or today. However, most of the North talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk, and the Southern whites in power tried to preserve the dependency and supremacy of whites.
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