The 1860s and 1870s were particularly trying times for African Americans. The Civil War which lasted from 1861 to 1865 saw America undergo social and political change as Americans struggled to redefine their idea of race and face the question of slavery. More importantly still were the experiences of blacks during and after the war as they fought to be accorded the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the early days of the war, the issue of slavery was avoided vehemently by Lincoln and Davis (Norton et al. 2008) despite it being an essential issue in the war between the North and South. In fact, freeing the slaves was never an agenda of the North.
The North was against slavery because they perceived the South, who was pro slavery, as a threat to the North’s social and political order (Norton et al. , 2008). Consequently, being against slavery did not necessarily mean Northerners were not racist. In fact, many still saw themselves as racially superior to the blacks. Despite the apparent racial prejudice, blacks in the South still saw in the Union army their route to freedom.
After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation allowing blacks to serve in the Union cause, thousands of slaves, amongst them, one John Boston (Linden & Pressly, n. d), fled their masters and joined the Union army in their fight against the South. Many blacks sought to assert their manhood despite discrimination in the army through the display of bravery and valor. Still more died, like the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment, in their fight for equality. Therefore, although Lincoln had given them a motive to reak free, it was the blacks’ own courage to fight for their own freedom which ultimately led to their emancipation.
The North’s victory over the South in 1865 meant that the slaves were finally free. As freedpeople, one of their foremost desires was to own land as land meant subsistence and sufficiency (Norton et al, 2008). Also, because it was all they had known to do, many fell back on plantation agriculture as their livelihood. Some, like Josua Culverson and Major X Whiteing, applied for leases through the U. S. Com of Plantations (Linden & Pressly, n. ). Because most freedpeople had no money to purchase land, they could only lend it on credit. However, because of preexisting prejudices, freedpeople found even that to be a task. Consequently, they returned to their old farms where they had worked as slaves.
However, unlike previously, these freedpeople sought to better their situation by reaching an agreement with the owner through a system known as sharecropping. Often, such an agreement would entail the provision of food and seeds in exchange for a portion of the crop earnings (Norton et al. 2008). Such is the case between William R. Steen, a white citizen, and Caroline, a colored woman; along with 7 other Arkansas freedpeople whom by contract, had to give one third part of the crop raised upon the farm by their labor to the owner of the farm (Linden & Pressly, n. d). The years 1865 to 1877 saw efforts in reconstructing the war-torn South. A huge hurdle existed then to reconcile the freed blacks with southern whites, who were so used to operating in a slave society that their prejudices could not be eradicated so easily.
Furthermore, they were threatened by the rise of black status and into the ranks of political power so much so that a group of whites came together and formed the first Ku Klux Klan; a society which sought to maintain white supremacy through intimidation, violence and terrorism (Norton et al. , 2008). Klansmen committed murder, arson, and rape whilst asserting their notion of white supremacy. As a result, despite having been emancipated, the freed blacks still suffered considerable pain and fear under the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.
Amongst the most targeted were blacks who had rose to political power. Ann J. Edwards, the daughter of a black Congressman recounted that “We, his family, lived in constant fear… A day or two before election a mob gathered…in front of the house, and we thought the end had come. ” (Sterling, n. d). More gruesome was the story of Joe Johnson who was elected into the Republican office. He was burnt nearly to death, and shot because of his refusal to resign from office (Sterling, n. ). His execution was witnessed by his wife who could do nothing against the oppressive terror and violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks were not the only victims of the Ku Klux Klan regime. Whites who openly supported blacks saw their lives being threatened as well.
Hannah Flournoy, a black woman, gave account of an execution involving a white Georgian who had supported the black cause. “[Men] bolted right in and commenced shooting…They were disguised but I knew a great many of them. Hannah “thought it right to take [Ashburn] in” and was “willing to die for him” simply on the basis of him being a Republican (Sterling, n. d). The incident reflected the loyalty of many blacks to stand beside those, white or otherwise, who sought to uphold their natural rights. Teachers were another group being targeted. Colored schools came under the attack of the Klan and were burnt to the ground (Norton et al, 2008). Many blacks endured the hardship of abuse and violence despite its injustice and unlawfulness.
Recounted Harriet Hernandez, “He struck me on the forehead with a pistol…kicked me over [the fence]…dragged and beat [me and my daughter] along. ” Despite the blacks being freed in the South, the activities of the Ku Klux Klan ensured that blacks would not enjoy the same rights as whites. “[Colored people] have no satisfaction to live like humans…all summer I have been working and it is impossible for me to enjoy it”, said Harriet (Sterling, n. d). Despite all the violence inflicted on them, blacks exhibited extraordinary courage in the face of threats by Klansmen.
Emeline Bremfield whose husband was a target of the Klan, stood unwavering in the face of death, as the Klan confronted her of her husband’s whereabouts (Sterling, n. d). Blacks even went out of their way to fit into a black aggrieved society. Many like, Caroline Smith and Lucy McMillan, dressed down in order not to stand out for fear of being whipped (Sterling, n. d). Although the Ku Klux Klan‘s primary motive was the assertion of white political power, Klansmen took every opportunity they got to assert white supremacy mindsets.
McMillan’s house was burned simply because she had mentioned she wanted to own land. Smith was whipped only to remind her not to “sass any white ladies” (Sterling, n. d). Aside from the destruction of property and life, black women suffered in yet another form – sexual assault. Klansmen sought to assert their superiority over black women by sexually harassing them. Some black women were even mutilated, like Frances Gilmore who was “cut with a knife”, or gang raped (Sterling, n. d). Racial hostility and terror ultimately brought down the Republican regime in the South.
Efforts by the Ku Klux Klan prevented strong presence of the Republican coalition in the South and a restoration of the Democratic majority. The Klan continued to terrorize black people and ran amok until the Enforcement Acts and subsequent persecutions brought an end to the first Klan. Overall, the blacks suffered greatly during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. Despite having obtained emancipation, prejudices continued to affect their lives. Although we now know that it did not succeed in driving them out of the country, blacks today continue to face the same prejudices.